Fossil Fuel Fights

Associated Press File

A pump jack rears over an oil well anear Dacono, Colo. Federal courts have delivered a string of rebukes to the Trump administration over what they found were failures to protect the environment as it promotes fossil fuel interests and the extraction of natural resources from public lands, but environmentalists say the administration continues to eliminate such protections.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only forced us to adapt to a new way of life, it has shown us the detriments of falling short of being good stewards to our planet.

While we are seeing the impacts of the coronavirus in each and every community, it is clear that there is a link between poor environmental health and COVID-19 deaths. Numbers show that those who live in more polluted environments and do not have access to clean water and air are more likely to have underlying asthma or chronic lung conditions. While already victim to pollution and its subsequent health problems, these complications also put populations at greater risk for COVID-19.

Areas with higher pollution levels have a higher number of hospitalizations, higher number of deaths, and a higher need for supplies and resources than those who benefit from clean, natural resources.

The reckless and under-regulated polluting in the 1960s and 1970s led to the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. These laws have served as some of the few protections for underrepresented communities in the battle against pollution. But they are now being undermined by the federal administration’s stripping of environmental policies and refusal of enforcement.

The past three years have brought endless rollbacks of evidence-based safeguards to protect communities from dangerous exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals. Now, when the need for public health standards is at an all-time high, these rollbacks have continued, if not intensified.

For example, in March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had suspended enforcement of U.S. environmental laws indefinitely, blaming the global COVID-19 pandemic.

June has already been particularly brutal. The EPA finalized a rule that rolls back protections within Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. States and tribes are now unable to review the impacts of many different types of federally licensed projects — such as fracked-gas pipelines — affecting waters within their borders and to put limits upon or stop unacceptable projects.

The president also signed an executive order directing agencies to waive key review processes, including the National Environmental Protection Act, in order to expedite new road construction and fossil fuel infrastructure.

While these rollbacks are a topic of concern under normal circumstances, their continuation during a global health pandemic will only further harm our communities and the environment during this crisis. They are outrageous, irresponsible and create a bigger burden than they were created to fix.

One of the most important responsibilities of our elected officials at every level of government is to protect the health and safety of people across the nation. Right now, more than ever, we need our leaders to stand up for policies that protect our public health and the environment — not use a public health crisis to tear them down.

Thanks to initiatives such as Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 6 and a slew of strong environmental protections passed this year by the General Assembly, Virginia has started to plug some of the gaps opened up by the Trump administration. However, federal leadership is necessary to ensure we take the much needed action to heal our waterways, slow the worst impacts of climate change, and ensure a clean environment for all.

I look to our members of Congress to publicly call for a stop to these rollbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kelsey Hillner is the federal policy and campaigns associate at the Virginia Conservation Network.

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