Environmental Racism: Discriminatory Waste Disposal Policies

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The United States is an amazing nation founded on the principles that all people were created equal and were born with certain unalienable rights. However, it is well known that this hasn’t been the case for most Americans. Within the beauty of this country lays a dark and ugly truth that racism and discrimintion plagued the land. The United States has seen slavery, the taking of indigenous land and forceful removal of people, eugenics, concentration camps, Jim Crow Laws, and so much more. Much progress has taken shape in granting true equality for all Americans, regardless of sex, age, or color. However, despite significant progress, we have seen another form of racism begin to rise, a sort of covert form of racism, known as environmental racism, which affects communities of minorities and low income people. However, much like the many movements fighting for people’s rights, the fight for environmental justice is taking place to combat this form of racist practices. In order to understand environmental racism we will look at its history and how it affects people and then we'll talk about the history of environmental justice and how policies currently in place aren’t enough.

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The concept of environmental racism is a relatively new idea that began to develop in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but the practice actually goes much further, even if no one paid attention to it. The term environmental racism is “the idea that nonwhites are disproportionately exposed to pollution” (Pulido, 2000, pg. 12). Numerous studies show that certain communities are facing higher rates of toxic assaults than the average American neighborhood. In 1983 the United States Accounting Office released a study that supported the Environmental Justice Movement on the grounds that there is proof of environmental racism across the country. It discussed how the majority of landfills at the time were built in communities that were predominantly African Americans and low income. In 1987, The United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice conducted their own study and revealed that “over 15 million African Americans, 8 million Hispanics, and half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans resided in communities with at least one abandoned or uncontrolled toxic waste sites” (US EPA,OA, 2019). This study also revealed that although income was a factor, racial identity was the driving cause for this injustice to take place. Communities that have a predominantly colored population and/or low income are seeing the ill effects of being forced to live with environmental and health risks. Because of these unsafe practices, people are becoming ill and dying from diseases in relation to the unsafe conditions they are forced to live in. Lead poisoning, which is an illness that can be easily eradicated, has been poisoning children, more specifically colored children, across the nation due to unsafe practices. “Figures reported in the July 1994 Journal of the American Medical Association from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) revealed that 1.7 million children (8.9% of children aged 1-5) are lead poisoned, defined as having blood levels equal to or above 10 microg/dl…… During the time-period between 1976 and 1991, the decrease in blood lead levels for African-American and Mexican-American children lagged far behind that of white children” (Bullard, 1999). Additionally, in Chester, Pennsylvania, during the 1980’s, we can see how the terrible conditions ruined the community's way of living. Citizens were unable to leave their homes in the summer due to the smell and noise from the waste processing industries. What’s even worse was that “Adults in the neighborhood began to experience respiratory problems, and their children missed more school than usual due to unexplained illnesses that the residents believed resulted from the incinerator” (Cole & Foster, 2001, Ch. 2 Pg. 3).

Environmental racism is a growing concern to all Americans, not just those directly impacted. However, when there is inequality, there will always be people willing to fight for the people in need, and this situation is no different. In order to better understand the movement, we should take a look into its history and see what factors contributed into making it what it is today. The idea of environmental justice gained traction during the 1980’s in order to combat the practices of environmental racism, but it has been a long standing fight. Environmental justice was positively impacted by the Civil Right Movements that occurred between 1950’s - 1970’s. Many early advocates of environmental justice were veterans in the fight for equality due to being part of the larger Civil Rights Movements. African American and Chicano leaders came up once again to fight for their people and they “pressed for social change and experience empowerment through grassroots activism” (Cole and Foster, 2001, Ch. 1 Pg. 20). February 11, 1968 marks the day the Memphis Sanitation Strikes. African Americans protested against what they deemed to be acts of environmental injustices. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. also “advocated for better working conditions and pay for striking Memphis, Tennessee, garbage workers” (US EPA,OA, 2019). Over time the Environmental Justice Movement continued to get support from different groups of people and started seeing the rise of other groups beginning to form. They all brought experience and power to the movement. In 1988 the West Harlem Environmental Action Act was founded to address ongoing struggles in West Harlem. Additionally, Native Americans also joined the cause because they have faced a much longer history of environmental injustice that has been a result of colonization. The American Indian Movement started with the focus “around land and environmental exploitation” (Cole and Foster, 1999 Ch. 1 Pg. 8). As a group of people who faced this injustice the longest, they brought centuries of experience and strengthened the concept of environmental justice to the movement. In 1990, the Indigenous Environmental Network was founded to protect sacred sites of Indigenous tribes and then the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economical Justice was founded in April of 1990. The members of this group was composed of “African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Islanders and [existed] to strengthen the work of local organizations and empower communities and workers to impact local, state, regional, national, and international policy” on environmental justice (US EPA,OA, 2019). So much more history exists for the Environmental Justice Movement and it shaped what they fight today. The movements grew to fight for all people affected by environmental racism, regardless of color. Each group of people has strengthened the movement and brought their own experiences and new ideas that helped give them a better chance in fighting for equality.

However, despite the many laws that were enacted to help people facing environmental racism, they proved to either not do enough or proved to be part of the ongoing problem. The 1970’s was the first time we saw any real laws enacted for environmental justice. “The 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act and [later] the 1980 Superfund legislation” were all enacted to help people who faced the injustice of environmental racism (Cooper, 1998). However, these weren’t enough because they ignored how pollution impacts people of differing incomes and race; it was a denial of there being any form of environmental racism. Additionally, there has been added pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to help people in need, however, the EPA can only do so much. The EPA has no power outside the laws that are enacted by members of Congress or by executive orders. If the system and laws work against people's favor, there is really nothing the EPA can do for them. State laws don’t even do enough to help fight for people facing such travesties. In the 1990’s Chester, Pennsylvania faced much trouble with toxic waste facilities being built in their community. Pennsylvania siting law didn’t protect these people because it doesn’t consider the impact of preexisting facilities. “Moreover, once a facility is located in a host community, it is easy to expand that facility, allowing even more waste to be processed in the community” (Cole and Foster, 1999, Ch. 2 Pg. 6). Also, we can see how California laws in the 1990’s failed to protect people as well. Kettleman City, California faced their own forms of environmental racism and everything the facility did to warn the citizens of their arrival was technically legal because businesses and the government found loopholes to defeat the system. “[G]government agencies are required to provide public notice in three ways: (1) through notices printed in a newspaper of general circulation, which in Kettleman City means a small box in the classified ads [in a small local newspaper forty miles from the affected community,] (2) by posting signs on and off the site, which means on a fence post three and a half miles from Kettleman City; and (3) by sending notices through the mail to adjacent landowners. The adjacent landowners to the Chem Waste facility are large agribusiness and oil companies.” (Cole and Foster, 1999, Intro. Pg. 2). It has been shown time and time again that the government, both state and national, have failed to combat environmental racism and the laws in place have not done enough to protect certain people of such injustices.

Environmental racism has gained attention across the United States and proves that, despite much progress, equality doesn’t exist for all Americans. Many Americans are facing toxic assault in result of environmental racism. However, a new movement, the movement for environmental justice, has risen and grown to combat the injustice of environmental racism. It is important to understand the history of both environmental racism and justice in order to better understand them, as well as learn as the negative effects of the environmental racism and why current environmental “justice” laws aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. As long as there's a fight for equality, there is hope that these practices will meet their end.  

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