Guest Post: Pollution protections vitally important during and after coronavirus crisis

Trump's EPA gives industries the freedom to pollute during a respiratory pandemic

Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. The EPA downgraded the region to a "serious" violator of the Clean Air Act on Dec. 16, 2019.

At a time when America is under assault from the deadly new coronavirus, Trump’s EPA has told polluters that they will not face enforcement if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws. All they have to do is claim that failure to comply can be tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

This sweeping waiver could have a disproportionate effect on low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities, which are already more heavily exposed to pollution. Now we also see existing inequities playing out with the coronavirus: new data shows that communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in Colorado.

As an indigenous woman of the Dineh (Navajo) and mother of four young children sheltering in place in our Denver, Colorado home, this pollution waiver has added insult to injury. Colorado’s Front Range is already failing to meet federal ozone standards which is a serious problem for people like me who have asthma. Ground level ozone, or smog, is a powerful lung irritant that triggers asthma attacks, contributes to cardiovascular disease and interferes with lung development in children. 

On any given day, I am deeply concerned about the quality of the air that my family is breathing. Now, with the EPA’s sweeping pollution waiver, I am bracing for a wave of possible dangerous exposures. Polluters like Suncor refinery in nearby Commerce City that have a long history of violations, have been given permission to pollute. Suncor is the second largest polluter of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the state which can contribute to forming more ozone and affect health.

I come from a long and unfortunate tradition of living near polluting industries. I am an Indigenous woman, born on the Navajo reservation, where coal plants, oil and gas drilling, and uranium mines were familiar neighbors. Like other children on the reservation, I was born prematurely, at low-birth weight, and with a birth defect. As an infant, I was diagnosed with asthma and struggled to breathe when the air quality was poor. Indigenous people have higher rates of asthma, diabetes, high-blood pressure, heart disease, cancers, mental illness, adverse birth outcomes, and premature deaths than the general population. My family had to move away from the reservation so my father could find a job, and we settled in Colorado. 

When Indigenous families leave the reservation, affordable housing can be hard to find. Often the only option is to live next to high-polluting industries like coal plants, factories or refineries that spew toxic chemicals in the air. Of course, living close to polluting sources is a risk factor for health impacts from pollution. Vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with underlying health conditions also have a higher risk of health impacts from harmful air pollution. My family checks several of those boxes.  

Our vulnerability to air pollution has a troubling significance today. Scientists have known for decades that air pollution is harmful to the respiratory system and reduces our body’s ability to fight infection. Air pollution is also one of the causes of the underlying heart and lung problems that may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus.  A recent analysis by Harvard University shows coronavirus death rates are higher in counties that had higher levels of air pollution before the pandemic. This underscores the vital importance of pollution protections to protect human health both during and after the coronavirus crisis. Giving industries the freedom to pollute during a respiratory pandemic, potentially compounding a public health crisis, is the height of irresponsibility. And my family is in the crosshairs. 

While Trump’s EPA is making it easier for industries to pollute, I am thankful for the leadership of those in Colorado’s legislature who are working on a bill to protect public health from toxic air pollution emitted by coal plants, factories, refineries and other industrial facilities. The bill would require Colorado facilities to monitor and report emissions of chemicals such as benzene and ensure real-time warnings to nearby residents when levels are too high.

In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s never been more important to protect families — and especially those, like mine, living on the frontlines of industrial pollution — from harmful exposures. 

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com or visit our submission page.

Shaina Oliver, mother of four living in Denver, is a member of the Dinè/Navajo tribe. Shaina has long been outspoken on why Colorandans need their state lawmakers to reduce carbon and methane pollution in order to address climate change. As an infant while living on the Navajo reservation, Shaina developed asthma and had to stay indoors when the air quality was particularly bad. This early experience compelled her to want to fight for children’s health and the right to breathe clean air. Shaina hopes her advocacy ensures that indigenous voices are represented in advocacy efforts to clean up our air and safeguard our natural resources. As she has said: “I’ve seen the toll that toxic air pollution takes on families and on communities. It’s harmed many generations of Americans, but by speaking out, we can fight to make sure that our kids don’t suffer the same consequences.” Shaina currently serves as the Colorado field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, a community of more than 43,000 Colorado moms and dads united against air pollution and committed to fighting to protect our children's health from air pollution and climate change.

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