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The Future of Data Justice Under Trump

Communities need hard data to prove they're been affected by pollution. But the government databases that keep track of those numbers are now under threat.
A house in Newport News, Virginia.

A house in Newport News, Virginia.

The residents of southeastern Newport News, Virginia, have long complained about the "coal dust." They say the air is so thick with the stuff it will coat their porch furniture. Newport News and neighboring cities on the mouth of the James River ship Appalachian coal out to the rest of the world, and, every year, tens of millions of tons of coal rumble along on carts and tumble down conveyor belts in towns around the river. Meanwhile, a 2005 Virginia Department of Health study found that people in Newport News' Southeast Community were twice as likely to have asthma as people living in other parts of the city and state. A 2012 study found the neighborhood has one of the lowest life expectancies in Virginia. Was there a connection between the black dust and asthma? What, exactly, was in the air in southeast Newport News?

To answer questions like these, you need data, but in Newport News in 2015, nobody was collecting those figures. Nobody, that is, except the industries themselves, which were required by law to submit reports to the federal Toxics Release Inventory. From this toehold of numbers, environmental organizations in Newport News were able to push for big changes, including suspending the air permit of a factory they found to be their second-largest polluter (which turned out not to be the coal facility after all). "For many communities that don't have community-specific data at all, TRI is a great starting place," says Erica Holloman, a toxicologist who worked as a coordinator for the Newport News-based Southeast CARE Coalition from 2011 to 2016.

However, as the Trump administration has sought to drastically slash the Environmental Protection Agency's budget, databases that the agency runs, including the Toxics Release Inventory, are under threat. Activists worry that means less pollution information will be available to America's most vulnerable communities. Britt Paris, a doctoral student in information studies at the University of California–Los Angeles and volunteer for the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, even has a new name for the threat: data justice.

The idea is that, in order to prove that they've been treated unfairly, communities like southeast Newport News need hard numbers. But because they may be socioeconomically disadvantaged, they often don't have scientists or monitoring equipment working in their area. It's a Catch-22.

Programs like the Toxics Release Inventory offer data justice because they provide critical information for free to all Americans. The phrase echoes "environmental justice," which describes the equal sharing of polluting facilities' benefits—industry! jobs!—and their costs in ill health. Often, in America, communities experience environmental injustice because people with less power in society, including racial minorities and the poor, are more likely to have polluting complexes built in their neighborhoods. Southeast Newport News is 73 percent black and almost one in five residents lives below the federal poverty line, compared to about one in eight nationwide.

"Data is really important to environmental justice claims because still the onus is on communities to prove that there's disproportionate risk placed on them," Paris says.

Paris worked on a report with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, an advocacy group, that called out the Trump administration as a threat to data justice. The report followed on various activists' and media reporting on the White House undermining environmental justice overall. The concept of data justice underscores the special role of government projects that collect and disseminate scientific information.

In a proposal for 2018, the administration suggested cutting the Toxics Release Inventory budget by more than $5 million, or 37 percent. It also called for cutting the science budget for the EPA's Human Health Risk Assessment program—which studies what levels of certain chemicals are safe—by more than $15 million, or 40 percent. Such drastic cuts may have trouble making it through Congress, but they show the administration's intent to reduce data programs to their bare-bones legal obligations.

And the Toxics Release Inventory is protected by law. The database is a part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which Congress passed in 1986, so getting rid of it altogether would require changing the law. But it's up to different administrations to decide how robustly they want to support databases like the Toxics Release Inventory. The EPA is proposing to remove supports such as conferences where groups who use TRI meet each other, and data quality control. The latter would be a big blow, says David Sarokin, a longtime EPA staffer who helped start the Toxics Release Inventory and who retired from the agency earlier this year. "The quality control aspects of TRI are really critically important to keeping the whole database up to date and running properly," he says. Companies self-report their TRI data and EPA quality-control folks flag and fact-check suspicious numbers.

What Holloman and her colleagues learned from the Toxics Release Inventory may have surprised some Newport Newsers. In 2015, at least, the top two emitters of TRI-reportable chemicals didn't include the coal terminal. Instead, it was Huntington Ingalls, America's biggest ship-building company, and the Mica Company of Canada, which made things such as washers and lampshades out of mica, a mineral. Altogether, industries emitted almost 250,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air in Newport News, making it the 23rd-most polluted zip code in Virginia, according to a Sierra Club report, which was based on the TRI. The Southeast CARE Coalition submitted comments to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which was getting ready to renew the Mica Company's air permit. The department ended up suspending the permit, and it's still under review.

In addition, Holloman's coalition held workshops to teach community members what was really in the air—not just coal dust, but emissions from the many industries concentrated in the area, plus the nearby expressway. They talked about what community members could do to reduce their exposures at home. They agitated for air monitors, which they still haven't gotten. Before they learned about the TRI data, though, southeast Newport News was in an "informational void," Holloman says. For the community, knowledge was literally power, but it couldn't get that knowledge alone. It needed EPA resources and support.