Top EcoWatch Stories on Environmental and Racial Injustice
Lit candles, flowers and signs are seen in front of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland on May 31, 2020. Aleksander Kalka / NurPhoto / Getty Images
As protests are taking place across our nation in response to the killing of George Floyd, we want to acknowledge the importance of this protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the years, we’ve aimed to be sensitive and prioritize stories that highlight the intersection between racial and environmental injustice. From our years of covering the environment, we know that too often marginalized communities around the world are disproportionately affected by environmental crises.
Now seems like a critical time to reshare a selection of these stories from our writers and our media partners. We know that if we want a healthier planet and life, environmental racism needs to be addressed. Here are 15 stories that highlight racial and environmental injustice and are worth reading during this time. There is no environmental justice without racial justice.
Black and Hispanic Americans Suffer Disproportionate Coronavirus Infections
Published April 9, 2020, Author Jordan Davidson
Across the country, the novel coronavirus is severely affecting black people at much higher rates than whites, according to data released by several states, as The New York Times reported.
In New York, which has seen the most COVID-19 related deaths, the virus has disproportionately affected both the black and Hispanic population. In New York City, Hispanics make up 29 percent of the population, but 34 percent of the city’s COVID-19 deaths, while African Americans are 22 percent of the city’s population and 28 percent of the fatalities, according to new statistics from the city and US News and World Report.
Environmental Racism at EPA: First Policy, Now Racist Messages Written at Headquarters
Published Nov. 6, 2018, Author Olivia Rosane
When it comes to the EPA’s internal culture, EPA union AFGE 3331 President Nate James implied more education was needed about the impacts of racist messages like the ones that have popped up since August.
“We have diversity training but nothing that addresses, for lack of better words, when hateful language is being used it creates a threatening atmosphere, a hostile environment, where employees are concerned about their safety,” James told ABC News.
James said that, earlier in the summer, another incident occurred where a note was left on an African American employee’s desk reading “BACK TO THE JUNGLE U GO.” The union said that EPA management’s response to that incident showed “callous disregard and inattentiveness” and “demoralized” the employee.
Lead Poisoning Reveals Environmental Racism in the U.S.
Published May 7, 2020, Author Ben Knight / Deutsche Welle
Statistically, the increased risk of lead poisoning associated with being black persists even when you correct for all other factors, from poverty to education levels to the presence of smokers in the home, to quality of housing.
“A lot of people had been saying: ‘Oh black children are just more at risk because they’re more likely to be poor,'” said study co-author Deniz “Dersim” Yeter, an independent academic and undergraduate nursing student in Kansas. “Yeah, poverty’s a problem, but it’s nothing compared to being a black child in America.”
Yeter was “astounded” by the results of their three-year analysis. “I knew it was bad, but I was expecting something like a marginal increase, something statistically significant, but … not two to six times higher,” they told DW. “That is obscene.”
First-of-Its-Kind Study Finds Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution and Who Breathes It
Published March 12, 2019, Author Olivia Rosane
The first-of-its-kind study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that black and Hispanic Americans breathe in large amounts of dangerous air pollution that is mainly caused by the actions of non-Hispanic whites.
Even though minorities are contributing less to the overall problem of air pollution, they are affected by it more,” study co-author and University of Minnesota engineering professor Jason Hill, who is white, told USA Today. “Is it fair (that) I create more pollution and somebody else is disproportionately affected by it?”
Coronavirus Comes for Louisiana’s Cancer Alley
Published April 8, 2020, Author Climate Nexus
An area in Louisiana whose predominantly black and brown residents are hard-hit by health problems from industry overdevelopment is experiencing one of the highest death rates from coronavirus of any county in the United States.
St. John the Baptist parish, which sits along the Gulf Coast region known as Cancer Alley, has seen 30 of its 43,000 residents die of COVID-19 since the outbreak began – a death rate of 68.7 per 100,000 people, compared to New York City’s rate of 29.
“We were getting calls almost every hour,” parish coroner Christy Montegut told The Guardian. “…They all died in the same way. They got to a hospital, were on a ventilator, but the body just couldn’t keep going. They died in spite of full treatment. The virus is overwhelming.”
Environmental Negligence vs. Civil Rights: Black and Hispanic Communities Get More Pollution, Fewer Jobs
Published Oct. 2, 2018, Author Olivia Rosane
By the numbers, black Americans hold 10.8 percent of the jobs at industrial facilities, but suffer 17.4 percent of the exposure to air pollution. Hispanics hold 9.8 percent of the jobs, but suffer 15 percent of the pollution exposure. Both populations have less than seven percent of the high-paying jobs offered at industrial sites, U.S. News & World Report reported.
The fossil fuel industry was the worst offender. At petroleum industry and coal-product facilities, blacks and Hispanics suffered 48 percent of the pollution exposure and only received around a fifth of the jobs.
African Americans Are Disproportionately Exposed to Extreme Heat
Published July 23, 2019, Author Adrienne Hollis / Union of Concerned Scientists
The extreme heat is almost three additional weeks’ worth of extreme heat days for places that are more than 25% African American as opposed to those that are less than 25% African American. The reasons why African American communities are and will continue to experience more extreme heat days are likely complex, but it’s probable that the root of the problem can be traced back to centuries of systemic mistreatment of people of color.
Why Climate Change Hurts the Poor the Most
Published July 11, 2019, Author Mallika Khanna / Common Dreams
The idea that environmentalism is an “elite” concern is a lie. Those who stand to gain the most from sweeping environmental protections are the marginalized people corporations assume can be put in toxic environments without fear of backlash.
That’s the best reason yet to support a Green New Deal, which would not only curb climate change, but also revitalize the U.S. economy, create millions of jobs, and create alternatives to harmful, unsustainable industries like the petrochemical industry in Cancer Alley that have harmed people for years.
That could make poor communities a lot less poor — and a lot more resilient.
African Americans Disproportionately Suffer Health Effects of Oil and Gas Facilities
Published Nov. 15, 2017, Author David Leestma
The study found oil and natural gas facilities were built or currently exist within a half-mile of more than one million African Americans, exposing these communities to higher risks of cancer due to toxic emissions. “African-Americans are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than Caucasian Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities than the average American,” the report said, referring to neighborhoods near to gas and oil facilities.
Counties located in the Gulf Coast Basin are home to the most counties with oil refineries and higher percentages of African Americans. Michigan, Louisiana and Tennessee, the report found, have the highest percentage of African American residents living in oil refinery counties. Texas and Louisiana, both in the Gulf Coast Basin, were home to the largest African American individuals at risk for cancer, with nearly 900,000 living in areas above the EPA’s level of concern.
“The effects of oil and gas pollution are disproportionately afflicting African Americans, particularly cancer and respiratory issues, and the trend is only increasing,” said Dr. Doris Browne, the National Medical Association president.
Environmental Racism in Action: The Trump Administration’s Plans to Gut NEPA
Published March 9, 2020, Author Derrick Z. Jackson / Union of Concerned Scientists
For communities long polluted by industry, which are disproportionately poor and of color, the Trump administration’s changes promise particular devastation. Such communities already suffer higher rates of illnesses from asthma to cancer, life-altering effects such as low birth weight and cognitive child development, and daily insults to quality of life in diesel exhaust, soot penetrating into homes and contaminated yards and playgrounds.
If the administration has its way, NEPA implementation guidelines would be rewritten so that even in neighborhoods already densely packed with toxic industries, a proposed facility need only assess its own pollutants, not how much they combine and compound those of nearby facilities to worsen the overall quality of air, water and land.
To make sure residents cannot complain about such compounded damage, the Trump administration is trying to severely limit the opportunity for mothers, fathers, seniors, teens and community leaders to speak directly to the government.
Beginning a Courageous Journey: Connecting Science & Justice
Published Feb. 19, 2020, Author Dr. Brian R. Shmaefsky / Union of Concerned Scientists
Historically, the benefits of science and technology have not been shared equally as is discussed in the 2016 Nature article Is science only for the rich? A 2018 The Atlantic article Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real discusses that at times science has been used against environmental justice communities. In addition, the “Belmont Report,” produced by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, documents a long history of unequal benefits of medical research.
In part due to this history, scientists are not always or immediately trusted or welcome in environmental justice communities. Scientists also have a reputation for ‘parachuting’ into communities to conduct research and make recommendations for change without ever fully consulting the knowledge and lived experience of the people who live there. Community members want equal access to data, policymakers, and science or technology that can remediate environmental injustice.
Plastics Plant Will Bulldoze Over Black History in ‘Cancer Alley’
Published Dec. 20, 2019, Author Climate Nexus
A major plastics manufacturing complex planned for construction in a highly-polluted region of Louisiana may disrupt a historic slave burial site, The Intercept reports.
Human remains and evidence of grave shafts were discovered earlier this year on land being developed by Formosa Plastics Group in St. James Parish in Louisiana. The plant could double the amount of air pollution in the region and emit 13 million tons of carbon pollution each year. Many of the residents of St. James Parish, located in a stretch of the state known as “Cancer Alley,” one of the most polluted stretches in America, say they are descended from slaves who worked on various plantations in the area. “That’s sacred ground,” activist and St. James Parish resident Sharon Lavigne told The Intercept. “They’re saying they don’t care about your ancestors. They’re slapping us in the face.”
How ‘Freeway Revolts’ Helped Create the People’s Environmental Law
Published June 14, 2019, Author Teju Adisa-Farrar & Raul Garcia / Earthjustice
The spirit that drove communities of color and neighborhood residents throughout the U.S. to hang banners, picket, sit in and stand up in the 1950s and 1960s is alive today. Even though several communities of color across the nation have been displaced and burdened by pollution because of freeway development projects in the 1960s, NEPA helps to fight against exclusionary and environmentally disruptive planning processes.
As we fight to end environmental racism, we cannot allow the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to retrench the people’s tools for access to justice. We cannot allow them to limit public comments and continue to shut communities out of the NEPA process. It is through direct action and community engagement that NEPA came to be; safeguarding it gives people more power to be a part of the decisions that determine what happens in their communities.
Fighting for a Just COVID-19 Response
Published April 5, 2020, Author Derrick Z. Jackson / Union of Concerned Scientists
The risk of unequal treatment is embedded in even the seemingly universal “we’re-all-in-this-together” advice we are getting to protect ourselves and stop the spread of the coronavirus. One person who sees this clearly is Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan. He served on the 2016 Michigan task force which determined that the Flint Water Crisis in that 54-percent African American city was “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”
Reynolds retired a year ago but was asked by Flint’s mayor to be an advisor for COVID-19 care.
He said he already sees where daily life for disadvantaged people is not being factored into public health advisories. “Take social distancing,” he said. “That is much easier to do for a family that owns a single-family home where they can spread out inside the home and have a backyard to get some fresh air in private. That is much harder for people who live in small apartments in buildings where people are always passing each other in the hallways. No one has come up with a strategy as to how those folks are supposed to ‘social distance.'”
We Need a Green New Deal for Farmland
Published April 7, 2020, Author Liz Carlisle / Yes! Magazine
The absence of a coherent U.S. land policy can be blamed for some of the current problems with farmland concentration, say the authors of the Data for Progress memo. But co-lead author Leah Penniman, founding co-director of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York, argues that the U.S. government has had a very influential de facto land policy over the past century, even if it wasn’t articulated as such. “The very basis of U.S. land policy is rooted in the theft of land and the exclusion of people of color from land,” Penniman explains. “This, of course, started with the genocidal stealing of almost the entire continent from the stewardship of Indigenous people … [and] throughout much of our history, there have been various state-level property ownership requirements that excluded people of color from being able to own property.”
When people of color did amass property, Penniman says, they were targeted with violence.
“The Ku Klux Klan, the White Caps, and the White Citizens Council were responsible for lynching almost 4,500 people, many of whom were landowners, who they saw as having the audacity to get off the plantation and to want to stop sharecropping.” The federal government also discriminated against black farmers through USDA programs, Penniman explains, resulting in a rapid decline of black farmers from 14% of the nation’s farmers in 1910 to approximately 1% today.
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