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'Transformational': Environmental justice advocates see hope in debate discussion

Trump and Biden were asked about the unequal burden people of color in the U.S. face from exposure to pollution, toxic substances and other risks.
Image: President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Biden participate in their second debate in Nashville
President Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in their second 2020 presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday.Mike Segar / Reuters

Advocates of environmental justice have long been frustrated by politicians who ignore the plight of communities that are most at risk from climate change.

On Thursday night, they saw signs of change.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden were asked during the presidential debate about the unequal burden that people of color in the United States face from exposure to pollution, toxic substances and other environmental risks.

Their answers revealed stark differences in how the issue is viewed by both candidates, but climate activists said that witnessing a discussion of environmental racism on a national stage felt like a watershed moment. Many viewed it as a crucial first step toward a long-overdue reckoning on environmental justice.

“It was historic and transformational, because it puts an even bigger spotlight on the issue — the challenges and impacts, but also the opportunities,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.

Ali, who spent 24 years working for the Environmental Protection Agency and served as an associate administrator in the EPA’s environmental justice office under the Obama administration, said the question also revealed how much the candidates diverge on the topic.

Trump was asked to address concerns from people of color who live near oil refineries and chemical plants who may be anxious about the health impacts they face.

“In Texas, there are families who worry the plants near them are making them sick,” said debate moderator Kristen Welker, an NBC News White House correspondent. “Your administration has rolled back regulations on these kinds of facilities. Why should these families give you another four years in office?”

The president failed to discuss the health concerns, or the nearly 100 environmental regulations his administration has dismantled or rolled back, opting instead to talk about jobs and money.

"The families that we're talking about are employed heavily and they are making a lot of money, more money than they've ever made,” Trump said.

Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" - Landscapes
A cemetery stands in stark contrast to the chemical plants that surround it in 2013. "Cancer Alley" is one of the most polluted areas of the U.S. and lies along the once pristine Mississippi River that stretches some 80 miles from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where a dense concentration of oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other chemical industries reside alongside suburban homes.Giles Clarke / Getty Images file

Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, said the president’s response “totally missed the mark.”

“It’s almost as if he’s assuming that there’s a relationship between proximity and jobs, and that’s not the case if you look at the facts and the data,” Bullard said. “The people who are next door, closest to those plants and refineries, receive few benefits from being across the fence. However, they receive a disproportionate share of the negative impacts.”

Bullard, who is often called the “father of environmental justice” for his pioneering work in the field dating to the 1970s, added that Trump’s response made it seem “as if he had never heard of environmental justice.”

Ali said economic reasons were commonly used to justify building refineries and chemical plants in certain communities, but these excuses don’t hold up.

“For Trump to say these folks are making huge amounts of money shows that he’s spent no time in front-line communities and has no idea of the public health impacts that are going on,” he said

Biden responded to the question with a personal anecdote about growing up near oil refineries in Claymont, Delaware, recalling that a film of oil often streaked the windshield of his mother’s car.

“That's why so many people in my state were dying and getting cancer,” Biden said. “The fact is those front-line communities, it doesn't matter what you're paying them. It matters how you keep them safe.”

In July, Biden released an ambitious climate plan that aims to invest $2 trillion in clean energy technologies over four years and includes provisions to protect communities of color that are disproportionately affected by climate change. The plan calls for establishing an environmental and climate justice office at the Justice Department and earmarks 40 percent of clean energy benefits for front-line communities.

Ali praised Biden’s debate response, and said the disparities between the two candidates most likely owed to differences in their experiences.

“You have President Trump, who has lived a life of privilege and has not been exposed to the realness of what everyday people have to deal with, and then you have Vice President Biden, who grew up in a working-class family,” he said.

Ali said the events of the past few months — including countrywide protests for racial justice driven by the death of George Floyd and inequalities revealed by the coronavirus pandemic — have sparked an awakening. This moment in history, he said, feels different.

“There’s a cultural shift that’s happening across the country,” Ali said. “It’s a moment of reflection and it’s pushing people to really get engaged.”

Issues of environmental racism have been known to researchers for decades, but these problems have come under sharper focus in recent years.

A landmark 2018 federal report stated that low-income communities will be disproportionately affected by climate change compared to other communities, and they are more likely to be exposed to pollution and other environmental hazards.

Among the most notorious examples of these inequalities is a section of Louisiana that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that has the densest concentration of petrochemical plants in the nation. Chemicals released from these plants have contributed to a high risk of cancer along this corridor that hugs the Mississippi River, and the predominantly Black community has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” as a result.

Many of these same inequities have also been mirrored and amplified by the pandemic. An analysis by APM Research, a nonpartisan research lab, found that Black Americans are experiencing the highest Covid-19 mortality rates nationwide, double the rate of white Americans.

But regardless of the upbringings and political persuasions of politicians, Ali said the country’s leaders need to address the root causes of environmental racism.

“No matter who the candidate is, they really need to be focused on helping our most vulnerable communities move from surviving to thriving,” he said.

The events of recent months have helped many people see how much environmental racism is connected to other issues of racial justice, according to Ingrid Waldron, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and director of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health Project, which conducts community-based research on environmental racism.

“People are recognizing that the structural inequities that make communities more vulnerable to Covid are the same for those communities across from waste dumps or polluting industries and the same for inequalities in policing,” she said. “I’ve started to articulate everything as forms of violence. We don’t think of environmental racism as violence, but it’s violence as policy.”