WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is ready to roll back a foundational Nixon-era environmental law that he says stifles major infrastructure projects, but that environmentalists say has served for decades as a safeguard for low-income and minority communities.
Trump was traveling to Atlanta on Wednesday to formally announce the changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, making it easier to build highways, pipelines, chemical plants and other projects. When Trump first announced the effort in January, the administration set a two-year deadline for completing full environmental impact reviews while less comprehensive assessments would have to be completed within one year. The White House said the final rule will promote the rebuilding of America.
Critics call the Republican president’s efforts a cynical attempt to limit the public’s ability to review, comment on and influence proposed projects under one of the country’s bedrock environmental protection laws.
“This may be the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that works to save endangered species.
Trump has made slashing government regulation a hallmark of his presidency and held it out as a way to boost jobs. Environmental groups say the regulatory rollbacks threaten public health and make it harder to curb global warming. With Congress and the administration divided over how to increase infrastructure investment, the president is relying on his deregulation push to demonstrate progress.
“The United States can’t compete and prosper if a bureaucratic system holds us back from building what we need,” Trump said when first announcing the rollback of National Environmental Policy Act rules.
Opponents say the change will have an inordinate impact on predominantly minority communities. More than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities and face a cancer risk above the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern from toxins emitted by those facilities, according to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
“Trump’s changes to NEPA aren’t surprising, but nonetheless again prove he and his administration have no regard for the impact their actions will have on our most vulnerable — who are already overburdened by pollution, lack of access to healthcare, structural racism and other environmental injustices,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former associate administrator at the EPA’s office of environmental justice.
For his announcement, Trump chose Georgia, a swing state in the general election. Trump won the Republican-leaning state by 5 percentage points in 2016, but some polls show him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. This will be Trump’s ninth trip to Georgia and his sixth visit to Atlanta during his presidency.
The president’s trip also comes as the state has seen coronavirus cases surge and now has tallied more than 12,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,000 deaths.
Jon Ossoff, a Democrat who is running against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, said Trump’s decision to come to Georgia to discuss infrastructure as the state’s coronavirus crisis worsens demonstrates that the president is “in denial and out of control.”
“Coming here for a routine photo-op is, frankly, bizarre, surreal against this unprecedented health and economic crisis,” Ossoff said.
Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said that if Ossoff views a major policy announcement to expedite critical infrastructure projects as anything other than about job growth and economic expansion, then it might explain why he lost a congressional race in 2017.
The White House said the administration’s efforts will expedite the expansion of Interstate 75 near Atlanta, an important freight route where traffic can often slow to a crawl. The state will create two interstate lanes designed solely for commercial trucks. The state announced last fall, before the White House unveiled its proposed rule, that it was moving up the deadline for substantially completing the project to 2028.
Thousands of Americans on both sides of the new federal rule wrote to the Council on Environmental Quality to voice their opinions.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce cited a North Carolina bridge in its letter as an example of unreasonable delays, saying the bridge that connected Hatteras Island to Bodie Island took 25 years to complete, but only three years to build. “The failure to secure timely approval for projects and land management decisions is also hampering economic growth,” the business group wrote.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said that when Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act 50 years ago, it did so with the understanding that environmental well-being is compatible with economic well-being. The proposed rule, it said, would lead federal agencies to make decisions with significant environmental impacts without ever considering those impacts in advance.
“At the end of the day, it would lead to poor decision, increased litigation and less transparency,” said Sharon Buccino, a senior director at the environmental group.
Trump’s trip to Georgia comes one day after Biden announced an infrastructure plan that places a heavy emphasis on improving energy efficiency in buildings and housing as well as promoting conservation efforts in the agriculture industry. In the plan, Biden pledges to spend $2 trillion over four years to promote his energy proposals.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.
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