President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday allowing major infrastructure projects and energy projects to move forward without rigorous environmental review. Agencies would be able to waive provisions put in place by cornerstone environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That would apply to projects like new mines, pipelines, and highways, reports The Washington Post.
The move is aimed at spurring recovery from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. An economic emergency, Trump claimed, gives the president authority to essentially suspend environmental laws. “Agencies should take all reasonable measures to speed infrastructure investments and to speed other actions in addition to such investments that will strengthen the economy and return Americans to work,” the executive order says.
But disregarding environmental law could come with grave consequences, former members of the EPA warn. Failing to assess the potential environmental damage a project might inflict can also harm health. Take pollution that might come from building a highway near neighborhoods and the vehicle traffic that follows, for example. That leads to chronic health problems that can make people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and pollution often disproportionately poisons black neighborhoods and other communities of color. Black Americans are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particle pollution, which can come from construction sites and tailpipes, than the rest of the population, the EPA found in a 2018 study.
The new executive order arrives as protests continue against systemic racism and the police killing of George Floyd, who told officers “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis officer pinned him down by the neck. “When we say we can’t breathe, we are not only talking about the knees on our necks and chokeholds from police, but also the squeezing of life from our lungs brought on by the pollution that the Trump Administration continues to pump into our bodies by the rolling back of the vary laws that are meant to give us justice and access,” Mustafa Santiago Ali , the former associate administrator of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, said in an emailed statement.
It’s unclear whether Trump actually has the legal authority to enforce his latest executive order, according to Joel Mintz, Professor Emeritus of Law at Nova Southeastern University and a former attorney for the EPA. “This is also very bad public policy. Pipelines and other infrastructure can do great environmental harm. Their impact should be carefully examined, as NEPA requires, before they are allowed to go forward,” Mintz said in a statement emailed to The Verge.
Trump has already moved to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act. In January, he proposed changes that would speed up the approval process for constructing new pipelines and infrastructure. NEPA gives the public an opportunity to comment before projects are allowed to break ground, and has been invoked to oppose the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.