About four in 10 people across the country live in cities that are breaking our national clean-air standards, according to the latest “State of the Air report” published by the American Lung Association. That means that 133.9 million people could be breathing in unacceptable levels of smog, pathogens, and toxins.
Familiar pollution capitals topped the rankings: Los Angeles led the nation in ozone pollution, and the next nine most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas were all in California, followed by the New York–New Jersey–Pennsylvania-Connecticut region. Both Los Angeles and New York actually worsened this year among the city rankings.
But far northward, Fairbanks, Alaska, has become an unlikely leading casualty of short-term particle pollution—the contaminants from sources like diesel engines and wildfires that are linked to respiratory damage and asthma, threatening about 35 million people nationwide. Last May, Fairbanks and two other cities in reputedly “clean” regions, Provo and Salt Lake City, Utah, were flagged by the EPA for high levels of smoke pollution and directed to take emergency mitigation measures, such as controlling the use of heating devices like wood-fired stoves.
Although total pollution levels are down across the country, the cities now disproportionately affected by soot and smog reaffirm the socioeconomic divides in the pollution epidemic. The worst-polluted cities are often extremely diverse sources of both low-wage industrial jobs and massive environmental-health epidemics in communities of color. Despite reductions in year-round particulate-pollution levels nationwide, the report notes that “the 11 most polluted cities each violate the Clean Air Act’s U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards designed to protect public health.” Among them: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Weirton, West Virginia—all in Rust Belt states where Donald Trump swept the last election on a promise of effectively writing polluting industries a blank check to “bring back” jobs.
Other environmental hazards have broad impacts across class and racial lines, though poorer communities, predictably, tend to suffer more. The massive wildfires that scorched California’s landscape last summer revealed the growing threat of uncontrolled blazes amid a warming climate and unprecedented water scarcity, displacing farmworkers and middle-class homeowners alike, but job losses for landless laborers were far more punishing for the region’s migrant workforce.
Although the air ratings draw from 2016 data, the most recent available, the Trump administration is undoubtedly contributing to air and water pollution as EPA chief Scott Pruitt systematically deregulates air-quality controls, dismantles standards on toxics and pollutants, and cozies up with the fossil-fuel industries he defended for much of his career before joining the government.
The issue of air quality is also set to grow more dire as the EPA continues withdrawing from enforcement of the Clean Air Act. (Earlier this year, for example, the agency quietly ratcheted down standards for mandating that polluters adapt the best pollution-controlling technology, which would basically lower the bar for limiting toxic emissions like mercury.)
In the country’s most polluted zip code, in Denver, EarthJustice is campaigning with the local community to demand EPA action in response to the toxic emissions of a local Suncor refinery plant—a massive, and massively unregulated, industrial behemoth that “processes a variety of crude oils, including Canadian tar sands.” Colorado authorities are requesting permission from the EPA “to modify its existing permit so that it does not have to report its emissions of hydrogen cyanide.” Loosening these reporting requirements means diluting the community’s “right to know”—the key data tool that allows communities to hold polluters accountable for harming public health. This would also give Suncor an easy out from pressure to control its emissions from the plant, in lieu of actually improving the facility’s own pollution controls.
Another case brought by EarthJustice in Alabama sheds light on the intersection of pollution and environmental racism in Trump Country. The small, largely African-American community of Tallassee is resisting the state’s efforts to turn its backyard into an industrial dumpster. Though Alabama authorities have granted a permit for a landfill in the community, residents have filed a civil-rights complaint with the EPA to have the government withhold funds based on environmental-justice concerns. But despite widespread evidence that places like Tallassee are massively overexposed to pollution, the EPA continues delaying its response to civil-rights complaints.
The grim future facing these communities, however, shouldn’t eclipse the ALA report’s silver lining: The gradual decline in pollution we have seen over the past several decades reflects the importance of the existing legal infrastructure in reining in industrial air pollution and other environmental injustices.
According to Janice Nolan, vice president of the ALA, “The improvements seen in the past 19 reports—and they are substantial improvements—occurred because of steps under the US Clean Air Act. In fact, we have improved [at the same time] as many other nations that do not have the Clean Air Act measures in place have struggled or gotten worse.”
Trumpism is now threatening this fragile shield. To some degree, the White House’s anti-environmentalism is prompting states and cities to act on their own to curb localized pollution, transition toward renewable fuels, and foster sustainable economic development that respects the public health and environmental rights. But local regulations have never been enough. The White House is therefore failing both local and global communities by flouting national and international standards as the administration elevates corporate profits above public health.