New EPA Proposal Could Have Huge Health Impact for Vulnerable Communities

Former EPA Official Mustafa Santiago Ali says that the EPA’s attacks on science, including their new proposal on regulating toxic chemicals, are driven by the desire to make policy that prioritizes industry over people

New EPA Proposal Could Have Huge Health Impact for Vulnerable Communities

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

A cornerstone of the Environmental Protection Agency’s policies has been to protect people from the harmful effects of radiation and pollution, and when it comes to these public health risks, the EPA has erred on the side of caution. But a paragraph hidden in a dense new proposal entitled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science could make way for a new approach, which assumes that some exposure to toxins is good for you. The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee held a hearing on the proposal on Wednesday. Let’s take a look at a clip from that.

RUSH D. HOLT: The effect of the rule would be a significant reduction in good, relevant science that could be used by EPA, and the change would likely result in harm to people and the environment. This demonstrates either a deep misunderstanding of how science works and should work, or an intention to cherry pick evidence in the name of transparency.

DHARNA NOOR: That’s Dr. Rush Holt. And now joining me to discuss this is Mustafa Santiago Ali. Mustafa is the senior vice president of climate, environmental justice, and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, and previously he was senior adviser to former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy on environmental justice, and a founding member of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. Always a pleasure to have you, Mustafa.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Thank you. It’s always an honor to be with you.

DHARNA NOOR: So talk about what this proposal could mean for the EPA, and what that in turn could mean for the people, and the planet. Does this proposal on strengthening transparency and regulatory science actually seem like it will strengthen regulators’ transparency?

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Most definitely not. This is another example of the agency, the current administration at the agency, doing everything that they can to help the fossil fuel industry to be able to sort of squeeze out every last dime possible by creating policy that is not protective of people’s health, but is protective of those businesses or industries that should be regulated. And they actually should be very much in favor of making sure that they are being protective of the communities where their footprint is, and communities across our country.

You know, it’s interesting that science, to the agency, is only valuable when it is being beneficial to the fossil fuel industry, or to other polluting facilities. But when it comes to people’s health, you know, they continue to manipulate science. And the reason that they’re doing that, it’s very strategic, is to be able to weaken policy.

DHARNA NOOR: So speaking of that, there are some environmental health professionals who support the new approach outlined in this proposal, like University of Massachusetts Edward Calabrese. He spoke at Wednesday’s hearing. Let’s take a look.

EDWARD CALABRESE: Thus, EPA’s transparency proposal is excellent as far as it goes, but it needs to be expanded. The EPA transparency proposal is crucial to enhance public health, and should have been adopted in some form 20 or more years ago. Thus I believe that the EPA has made a bold and constructive proposal that is scientifically sound, and should be strongly supported, approved, and implemented. Thank you very much.

DHARNA NOOR: What’s your response to Calabrese’s support? It should be noted that one of his biggest research funders is ExxonMobil.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Yeah, I was just going to say, you know, you should always take a look at where people’s funding is coming from and who their allegiances are. You know, in relationship to science, science should never be a political issue. It is something that should be based upon the facts. It’s almost like when folks know 99 percent of the scientists out there say that climate change is real, and you can go out and find that one percent that doesn’t. This is another example. If you look hard enough you can find someone who will agree with those outliers; with, you know, those things that are far outside of mainstream.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. And you know, Calabrese has written extensively on the belief that some low levels of exposure to toxins can be good for you. But many other studies show that some cases of low level exposure actually can pose health risks. For instance, correlation has been found between exposure to low doses of radiation, like from X rays, and increased cancer risks. Talk about who could be most affected if regulations on exposure are rolled back if the EPA does take this new approach.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Well, most definitely it will be- everyone in our country is at danger. But there are those who we label as our most vulnerable communities and most vulnerable individuals who definitely will be placed in the crosshairs of harm’s way. You find that communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous populations fall into this group. We also know that children who have developing systems also can’t be exposed to these chemicals, because their bodies just haven’t built up the resistance to be able to do that. Also our elderly, and also those who have immune systems who are challenged can have a very difficult time. And if we continue to place these additional toxic burdens on them, unfortunately we’re going to make more people sick and we’re going to lose more lives.

DHARNA NOOR: This week the EPA also submitted proposed changes to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to cut costs. This all comes just a week after an anonymous insider told the New York Times that the EPA plans to dissolve its Office of the Science Adviser, which is a senior position made to council the EPA’s administrator on health and environmental science. This is now Andrew Wheeler’s second month as deputy administrator; of course, Scott Pruitt resigned as EPA head in July. So talk generally about the state of the EPA right now. What kinds of patterns can be seen in these changes and these rollbacks?

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Well, it shows a real disconnect from protecting people’s health across our country. It also shows an agenda that folks are trying to move forward on in weakening science, and therefore manipulating policy. It also shows that there is no long-term vision, because we understand that the choices that are being made today play out over decades in people’s lives, and in the cost that will be associated for our country. Taxpayers will have to bear the cost of these decisions that are currently being made.

So that’s why as I shared before, you know, I thought that it was so dangerous for Andrew Wheeler to be, you know, the acting administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. His track record has been, his allegiance have been, to the fossil fuel industry, to the coal industry where he was a lobbyist, and has never been shown to be for the American people or those communities, who unfortunately are the ones that are most at risk.

DHARNA NOOR: I think for most people the EPA isn’t really at the forefront of most people’s minds when it comes to even federal policy. But what can people do to enact change in the EPA? Is there anything that people can do?

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Yes, they can vote. And they should vote for a number of reasons. They should vote because 200,000 people die prematurely every year in our country from air pollution. They should vote because 27 million people have asthma; 7 million kids. And disproportionately it is African-American and Latino children who are going to the emergency rooms and who are losing their lives. They should vote because the choices that are being made around climate policy are going to cost them hundreds of billions of dollars, and those are going to primarily come from taxpayers. They should vote also because the choices that are currently being made around the Superfund process and some of the brownfield process, of speeding that up, and not making sure that all the areas that need to be cleaned up are cleaned up, those are going to have both health and wealth cost to the American public. And those are some of the reasons they should vote, along with the choices that are being made around lead and the weakening of science.

DHARNA NOOR: Could you explain for people who don’t know what that Superfund process is?

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Sure. Superfund deals with our most toxic sites. And there is an evaluation of sites, there are a number of steps that people go through in relationship to the cleanup. When administrator Pruitt took over, he personally moved into this space. And of course we understand there is a connection there with some of the donors and some of the business owners who want to be able to utilize some of these spaces. And if you speed up that process, you do a couple of things. One, you sort of weaken people’s ability to fully participate in the public participation aspect of that. But then also the cleanups that happen in that space may not be to the level that’s necessary for long-term viability. We saw that last year in the hurricanes that came through Texas, that hit Houston. Many of those were then flooded, and toxins were spread in people’s backyards, in schoolyards, in a number of other locations.

And that’s why the Superfund process over the years has been one where people made sure that they were, you know, sort of dotting all the I’s, crossing all the T’s, to make sure that there was as full as possible cleanup in that space. So that’s the reason that people should really pay attention, because we’re talking about some of the most dangerous chemicals that are in that space.

I want to be very clear that the staff at the Agency takes their job very seriously, and in many, many instances do a great job. But when we have these political administrations that come in and have their own sets of needs, priorities, and sort of are beholden to those who maybe help them to get into these positions, then we have to really pay attention to the decisions that are being made.

DHARNA NOOR: Well, as we see what happens with the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, and more generally with the EPA, we’ll definitely stay in touch with you, Mustafa. Thank you so much, as always, for coming on today.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.