We’ve Got Each Other’s Backs

A mother and child look across the water at smokestacks.
Photo by iStockphoto.com/azgek

Trump’s EPA is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to let polluters off the hook. So the Sierra Club is taking on a familiar role: watchdog.

On March 26, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler gave polluters a free pass to avoid environmental laws for an indefinite period of time. Coal plants, refineries, and other corporate polluters may no longer be held accountable for emitting dangerous amounts of toxic substances into our air and water, so long as they claim that they did so because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This giant loophole applies to emissions of lead, benzene, arsenic, ozone, particulate matter, and much more. These toxins are linked to a long list of health problems, from rare cancers to skin lesions to premature death.

The EPA has one mission: “to protect human and environmental health.” Instead, during a public health crisis, it’s giving polluters permission to make us even sicker. Harvard University researchers have found that exposure to air pollution makes people more likely to die from COVID-19. Yet Trump’s EPA is giving polluters a loophole that will make our air even more damaging to our lungs.

These rollbacks will hit low-income communities and communities of color especially hard, since they’re the ones most often forced to host coal plants, cement factories, and petrochemical refineries. It’s despicable that the Trump administration would place the same people who are most likely to die from this virus at even higher risk.

The absence of moral leadership and effective oversight, which are hallmarks of this administration, are literally costing lives. The Trump administration has not only failed to protect our health during this pandemic — it’s actually making it worse. That means it’s up to us to take action to keep our communities safe.

The Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program will be filing Freedom of Information Act requests to watchdog those coal plants, refineries, and other polluters that may try to discharge more toxins into our air and water than they’re authorized to under the law. If we uncover evidence of wrongdoing, we have the power to bring a citizen suit, which, if successful, would force the polluter to respect environmental laws. We’ll also be publicizing what we find, so that people living nearby can protect themselves and organize to hold the polluters accountable. We plan to keep a particularly close eye on utilities with records of being bad actors — especially when it comes to dumping pollution in black and brown communities.

One thing this pandemic has made even clearer: When emergencies hit, Donald Trump may stick his name on your relief check, but he does not have your back. Neither does former coal lobbyist and EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. I hope the Sierra Club’s response to this crisis shows that we have each other’s backs. Together, we can work to keep our friends, families, and neighbors safe from toxic pollution during this extraordinarily precarious time.

Dad, husband, executive director of the @sierraclub, writer, Jersey Shore native, Little League coach, #Yankees fan, climate hawk. Optimist. Love the Bay Area.