Environmental Justice Leaders to Stand Strong in the Trump Era

The incoming Trump administration could try to roll back recent progress toward environmental justice, but these visionary community leaders are ready to resist.

The incoming Trump administration could try to roll back recent progress toward environmental justice, but these visionary community leaders are ready to resist.
The incoming Trump administration could try to roll back recent progress toward environmental justice, but these visionary community leaders are ready to resist. (BaLL LunLa/Shutterstock)

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Three leaders who have spent years fighting for a healthier and more equitable environment for communities of color offered thoughts this month about the challenges the environmental justice movement might face under a Trump administration. 

By all indications, environmental protections will be under attack and the work to create more fairness and equity in sharing the burdens of pollution and the benefits of environmental protection will get tossed out as well.

The Post-Election Reality

Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem-based organization, has spent decades working locally and with the EPA to reduce the disparate and discriminatory impacts of pollution on communities of color.

“Environmental justice strategies might be out the window,” says Shepard. “Many in the EPA are thinking about retiring and moving on. They’re not looking forward to a minimum of four years and nothing happening.”

Although WE ACT works on an array of issues in New York, from air quality to food justice, the group has been one of a few environmental justice organizations with the capacity to work on the federal level too. Shepard has been working as part of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council aimed at reducing disparate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color for two decades. Shepard says the EPA has been working on creating an Environmental Justice Road Map aimed at ensuring that the EPA’s research incorporates an analysis of environmental exposures that communities of color are experiencing. The question now is, will that work continue?

Hilton Kelley, founder and director of the Community In-Power and Development Association in Port Arthur, Texas, has spent considerable time in recent years fighting against the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, which, if built, would allow crude tar sands oil to be refined in communities like Port Arthur.

Five refineries, six chemical plants and an incinerator are already located in Port Arthur, mostly in the predominantly black west side of the city.

“Now [Trump] is lifting the veil on oil and gas and saying, ‘drill baby drill,’” says Kelley. “When it comes to environmental justice, we have a concern about the sulfur dioxide in our air and other dangerous toxins.”  

Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans are more likely to live near refineries, and those groups face a disproportionate impact from this pollution, suffering twice the cancer risk.

Angelo Logan, campaign director for the Moving Forward Network, which works to improve the freight transportation system in the areas of environmental justice and public health, is focused on strategizing to avoid the rollback that’s expected.

“For me, it’s trying to figure out how we navigate [the] system with Scott Pruitt heading it,” Logan says. How much damage could be done and how effectively can we hold the line with this administration? How effective can we be so things don’t roll back? How do we ramp up our work on the national level to hold the line?”

Here’s how:

1. Stand Strong in the Face of Adversity

Environmental justice advocates say that instead of being demoralized, they’ve found themselves energized to push ahead with the fight for what their communities need. To Shepard, the initial funk after Trump was elected has given way to anger that is now fueling the fight.

“I think the initial depression may’ve made people pull back for a few weeks, but now everyone is angry and motivated. All the green groups and all the environmental justice groups will raise their voices,” Shepard says.

Logan says he hasn’t seen environmental advocates in the Los Angeles area pushed into complacency.

“What I’ve seen, absolutely from the start, is an increase in motivation,” says Logan, with more people coming forward to get involved. He says there’s an attitude of: “This is not going to happen. Not on our watch. We are ready to engage and throw down and protect our communities. I think people are ready to suit up. We just need to hold fast and move forward.”

Kelley says whomever voters put in the White House, it won’t stop the fight for environmental justice.

“What propels me is that the work has to be done whether you have someone who is pro-environment or going after environmental protections,” he says. “If we’re not at the table, they will surely run over low-income communities and people of color.”

2. Get a Seat at the Table

“We have to make sure that if the rollbacks happen, they aren’t as onerous as they could be. We’ll try to be in those meetings,” Shepard says, referring to internal EPA meetings where environmental justice groups might have an influence.

Over the years, environmental justice advocates have gained knowledge of the inner workings of the EPA. Logan says that he and other advocates who have been doing federal work will have to intercept efforts that might impact local campaigns.

“There’s federal work that will impact local work,” says Logan, adding that advocates will have to “connect the dots” to figure out the ramifications of national efforts on local communities.

“We’re ramping up national work so we’re at the table and part of the debate,” he adds.

And Logan says there are EPA rules and initiatives that can’t just be eliminated.

“The EPA was required by the Clean Air Act to carry out the Clean Air Act. It’s just not an administrative agency,” says Logan. “They can’t totally dismantle it.”

3. Keep Up the State and Local Fights

“The nature of environmental justice is local struggle,” says Logan. “We’ve been working on the local level and harnessing that power and influence to affect national policy.”

Now he sees a need to broaden work across issue areas, whether it involves freight, climate change or power plants. And much of the struggle involves fighting for better protections and against permits from local and state agencies that could harm communities.

Instead of using federal officials in the Obama administration, who were often more progressive than local officials, to move those local officials on environmental issues, Logan expects it to work the other way around.

“The local decisionmakers will potentially be a lot more forward-thinking than the federal folks at the EPA and the Department of Transportation,” says Logan. “We have to bring the local folks to the federal folks.”

Shepard says conservative administrations don’t stop environmental justice work. “All through the Reagan and Bush administrations we worked at the local level winning some victories and losing some, but moving forward in our communities,” she says.

“There are always new threats,” Shepard adds. “But the environmental justice movement has expanded its vision.”

The work is also about spreading green benefits, such as ensuring access to parks, waterfronts and community solar. Maybe now, she says, there will be more financial support for the local and state work environmental justice advocates take on.

4. Increase Funding for Environmental Justice

“We need more resources,” Logan says, explaining that you need to have staff working in Washington, D.C., or with the resources to travel to D.C. often, in order to wield influence with a high level of expertise.

“We don’t get any equity in funding,” says Shepard, adding that environmental justice groups only get 0.5 percent of all funding that goes toward environmental causes. “The things we do, we do with very little money or capacity,” she adds.

Nevertheless, the struggle continues.

“We will continue with or without funding,” says Kelley. “But with funding we can do a better job and a more efficient job.”

Based in Washington, D.C., Keith is the National Communications Strategist for Partnerships and Intersectional Justice.