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Minority communities question election-year push by EPA

Zug Island, a heavily industrialized island at the southern city limits of Detroit, is seen Friday. The area in Southwest Detroit has been the subject of numerous air pollution and public health studies. The area has a refinery, a coal-fired power plant, steel mills and other industrial sites. (AP photo)

TRAVERSE CITY — Theresa Landrum lives in southwest Detroit, where residents complain frequently about dirty air. Tree-shaded neighborhoods with schools, churches and parks lie on either side of an interstate highway and in the shadow of a sprawling oil refinery that belches soot and fumes.

Landrum, a Black retiree from General Motors and a longtime anti-pollution activist, wasn’t impressed when Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler recently pledged $200,000 to promote “community health initiatives” in her section of the city during his blitz of visits to battleground states in the presidential election campaign.

“Is this a joke?” she said. “It would take billions of dollars to fix what is wrong with our environment here. All of a sudden he’s going to throw somebody a grain of sand in a community where people have been poisoned for decades?”

Under President Donald Trump, the EPA has slashed support for some some programs and regulatory protections benefiting disadvantaged communities. His budgets have proposed killing or cutting funds to enforce regulations promoting environmental justice — fair treatment of racial minorities and low-income residents who live near polluting industries and are disproportionately exposed to contamination — although Congress has continued most of the spending.

Now, the agency is portraying itself as a champion of such communities — an initiative skeptics contend is more about wooing Black and Latino support as Trump seeks re-election than protecting their air and water.

Wheeler’s approach amounts to “window dressing” intended to divert the attention of minority voters from the Trump administration’s weak environmental protection record, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation.

Wheeler and other top EPA officials have fanned out nationally in recent months, particularly in swing states such as Michigan, holding news conferences to distribute grants and tout the Trump administration’s record. During his latest Michigan visit Friday, he announced $10.7 million to replace lead service lines in disadvantaged communities in Grand Rapids and Benton Harbor, and educate the public about dangers of lead-tainted drinking water.

Trump’s EPA “has taken meaningful steps to improve the health and environmental conditions for Americans everywhere, especially those in low-income and under-served communities,” Wheeler said Sept. 30 in Traverse City, Michigan, where he announced the $200,000 for Detroit.

The funds will help develop strategies for notifying vulnerable residents more quickly about public health risks, including the coronavirus, EPA said.

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