We Won’t Go Back

Donald Trump ran on a promise to make America great again. He harkened back to an idealized version of the 1950s and 60s when things were going pretty well in this country -- that is, for white men.

For many others, the opposite was true. Before the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, women earned 59 cents to a man’s dollar, and could be fired for gaining weight, becoming pregnant, or simply turning 32. African Americans faced brutal segregation and environmental injustice. Some saw their neighborhoods razed to make way for highways that polluted their air, cut them off from jobs, and paved the way for white flight and massive disinvestment. Their protests against highway expansions helped birth one of our foundational environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But the Trump administration is determined to roll back NEPA’s safeguards. They want to turn back the clock to a time before the EPA and our bedrock environmental protections existed, a time when hazardous, economically destructive projects could be forced upon communities -- often communities of color and low-income communities -- without consulting the people who lived there.

NEPA -- aka “the Magna Carta” of environmental law -- ensures that major projects are evaluated for their impacts on health, the environment, and local economies. It gives the people who would be affected by those projects a chance to voice their concerns, suggest alternatives and ways of minimizing harm, and hold developers accountable.

At the Sierra Club, NEPA is one of the most important tools we have for fighting back against dangerous, polluting projects. With our allies, we’ve used it to help block a coal export terminal in Washington, fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, and much more. And we’re far from the only ones. To give just one example, the Oglala Sioux used NEPA to prevent uranium mining from contaminating their sacred Black Hills.

Likely because of its successes, the Trump administration is getting ready to defang NEPA. They want to give industry a larger role in environmental reviews -- while shutting down opportunities for public comment. They want fewer projects to undergo review, and for those reviews to be skimpier. Federal agencies would no longer be required to consider a project’s “cumulative impact.” That’s often been interpreted to refer to a project’s contribution to climate change, which would be awful enough. But “cumulative impacts” also occur in communities where several sources of pollution overlap -- which are disproportionately likely to be Black and Latinx.

Rolling back NEPA shifts power from people and to polluters. Because NEPA is more than just an environmental law. To borrow a phrase from our friends at NRDC, NEPA is democracy in action. In many cases, it’s the only opportunity for the people most impacted by a project to voice their concerns and shape their community’s future. So when Trump attacks NEPA, he’s attacking our ability to participate in our democracy. He’s attempting to turn the clock back to the good old days, when only a much narrower, whiter, and more moneyed slice of our society had access to the levers of power.

What’s happening to NEPA isn’t much different than Trump’s efforts to restrict access to the ballot by scaremongering about voter fraud, or his support of disenfranchising communities of color by rigging the 2020 census. He knows that his pro-polluter policies have little support outside of his swamp of industry lobbyists, so he’s doing everything he can to stifle the voices of those who speak out for the right to drink clean water, breathe clean air, and live healthy lives in sustainable communities.

Don’t let yourself be silenced. Tell the Trump administration what this crucial environmental safeguard means to you in an official public comment.