A natural gas -fired power plant. (Stock photo via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is suspending key environmental reviews during the pandemic that critics warn could further harm poor and minority neighborhoods in Virginia and around the country.

Lawmakers and activists say the administration’s actions — meant to boost the lagging economy — could have disproportionate effects on minority communities that live near pipeline and power projects. Local communities are at risk of missing the chance to weigh in on decisions and they could face more pollution entering their communities.

“For too long, Black and Brown and underserved communities have suffered the devastating impacts of environmental injustice, living on the front lines of our climate crisis and fence lines of polluting industries, often without the necessary resources to respond to the impact nor the influence in the political process to promote equitable outcomes,” Rep. Donald McEachin, a Virginia Democrat, said at a hearing last week on Capitol Hill.

“The fact that Black Americans are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 exposes the deadly consequences of this truth. It is a truth that we cannot and will not accept.” McEachin added.

Nationally, Black people are dying of COVID-19 at a rate nearly two times higher than their population share. In Virginia, Black people or African Americans make up 19% of the population and 23% of the reported COVID-19 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Mustafa Santiago Ali — who helped found the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program — is concerned about vulnerable communities who live near power plants and pipelines. Poor air quality and higher rates of asthma create disparities that are further highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“More people are going to get sick and more people are going to lose their lives,” Ali told lawmakers at the hearing.  Ali, a 24-year veteran of the EPA, is now a vice president at the National Advocacy Center at the National Wildlife Federation.

“When we say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ we literally can’t breathe,” said Ali, echoing the words of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd’s words, captured in a video that showed a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, have become a rallying cry in the nationwide protests for racial equality in recent weeks.

The NAACP estimates that 71% of Black Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards.

Those communities often have worse health outcomes and higher rates of asthma and cancer, an issue that has become more pronounced as the COVID-19 respiratory illness has added another threat.

‘Free pass to polluters’

The Trump administration has pushed to expedite reviews of infrastructure projects during the coronavirus pandemic and waived some enforcement of pollution laws — a move that advocates are afraid could further harm communities that live near the projects.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this month that allows infrastructure projects to sidestep some requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. NEPA requires public input and reviews of projects’ potential effects on the environment. The White House invoked emergency authorities to expedite projects and skip the reviews.

The changes could lead to rapid approval of highways, larger oil and gas projects and pipelines.

“We are gravely concerned with the lift on environmental reviews,” said Tim Cywinski of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Trump is exploiting this crisis as an excuse to give a free pass to polluters.”

EPA also implemented a temporary policy to relax some of the reporting and monitoring requirements usually required under the clean air and water laws. Virginia and eight other states sued the federal government last month over the policy.

Georgia Republican Rep. Buddy Carter said he thinks the temporary policy has been “somewhat misrepresented.” EPA “has continued to enforce our nation’s environmental laws and work with federal, state, and tribal communities,” Carter said at the hearing in the House Energy & Commerce Committee last week. And Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is in charge of enforcing air and water regulations here, said it wouldn’t relax enforcement here despite the EPA’s actions.

House Democrats who lead the committees that oversee EPA sent a letter to Administrator Andrew Wheeler last week asking him to review whether any industries polluted as a result of the policy.

EPA has not publicly reported on pollution levels during the pandemic. But the agency says air quality is improving in the United States overall. In an air quality report the agency sent to Congress on June 8, Wheeler said that average concentrations are down to some of the lowest levels on record in 2019.

‘The deck is stacked against us’

Several recent studies have highlighted the effects of polluting infrastructure near Black, Latino and Native American communities.

A study from EPA in 2018 found nationwide disparities in air pollution — with Black Americans experiencing higher levels of air pollution than Whites, even when adjusting for poverty. Another study from the National Institute of Health in 2011 found that communities of color and low-income populations are disproportionately exposed to chemical releases.

And a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found “pollution inequity”: that Black Americans are typically exposed to 56% more pollution than they produce. By contrast, the researchers concluded that White people are typically exposed to less pollution than they produce through consumption and daily activities.

“At every turn the deck is stacked against us,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

“The same systemic inequities that make certain populations differentially vulnerable to various impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic are the same systemic inequities that comprise the root causes driving environmental injustice,” Patterson said.

Va. power projects

In Virginia, some significant new energy projects are under consideration at the state level. Two power stations are slated for construction in Charles City. And the Virginia Gas Header Improvement Project (HIP) would build 24 new miles of pipeline and three new compressor stations.  Local chapters of environmental groups and Virginia Interfaith Power and Light have organized opposition to the project.

The review process for the HIP project has already been complicated by the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, as usual public comment hearings moved to virtual meetings. McEachin asked regulators to consider concerns of local residents.

“While additional energy capacity from this project could foster economic development within local communities, it also risks endangering the health and well-being of residents, particularly members of frontline communities, who disproportionately suffer from the health effects of toxic pollution,” McEachin wrote in a letter to regulators last month.

The HIP project is subject to state review, and local activists say they hope the state’s oversight agencies step up to consider the effects on local communities in the absence of federal leadership on the issue.

“The human cost should be factored, especially during a pandemic that disproportionately impacts communities of color, many already facing chronic disease challenges,” said Lynn Godfrey, community outreach coordinator for the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

McEachin and some other colleagues have also pushed for more federal investment in environmental justice. They included several provisions in the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill House Democrats approved in May. Senate Republicans have said they would not advance the measure.

The HEROES Act includes language that would invest in EPA’s environmental justice programs. The legislation would monitor pollution and investigate the effects of COVID-19 on environmental justice communities. It also includes language that would prohibit water shutoffs in cities and counties that receive COVID-19 relief aid.