Article image

Wheeler likely to continue environmental injustice as head of EPA

As we reported, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt resigned last week after an endless sequence of ethical scandals. Pruitt denied the basic scientific facts of climate change and oversaw the repeal of Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But the main question is, with Pruitt resigning, is planet Earth better or worse off with his replacement?  Who are the winners and losers under Pruitt and now Andrew Wheeler as head of the Trump EPA?

The consensus appears to be that Wheeler is unlikely to change the direction of the EPA and in fact may actually be more effective in advancing Trump’s EPA agenda. Wheeler has been both a lobbyist for coal (and nuclear energy) as well as formerly an aide for climate change denying Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.  Jim Inhofe has gone on record stating that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever” and that “God promised to maintain hot & cold seasons.” Wheeler has also worked at the EPA and is no stranger to the workings of the agency.  This work history seems a sure sign of his ability to get things done at least. The goals that Wheeler will pursue in the EPA are another matter.

What seems clear in the Trump administration in general is that money making is central, where issues of environment, race and equality play a distant second fiddle.  Earlier I discussed the ethics issues with head of the Department of the Interior head Ryan Zinke related to drilling leases.  Zinke also stands in opposition of much of what the Department of the Interior has historically stood for.     

Vox reported that air quality regulations are likely to benefit minorities who are more likely to live near pollution sources at the cost of wealthy capitalists.  The report also reveals that under the Obama administration, the social cost of carbon was valued at $36 per ton while under Trump it’s rated at $5. Under the current administration, this sort of detail seems especially important.

It’s important to note that Jim Inhofe who Wheeler served as an aid is also no friend to those interested in civil rights.  According to Inhofe voted yes for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage and no on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.  Overall, Inhofe was rated 20% by the ACLU on his voting record on civil rights, 0% by the Human Rights Campaign for his anti-gay stance.  Inhofe was also 7% by the NAACP on his poor voting record on affirmative action. Senator Inhofe has an almost mirror opposite record on business issues, earning him a 100% by US COC indicating a pro-business record.  Wheeler’s views on civil rights are a little harder to tease out than his former boss since he’s mostly worked for the EPA and as a business lobbyist not directly involved in civil rights issues. Environmental policy can affect civil rights though indirectly and Wheeler seems to champion big, unregulated business.

A study at shows that non-Hispanic black people live in areas on average with environmental toxins 1.45 times greater than non-Hispanic white people. explains the difference in exposure to pollutants between different races this way:

“The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants and who may experience greater responses to such pollution.”

The Luna report explains how some studies have shown greater risk of dying young from air particle exposure and asthma for African Americans and those of lower income.  

A Guardian report from 2017 points to a government study that shows exposure to Nitrous Oxide (NO2) is influenced by race, even more than by income, education or age.  The study quoted by The Guardian showed that in 2010 Black and Hispanic people were exposed to 37% more NO2 than white people.  It was estimated that if black people breathed the same amount of NO2 as their white counterparts, 5,000 deaths from heart disease could have been avoided in 2010.

At one time, American cities were forcibly segregated.  Neighborhoods in undesirable parts of cities were left for minorities alone while most people of color were excluded from desirable areas.  The same process to a certain degree played out across the whole nation. The Trail of Tears is a prime example of a minority group being forced out of prime land (in this case agricultural land) and moved to less desirable settlements.  The same pattern played out throughout the US as settlers moved west and pushed native peoples out of areas with desirable resources from gold to lumber or access to fresh water.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was supposed to stop racial discrimination by landlords and others, allowing equal access to housing for people of all races.  An article from The Brookings Institute reveals that in many areas segregation has declined over the last 50 years.  However, the article goes on to show that segregated neighborhoods are still a very real thing in practice.  Certain neighborhoods in cities are dominated by disproportionately Black, Hispanic, White or Asian people. There is a trend of Black people of higher incomes moving out of less desirable neighborhoods leaving lower income Blacks behind.

It’s worth noting research from PBS showing that Trump was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act in 1973 by discriminating against minorities with his rental properties.  In 1975, Trump settled with the DOJ over housing discrimination charges but charges were renewed in 1978. A New York Times report in 1983 showed two of Trump’s properties to be disproportionately white, with 95% white renters.  Trump’s relationship to other races is complicated; he also opened a racially inclusive club in Florida in 1995 against the trend of other exclusive clubs in the area.  

The ambivalence or even animosity towards other races or backgrounds by Trump is reflected by the EPA policies under Pruitt, likely to be continued by Wheeler.  As The Atlantic reported:

“Under the guidance of President Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA has begun to walk back already anemic federal environmental-justice work, putting a stop to some civil-rights investigations and replacing or firing many of the scientists with deep technical knowledge of the subject. Last year, facing cuts to the environmental-justice program that seem likely to continue, former assistant associate administrator Mustafa Santiago Ali resigned. Further changes to move the offices of environmental justice into a policy office staffed by Pruitt hires promise to further reduce the autonomy of life-long environmental-justice staffers and reduce the effectiveness of their work.”

Under Pruitt, stalling environmental regulations were stalled to the point that Earth Justice sued him on behalf of both health and environmental groups. In the Huffington Post, Lisa Garcia opined:

“Pruitt’s inaction is one of many examples of how the Trump administration has attempted to stall the implementation of required health protections so that corporations can focus on their bottom lines, rather than on the communities or neighborhoods they may be polluting.”      

Pruitt went so far as proposing to eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, something first initiated under President Clinton to look at disproportionate burden of environmental impact on minorities and the poor.

Trump seems quick to attack his enemies and laud those who support him, no matter their views on issues such as race.  It’s not surprising then that on issues of race, Trump is quick to use derisive rhetoric unless it’s helpful for his finances or the finances of his supporters.  Trump has secretly paid for ads suggesting that Native Americans planning on opening casinos were organized criminals and drug addicts. At the same time period, Trump also made deals with other Native American casinos and ran his own gaming institutions.  In the end, it’s not so important whether Trump’s people knowingly hurt minorities with lack of EPA oversight. More pollution will hurt minorities more than it will hurt white people.

According to research by Pew, white non-Hispanic voters favored Trump of Clinton by 21 percentage points, while 80% of black voters favored Clinton compared to the 8% who voted Trump.  Trump also won more supporters without college education; college graduates voting Clinton by a 9% margin. With numbers like these it’s easy to see why Trump and the EPA under his command would care less about people of color.  Trump might say to himself what he once said to black voters, “What do you have to lose?” Indeed Trump, a wealthy white man will certainly not pay the direct environmental cost of his policies nor will his appointees in the EPA; they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from industrial pollution.  

ThinkProgress reported earlier this month how an energy lobbying firm set up a phone call between Pruitt and Utah lawmakers.  Part of the discussion was air pollution over tribal land in the Uinta Basin, where regulations were likely to restrict further oil and gas drilling.  After the call, the EPA signed amendments to regulations for natural gas emissions on tribal lands, allowing more drilling to continue.

When Wheeler was waiting for confirmation as the deputy director of the EPA, he attended a meeting related to the shrinking of Bear’s Ears National Monument as a lobbyist along with an executive for a uranium mining firm working adjacent to the monument.  It’s important to bear in mind that Bear’s Ears was promoted by four Native American tribes with historic claim to the area.  

With a history like Wheeler’s it seems likely that we will face continued injustice and a harder time breathing well into the future under the new head of the EPA.                                   

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day