President Donald Trump slammed Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” over the weekend in a series of racist tweets and suggested that he could fix the problems if only Democrats gave him a chance.
“I am in a very beautiful oval shaped office waiting for your call!” he wrote on Twitter.
But in reality Trump’s positions on a range of issues have deepened challenges for urban communities like Baltimore to address some of their thorniest issues, from the poor air quality to continued lead poisoning. In turn, these environmental issues affect everything from crime rates to economic development.
“If the President drove even 50 miles up the street, he would see that when he’s rolling back environmental protection that has a huge impact,” says Mustafa Santiago Ali, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation who previously ran the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program. “His policies just put a crosshair on these communities and on their lives.”
Baltimore suffers from a slew of deeply rooted challenges — not least of which is the high prevalence of pollutants that contribute to health problems, degraded communities and generally a lower quality of life. Childhood asthma rates in Baltimore, at 20%, are twice as high in the city than nationwide. The metropolitan area experienced 114 days in 2016 when levels of either ozone or particulate matter hit unsafe levels, according to a report from Environment Maryland.
The federal government has a slew of protections in place to address air pollution, but the Trump Administration has by and large sought to weaken those regulations, at least in part by arguing that they are too great a burden for business.
One area of concern for Trump has been his ill-fated attempt at saving the coal industry. In 2016, residents in a Baltimore community near a coal terminal told TIME they regularly woke up to porches and stoops coated in a thin layer of coal ash. The Obama Administration sought to tighten rules on how companies dispose of coal ash, which would have instituted uniform standards to reduce contamination. But Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency undid the regulation, arguing that states and industry needed more flexibility.
“This Administration is doing everything it can to give coal a free ride,” Larissa Liebmann, a staff attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, said at the time.
The Administration has also undone President Barack Obama’s central climate measure, the Clean Power Plan. While the regulation was aimed primarily at tackling climate change, it also would have saved lives by preventing toxic air pollution. The EPA estimated in 2015 that the regulation would have saved 3,600 lives by 2030 by reducing exposure to pollutants like particulate matter, one of the toxins so prevalent in Baltimore.
A key concern in Baltimore is lead poisoning. Lead hasn’t been used in paint in the U.S. since the 1970s, but it still remains in some homes, particularly in lower-income communities. Baltimore, where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, is particularly plagued by lead poisoning. Nearly 800 cases of elevated lead levels in children were reported in 2017, according to a Baltimore Sun report. That represents an improvement given that some 37,500 children in Baltimore received lead poisoning diagnoses between 1993 and 2015, according to the Sun, but thousands of homes still have lead and landlords have done the bare minimum to address the issue, insisting that the costs are prohibitive.
Lead poisoning leads to a slew of other problems. Most immediately, it inhibits brain development, which hurts individuals and also deprives communities of talent. Lead poisoning has also been linked to behavioral and emotional problems, which can in turn contribute to high crime rates.
The federal government is not legally responsible for dealing with lead poisoning, but it is one area where the Trump Administration could make a difference. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have discussed various plans to remove lead from homes, including in 1989 when a $10 billion proposal that would have completely removed the contaminant was rejected, according to A Terrible Thing to Waste, a new book on environmental racism. More recently following outrage over lead poisoning in Flint, Democrats have offered a slew of different proposals to tackle the issue.
The Trump Administration has actually talked about lead poisoning, including comments from Trump himself in remarks on the environment earlier this year. “Our EPA took the first major action in nearly two decades to reduce exposure to lead-contaminated dust,” he said at the White House, referring to the EPA’s Federal Lead Action Plan revealed late last year.
Environmental groups welcomed Trump’s recognition of the issue but say that Trump’s move doesn’t actually do anything of substance and, importantly, comes amidst a slew of rollbacks of existing rules. Moreover, the Administration has moved to defund programs aimed at reducing lead poisoning.
None of this is to say that Baltimore thrived under previous presidents, but Ali described the difference between Trump and previous Administrations as a difference between neglect and active harm.
“Previous administrations should have been doing more,” he says. “But at least they haven’t been intentionally hurting communities.”
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