Seeing Green under a Different Light

Environmentalists claim that the National Conference of Black Mayors is trading the health of their residents for job creation because the NCBM does not support an increase in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act standards. However, George L. Grace, mayor of St Gabriel, Louisiana, and president of the NCBM, contends that “poverty causes bad health also.”

Last June, the EPA proposed to strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog. Exposures to ozone can reduce lung function, increase frequency of asthma attacks, and aggravate chronic lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. The EPA wants to reduce particulate matter emitted by cars, trucks, buses, and industrial power plants from .08 ppm to .07 ppm.

The EPA, however, does not have to consider the economic costs of implementing the standards. Grace says that by increasing the standards the EPA is encouraging placement of plants in third world countries—meaning a loss of jobs, many of which are held by African Americans. “When you can’t feed a family and bring a decent wage to your constituents then a lot of bad health and crime occurs,” Grace says. He adds that the move would also disrupt a program that has decreased emissions by 54% in the last 25 years.

Others disagree. “It is an illegitimate argument to even say that strengthening the Clean Air Act, protecting people’s health, and coming into compliance [with NAAQS] will hurt the economy and black people,” cautions Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. “As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite. Our data shows that the [environmental] costs are often localized, but the economic benefits are more dispersed. When companies do leave the U.S. it is not because of strict environmental standards but for cheap labor offshore.”

Companies threaten to leave, but Bullard says it is more threat than reality. “Many of our communities are economically dependent on industries that create the problem. It becomes almost tantamount to a form of economic blackmail,” Bullard says. “We have to get the facts out there and make sure people don’t buy into the jobs versus the environment argument.”