Trump Administration’s Order to Gut Protections in the Name of COVID Will Harm Communities for Polluter Profits

Protecting our air and water is crucial during this global health crisis, says Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen.

The Trump administration never lets a crisis go to waste.

This week, in the middle of a global pandemic that has killed more than 90,000 Americans and left 35 million unemployed, President Trump ordered federal agencies to seek out regulations to cut. Their targets are likely to include key protections for water, air, lands, and wildlife that Earthjustice was founded to enforce — and that we will fight to preserve because the stakes are too high.

The new order is just the latest step in a deregulatory agenda that began long before the COVID-19 crisis. Since January 2017, the Trump administration has attacked protections in a comprehensive effort to reward polluters of all kinds, while entrenching our dependence on fossil fuels. We have seen a raft of new rules that would increase air and water pollution from factories and mines, power plants and refineries, and cars and trucks. We have also witnessed a huge push to open our public lands and coasts to oil and gas drilling even as our climate emergency exhausts our resources to recover from superstorms and wildfires.

With the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, one might think the administration would pause its work to gut protections for air and water, the very essentials of life, and focus on responding to a deadly virus that is upending our entire society. But, no. Instead of slowing down, the administration is racing to dismantle as many protections as possible to advance industry interests before Trump’s term ends. It is ignoring its own scientists’ recommendations for stronger environmental safeguards. And it is using COVID-19 as a pretext, broadly waiving compliance with public health and environmental standards, giving companies a free pass to pollute.

Consider how the administration worked against science, public health, and environmental integrity just in the last month: It failed to strengthen protections from soot or particulate matter (PM 2.5) despite the recommendations of scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. PM 2.5 are industrial particles spewed from factories, power plants and construction sites that lodge in our lungs, causing tens of thousands of deaths each year, according to the EPA. The decision to leave inadequate safeguards in place came on the heels of a Harvard University study of more than 3,000 counties that found that people living in areas with poor air quality due, in part, to high levels of PM 2.5 are more likely to die from COVID-19. Nevertheless, the Trump administration decided against protecting people’s lungs.

Also, last month, the administration decided to move forward with its planned rollback of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which reduce toxic pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants. MATS is saving as many as 11,000 lives each year. Gutting the standard now would allow companies that have already installed pollution controls to stop using them, cutting a few costs at the expense of people’s health in surrounding communities, especially communities of color, that are being hit hardest by the COVID-19 virus.

It gets worse. The day before Earth Day, the Trump administration decided to gut the Clean Water Rule, which protects drinking water of 117 million people. This safeguard helps state and federal agencies protect our rivers, streams, and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. But the Trump administration decided to give extractive industries the power to dig up and destroy wetlands and dump waste in our waterways.

Favoring polluters at the expense of clean air and water endangers everyone’s health, but some communities suffer more than others. Black and brown people are more likely to live in areas with heavily polluted air and water, more likely to suffer from respiratory illnesses like asthma, and more likely to be working essential frontline jobs that make it impossible to stay safe at home. It is painfully clear why there are stunningly high death rates in predominantly black communities, as compared to predominantly white communities. Weakening safeguards for air and water only entrenches the deadly reality of environmental racism in this country.

Fortunately, the courts can provide a check on these dangerous rollbacks, which also happen to be illegal. Over the past three years, the federal courts have struck down the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken environmental protections in case after case, vindicating bedrock laws including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. In fact, the Trump administration has lost 47 of 49 legal battles involving environmental deregulatory actions, according to the Institute for Policy Integrity of the New York University School of Law. Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments by the Trump Justice Department that would have eviscerated the Clean Water Act. While we can never take the rule of law for granted, for now, the wheels of justice are still turning.

Abigail Dillen serves Earthjustice as our President, leading the organization's staff, board and supporters to advance our mission of using the courts to protect our environment and people’s health.

The construction of a gas pipeline in Michigan.
The construction of a gas pipeline in Michigan. (Consumers Energy / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)