In February 2018, the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Specifically, the study found that people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty.1 The reason for people of color are more likely is because of redlining practices decades before2 and continued use of expulsive zoning today.3 This amounts to environmental racism, which now takes new meaning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exposure to air pollution contributes to disproportionate cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. But the novel coronavirus feeds upon and exacerbates these conditions. An explicit link between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths has been found.4 But the EPA is a shell of what it once was under the Trump Administration and in the face of this crisis is doing even less to protect the most vulnerable. Citing COVID-19 concerns, the EPA relaxed air monitoring rules for power plants.5 Before COVID-19, climate change was our biggest existential threat. For decades, environmental justice advocates have been challenging federal and state governments to protect the vulnerable communities from environmental hazards. And now climate change and COVID-19 have converged. Climate change is real and it makes COVID-19 worse. The federal government must rebuild and repurpose the EPA to hold polluters accountable. It should also rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and commit to worldwide emissions reductions through planning, incentivizing and investing in zero-emissions infrastructure and manufacturing.