The Supreme Court's decision Thursday in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, which chips away at the Clean Air Act and the EPA's authority, will be remembered for many reasons – as this term's final sweeping act of the court's conservative supermajority, the result of a decades-long conservative legal crusade against environmental protections and a significant setback against climate action.
This grievously wrong decision, however, should be understood first and foremost as a clarion call and invitation for action.
Congress and the White House should accept that invitation and finally bring forward a comprehensive climate bill that will put teeth back in the EPA and its ability to protect all communities from the effects of power plant and industrial emissions – including both the immediate public health effects of emissions like mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon dioxide and the long-term, systemic threats caused and fueled by these emissions, such as heat waves, fires, floods, storms and hurricanes.
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Front-line communities suffer both of these impacts first and worst. Black Americans are 75% more likely than the average American to live in communities directly affected by noise, odor, traffic and chemical emissions from nearby facilities, according to the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force.
I grew up near a coal-fired power plant
The statistics are more than numbers. They're people's mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. I saw this firsthand growing up in Appalachia, near Prickett's Fort in Marion County, West Virginia. Coal mining and coal power were at the center of our lives.
The Rivesville Power Station, a now shuttered coal-fired plant, was located just across the Monongahela River from where I grew up. All it would take is one shift in the wind to blanket my community in the plant’s emissions. I am not aware of any formal studies, but I saw firsthand numerous neighbors and friends afflicted by cancer. Studies done in other areas have affirmed that similar situations in coal country result in higher rates of lung disease and higher mortality rates.
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The climate crisis, which is accelerated by power plant emissions, also has left Black communities and other front-line neighborhoods at heightened risk for flooding, heat waves and other unnatural disasters.
President Ronald Reagan used to joke that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." For Black people and front-line communities, even when those words have not been terrifying, they have been shockingly hollow for generations. Promises alone don't solve problems.
I helped EPA make strides on justice
The EPA has not always been a fervent or present ally for Black, brown, Indigenous and front-line communities. But during my 24 years with the agency, I helped found its Office of Environmental Justice and to start shifting the agency toward living its mission in a way that centers marginalized communities and does not treat them as afterthoughts and sacrifice zones so affluent and white communities can thrive.
We made important progress building relationships and partnerships that ensured communities spoke for themselves and were heard. As I noted in my resignation letter five years ago, the EPA made significant progress in my time at the agency, but it still has a long way to go. The worst thing we can do is interrupt that progress thanks to one court decision.
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I believe President Joe Biden when he says he is committed to bringing environmental justice to his administration, through the Justice40 initiative, his commitment to tribal sovereignty and other measures. Congress now needs to give his administration and the EPA the tools they need to build durable wins for front-line communities.
Our leaders should make West Virginia v. EPA a footnote rather than the final word on the EPA’s regulatory authority.
Mustafa Santiago Ali is the executive vice president at the National Wildlife Federation. He worked at the Environmental Protection Agency from 1992 to 2017.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court's Clean Air Act decision weakens EPA, worsens injustice