How ‘Environmental Justice’ Hurts Poor Communities

October 4, 2018 Updated: October 4, 2018

The story you are about to read is true. The names have been omitted to protect my retirement account.

The mayor made up in spunk, intelligence, and charm what she lacked in physical prowess. She was an aged, tiny woman, but her mind was anything but frail. She was determined to make a difference, to find a way to help the community she served to climb out of a pit labeled “poverty and despair.”

The developer was a godsend. The project the developer proposed would bring jobs to her town. There would be construction jobs and, when the plant started operations, well-paying, permanent positions. The developer was willing and able to offer training to residents so they could fill those permanent positions, and the developer was glad to give residents the right of first refusal for the training/employment program that the developer would offer.

The project also would bring millions in badly needed tax revenue to the town. That would allow the mayor to start to shed her town’s dependence on state and federal aid.

That help would not come free of charge. The mayor knew that most of the politicians who pushed the grants her town needed through their legislative bodies expected a quid pro quo from the mayor and the residents of her community, in the form of active support during their reelection campaigns and votes on Election Day. That’s the way things work.

While she understood the facts of realpolitik, the implied subservience still rankled. If approved, the project would enable her to wriggle away—at least in part—from under the state and federal thumbs that took so much decision-making power away from her and her staff. The project would deliver revenue that could be used to fix her town’s deteriorating water distribution infrastructure, aid its severely underfunded and under strength police department, repair crumbling roads, and accomplish much more.

There were two big obstacles that could have prevented the project from ever seeing the light of day. The first was environmental permitting. The project would result in emissions of air pollutants, as many industrial projects do. To get a permit for the project, the permitting authority would need to be convinced that emissions of each and every regulated air pollutant would not exceed any applicable standard, and that the air people breathed anywhere within the project’s “zone of influence” would not exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially designated safe concentrations.

That’s how I got involved with the project, the mayor, and the developer. Developing permit applications that will convince permitting authorities that a proposed project contains sufficient safeguards, thus ensuring that regulations will not be violated, is what I do. Explaining and proving the science that shows that a project will not result in any exceedance of EPA air quality standards is also what I do. And, I will truthfully, if immodestly, state that I’m damned good at what I do.

‘What’s Best for Black People’

Convincing the EPA and state agencies that a project complies with all applicable regulations and standards is one thing. Convincing environmental non-governmental organizations (environmental NGOs) and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media that a particular project is both safe and good for a community is quite another. That was the second big obstacle we faced.

So it was this conundrum that found both me and the mayor acting as humble supplicants, sitting across the table from a powerful environmental NGO that we both knew had the ear of the local mainstream media. If the NGO decided to trash our project, it would be toast. Not because there was anything about the project that was actually detrimental to the community, but because the permitting system is so complicated and the legal process allows for so many forms of appeal, that a determined opponent can wear down any developer by dragging out the approval timetable to something approaching infinity.

The mayor and I knew better than to expect the NGO to give the project a thumbs up. That wasn’t going to happen. What we hoped for—what we asked for—was for the NGO to stay out, to remain neutral, to neither hinder nor help our efforts. We made our pleas, and to be sure the mayor’s impassioned arguments were far more persuasive than mine.

After digesting them, the NGO bigwigs retired to another room to discuss the issues and render their judgment.

The basic problem here was that the mayor’s skin was of a darker hue than Caucasians like me, as were the overwhelming majority of her constituents. You will notice that I don’t use the popular term “African-American.” When racist people exercise their right to have racist opinions, it’s not because they pretend to know the continent of origin of the person(s) they are attacking; it’s because they are making judgments based on skin color. And darker skin color extends far beyond the African continent.

As the NGO honchos discussed their position, the mayor laid a gentle hand on my forearm and—in a tone of voice that combined regret and hope to a degree I cannot pretend to duplicate—softly said, “You know, Richard, I get really tired of white people telling me what’s best for black people.”

This particular NGO ultimately agreed to stay neutral in this particular case, a decision for which both the mayor and I were immensely grateful. It wasn’t easy to get the NGO to stay neutral. It took a lot of work, and I remain very proud of the part I played in achieving that worthy outcome.

We are now delving into the concept commonly called “environmental justice.” It’s an idea that should be honestly weighed against another concept: “economic injustice.” We’ll delve further into those concepts next week.

Whatever your political persuasion, dear reader, we hope you can retain a truly open mind as we continue to explore the all-too-common effects of Western-style environmentalist Puritanism with regard to the application of both terms.

More to come.

Richard J. Trzupek is a chemist and environmental consultant as well as an analyst at the Heartland Institute. He is also the author of “Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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