Environmental Racism: Finding Justice and Fighting Discrimination

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Table of Contents

  • Environmental Justice: Definition
  • Environmental Justice (EJ): The Beginning of the Movement
  • Finding Justice: Exploring More Environmental Justice Issues
  • Finding Progress & Possible Solutions
  • References

The issue called environmental racism (inequality) is a common problem that many “vulnerable” people continue to face on a day to day basis. Namely, “vulnerable” people tend to live in poor (low income) neighborhoods. Also “vulnerable” people tend to be mistreated due to their race/income status. Before I took this course, I had no idea about environmental racism/injustice and how it impacts communities. One journal article stated that the definition of environmental inequality is the tendency for environmental disadvantages that are improperly located in low-income minority's communities. Several examples in the state of Michigan show that there is un ugrent issue of environmental racism. In this essay, I will give an overview of environmental justice/injustice, examples of some problems, and solutions.

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Occasionally, the local news channels will report a story about illegal dumping that usually takes place in a poverty-stricken environment. I do not recall these news stations (or newspapers) using definitions such as environmental injustice, inequality, racism, and/or environmental justice in their stories. Typically, I believe that these local news stations are leery about using those types of key terms, because these words may trigger possible outrage, riots, and/or protests. The environmental issues “key terms” which I usually see in news’ stories are climate change, air pollution, greenhouse, the ozone layer, and oil spills, so forth. Of course, these environmental issues should be recognized to people (audiences), but environmental racism/injustice should be included more in reports as well.

I was drawn to this environmental issue because environmental injustice is inhumane and downright evil. The victims of environmental racism “must suffer” and are considered nothing more than “trash”. Unfortunately, environmental racism still occurs to this day. A prime example of environmental injustice is the ongoing Flint Water Crisis. Though Flint was able to finally get funding (a $77.7 million loan) to “clean their water”, the crisis remains there. Over the period between April 2014 to October 2015, around 90,000 people (Flint residents) were exposed to contaminated water with elevated levels of lead after the city switched their Detroit Water Authority to Flint Water System (Mahtani, Evans, Peters, Fueta, & Caudle, 2018). The water system switch caused many people to suffer due to several side effects including physical, mental, psychological, and financial ones. The Flint water system could not control corrosion, so the lead was able to run through the water system (Mahtani, Evans, Peters, Fueta, & Caudle, 2018). Some officials are reporting that the poisonous levels of copper and lead are gone (or dropped), they tried to say that “the water is now safe and clean (Smith, Bosman, & Davey, 2019).

Though it has been 5 years later, the residents and the new major (Ms. Karen Weaver) are still cautious and do not trust the “green light” on using the city’s water (Smith, Bosman, & Davey, 2019). The mayor instructed the remaining residents of Flint to continue to only drink and use bottled and filtered water (Smith, Bosman, & Davey, 2019). No residents have come forward and disclosed that the water is safe (i.g. no trust). This crisis could have been fixed or never happened at all. Environmental racism (injustice) still occurs today, because of abuse of power, socio-economic imbalances, lack of empathy for the low-income (or people of color), and no accountability and/or punishment for perpetrators that partake in this crime. We must continue to focus on creating strategies that will turn environmental racism (injustice) into environmental justice.

Environmental Justice: Definition

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the “meaningful involvement and fair treatment of every person regardless of the color of their skin, income-class status, birthplace (natural origin), or race with respect to the development, enforcement, and implantation of environmental laws, policies, and regulations' (as cited in Wilson, 2017). In other words, environmental justice involves protecting and shielding all people from “all harms” such as pollution, lead, and other toxins, so forth. Robert Tracer (2012) explained in his book that under the terms of environmental justice, public officials are obligated to perform their duties of protection of all persons, especially the vulnerable and underprivileged population (p. 283). Though public officials are required to protect the people, there are still several cases of injustice (e.g. Flint Water Crisis). Today, environmental justice (injustice) is still one of the biggest environmental concerns along with climate change, damage to the ozone layers, pollution, and oil spills, so forth.

Environmental Justice (EJ): The Beginning of the Movement

Based on the information, the environmental movement did not officially take place until the late 1970s and/or the early 1980s period. The “first” movement took place in the state of North Carolina. In 1982, North Carolina created a landfill in order to dispose of 6,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) polluted soil (Wilson, 2017). The problem with establishing this landfill was the selected location, which was in an “urban neighborhood”. The “chosen landfill spot” was in a rural and poverty-stricken area (Warren County), where African Americans made up at least 75 percent of this town’s population (Wilson, 2017). Another issue was this town had “no voice”, the town had no mayor, no city council or any other type of government representatives (Wilson, 2017).

Fortunately, this issue gained attention and began the mark of the EJ movement. For six weeks, Warren County residents, environmental activists, and some civil rights leaders join in peaceful protests (Wilson, 2017). The non-violent protests brought national awareness to this issue. Also, some scientists and researchers began to collect data, so they discover and monitor the effects of this landfill. The 1982 protests impelled the first nationwide study of illegal dumping, hazardous wastes, and treatment storage placed in impoverished areas, consecutively it led to a movement of academic scholars and government agencies conducting “new” research (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice 1987; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1983 as cited in Pastor & Morello-Frosch, 2018).

Besides, the 1982 victory, the EJ movement was also started by a “mother” and “father”. During the 1970s, Hazel Johnson (“mother”) fought for environmental justice in a Chicago neighborhood called Altgeld Gardens (Conservancy, 2019). The Altgeld Gardens had the same problem as Warren Country, which is a contaminated landfill. Altgeld was built on a landfill where pollution (air, water, and, land) and toxicity tainted the area (Conservancy, 2019). Ms. Johnson began to investigate the high cancer rates in that community (Conservancy, 2019). Hazel was able to bring awareness to this issue and gain attention nationwide. This time new policy was put in place and into order. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order (12898), which makes federal agencies address environmental impacts (e.g. pollution) and/or human health (e.g. asthma) of its activities on people of color and low-income populations (Wilson, 2017). Though Hazel passed away in 2011, her legacy is still honored and recognized for environmental justice.

In 1979, Dr. Robert Bullard (the father) began to focus on a neighborhood in Houston, where African Americans made up most/all of the population (Conservancy, 2019). Robert stated that “The environmental justice movement tries to report and investigate all the injustices that are results from industrial facility placement, inhabited settlement, and industrialization” (Tracer, 2013). The research that was conducted by Robert provided the evidence needed to bring awareness about this injustice. The results of his research exposed that toxic waste areas and landfills are placed in African American communities (Conservancy, 2019). The research was used as evidence into a case called Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Inc. (Conservancy, 2019). Robert is still advocating for environmental justice and he is an instructor at a university. Presently, he teaches at Texas Southern University, he is a professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy (Conservancy, 2019).

Finding Justice: Exploring More Environmental Justice Issues

Transportation is one of the issues tied to environmental discrimination (racism). For example, the gas prices are rising to the amount of 3 dollars or more, so underprivileged people who have transportation may struggle just to maintain (buying gasoline) in their vehicles. Michigan has some of the highest car insurance rates and some of their rates are higher depending on the city (e.g. Detroit). The average annual in Michigan is $5,414 compares to the national rate of only being around $1,427 (Neavling, 2019). The car insurances rates in Detroit (Michigan) are at least 3 times than any other state in the United States. According to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Insurance Officers, any insurance rate that charges above 2 percent is “too expensive” (Neavling, 2019).

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) which is an agency within the United States Department of Transportation detected that transportation is an environmental injustice concern (Tracer, 2013). The FHA stated in a handbook that, poverty-stricken individuals must use at least half (or more) of their income towards transportation and household (Tracer, 2013). Several Detroiters take a risk to drive without car insurance due to the high prices. The data shows that 60 percent of Detroit residents that do not have car insurance, while only 13 percent of the rest of the nation has no car insurance. (Neavling, 2019). These numbers state that people that marginalized groups have no to little access to purchasing and receiving the “correct services/benefits”. In other words, some “unprivileged” people may have to pay more just to have car insurance and/or other services. Some people are paying more based on their race and residence (zip code). Some auto insurance companies use people’s credit scores to estimate rates, several Detroiters have poor (low) credit scores (Neavling, 2019).

There are some people (companies) that perform unethical business practices. In other words, some companies that are in suburban use and turn Detroit (and other urban cities) into trash bins (e.g. illegal dumping). On April 4 of this year, FOX 2 News (Detroit) posted a brief story that I had found on their mobile app. The story was about an illegal dumping ground that is located across from an elementary school. The setting is a heap of cinder blocks and old roofing parts that are piled up near a Detroit school (Staff, 2019). Unfortunately, the safety of many/all children is at risk, and residents that live in this neighborhood as well. Also, the trash could attract several types of bugs (e.g. spiders) and rodents (e.g. rats). People that perform these negative actions such as illegal dumping are making “statements” to their victims that the residents have no value and/or voice. Though the school’s name is Loving, there is nothing lovable about these inhumane actions. The “junk owner” called Thomas R Properties has been using this area as dumping ground for a long time (Staff, 2019).

Based on the information, this company has been warned and fined for this violation. Honestly, this company needs to be charged/fined for endangering children/adults as well. The owner has been fined $10,000 for illegal dumping, but he has not removed the trash (Staff, 2019). If someone tried to perform illegal dumping in suburban (Metro Detroit) areas, they would face more consequences. The company’s owner lives in a “better city” called Warren, Michigan (Staff, 2019). The FOX news staff went to the owner’s house, so they could confront him and get his response (i.e. his excuse). Though the owner was not at home, the staff noticed a plaque that was given as “recognition” for their beautification of the city (“safe place”) of Warren (Staff, 2019). Also, the owner failed to clean up their mess by the compliance date (March 24), so the next steps are two more tickets and the Public Department deciding on how they are going to “clean up the villain’s mess” (Staff, 2019). It seems that the owner/company is still able to avoid taking responsibility for their vicious actions. Currently, there are no updates on the cleanup and the business.

Lead poisoning is one of the most problematic side effects of environmental racism (injustice). Detroit, Atlanta, and other urban cities are some of the areas where there have been reports of lead poisoning. In the city of Atlanta, some children are exposed to lead in their homes and school settings. In 2016, the Atlanta public school district tested their schools’ water systems (e.g. water fountains) (Whitehead, Johnson, Boone, & Grant, 2012). The test results showed that over 40 percent of the school’s water contained high levels of lead (15 parts per billion ppb) (Mahtani, Evans, Peters, Fueta, & Caudle, 2018). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) reported that around 250,000 children (U.S. residents) between the ages of one to five years old had high levels of lead in their bloodstreams (as cited in Whitehead, Johnson, Boone, & Grant, 2012). These results show an alarming rate of children that became seriously ill due to lead poisoning.

Any homes that were built prior to the year 1978, have lead-based paint, and around 24 million houses/buildings have this toxic paint, lead-contaminated dust, and at least 4 million children live in these polluted homes (Whitehead, Johnson, Boone, & Grant, 2012). Several houses that have lead poisoning are in “poor communities'. Lead poisoning can be easily absorbed in young children’s bodies (in the blood), and without the proper testing, the symptoms of the poisoning can become unnoticed to people (Whitehead, Johnson, Boone, & Grant, 2012). If lead poisoning goes undetected, it could lead to several health problems. Some of the lead poison side effects include: hearing loss, insomnia, decrease in IQ levels and attention span, damages red blood levels, and behavior problems (e.g. hostility) (CDC, 2009a, 2009b; Alliance for Healthy Homes, USEPA, 2011; HUD, 2011; National Safety Council, 2011; Oretsky, 2010 as cited in Whitehead, Johnson, Boone, & Grant, 2012).

In 2003, the Detroit Free Press investigated a company called Master Metal, which was battery processing plant owned by NL Industries (Moody & Grady, 2017). The story with this company is like other companies that create pollutants that affect a community. Again, this community would be in the category of environmental injustice (racism). Over two decades, Master Metal emitted massive amounts (illegally) of lead-contaminated dust particles and exposed 16 parks, eight schools, and 5000 children (age 5 & under) that were in Detroit’s poverty-stricken and minority east side (Moody & Grady, 2017). The newspaper (Free Press) decide to hire soil testers to test some of the soil in these areas, which included ppm (parts per million) (Moody & Grady, 2017). Their results stated that the 97 samples shown a high level of 5811 ppm (lead poisoning) in 10 neighborhoods, which EPA states this level exceeds 400 ppm level ((Moody & Grady, 2017). Though it was proven that Master Metal was guilty of

causing these damaging conditions, the victims did not receive justice. The company (NL) went bankrupt and because of the lack of remediation funding sources (RFS), these neighborhoods are still in hazardous conditions (Moody & Grady, 2017). Sadly, these people must suffer due to corrupted (inhumane) companies’ actions.

Finding Progress & Possible Solutions

Environmental justice and sustainability are not long-term goals that can be accomplished overnight. The first step is some people (and companies) need to accept accountability when environmental racism occurs in communities. The government and public officials need to make sure that strategies, policies, research, laws, funding, and protection are put in place to make sure that all people are “safe and comfortable”. For example, there have been previous studies that focused on people that lived in environmental injustice and risky areas. Pluhar et al. (2009)

conducted a study where “EJ” children were the participants and the method was having the children drawing pictures (as cited in Dory, Qin, Qin, Fu, & Ryan, 2015). The results of this study revealed that the children’s drawings shown evidence that kids are aware of their negative surroundings even if they cannot verbally express the problems (Pluhar et al., 2009 as cited in Dory, Qin, Qin, Fu, & Ryan, 2015). Lejano and Stokols (2010) used interviews along with drawings in order to understand people’s outlook and cognitive experiences towards “living with landfills” in their communities (as cited in Dory, Qin, Qin, Fu, & Ryan, 2015).

Research, planning, partnerships, and funding are some of the tactics that were used to resolve water issues and other problems in an Indian reservation. In Montana, some of the people from a tribe called Apsaalooke (Crow) created the Apsaalooke Water and Wastewater Authority (AWWWA) (Doyle, Kindness, Realbird, Eggers, & Camper, 2018). Around 2005, this group collaborated with some Little Big Horn College (LBHC) faculty members and tribal stakeholders in order to create the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee (CEHSC) to decrease risks and complications from drinking/using hazardous from toxic rivers and drinking water (Doyle et al., 2018). In this tribe, partnerships have assisted with not only removing pollutants, but there is a “healthy “connection between people that are working together to make their area (environment) more suitable.

For the past 10 years, AWWWA along with partners were able to receive around 50 county, state federal, and tribal grants and several loans adding up to around 20 million dollars (Doyle et al., 2018). The funds assisted with repairing and replacing 75 percent of old wastewater lines, 50 percent of water lines have been replaced, and waste and wastewater connections have upgraded for local schools, and so forth (Doyle et al., 2018). Both AWWWA and CEHSC used community based participatory research (CBPR), so they could collect data and funding to improve and clean the water especially in the Crow country (Doyle et al., 2018I believe that CBPR is one of the best approaches and research designs used in studies. This type of research allows people to take part in their own free will, also it allows a “partnership” between the researchers) and participants. In other words, CBPR allows people to a part of the project as opposed to “being the guinea pig”, “the lab rat”, and/or the experiment.

As previously stated, lead poisoning is a problematic issue in areas such as Atlanta, Georgia. A group of researchers decide to produce a program for children so, they bring awareness to this issue. Their program was a five-part plan which included: visual aids, ice breaker game (Introductions), detective game (finding lead sources), discussing key terms (e.g. exposure), and providing lead testing kits to parents (e.g. 3MTM LeadCheckTM swabs) (Mahtani et al., 2018). In March of 2017, their model program was created and carried out at the Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club (Decatur, GA) (Mahtani et al., 2018). There were 41 participants (3rd thru 5th graders) that attend this workshop, and the program took around 1 hour and 15 minutes (Mahtani et al., 2018). After the session, the participants’ parents were given home lead screening test, information of lead poisoning (pamphlet) and contact information for local resources on lead poisoning (Mahtani et al., 2018).

A week after the workshop, the creators of the program, a representative from the CDC, and some of the parents attended a follow-up session called parent’s night (Mahtani et al., 2018). The purpose of the parents’ night was to answer any questions that the parents may have about the program, the issue and other ones (Mahtani et al., 2018). The result was they would make the sessions for only smaller groups (10 to 15 children) in the future Mahtani et al., 2018). Personally, these types of programs can be effective and involve community partnerships. I had an internship at a Boys and Girls Club (Southfield), and the supervisor of that club encouraged the staff and volunteers to create workshops/program and forming new ideas that will help and benefits the children (members). They are making a new location in Detroit, I think they should create programs that bring awareness to issues such as lead poisoning, additional environmental injustice concerns, and the effects of climate change, etc.

The Environmental Justice in Action (EPA) organization has focused on ways to make sure justice is for everyone. For the United States, EPA has divided the states into 10 different regions (1 thru 10), Michigan is in Region 5 (“Environmental Justice,” 2019). The EPA Region 5 (Great Lakes group) serves Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and 35 tribes (“Environmental Justice,” 2019). Based on the information, EPA (Region 5) had made accomplishments on restoring and repairing areas that were affected by environmental racism. In 2015, EPA reduced over 126 million pounds of air pollutants (“Environmental Justice,” 2019).

For example, EPA reached a settlement with the AK Steel company (Dearborn Heights) in order to reduce pollutant emissions, also the company “made” new air filtration systems for two Dearborn Heights schools (“Environmental Justice,” 2019). In Chicago, the EPA enforced a waste and recycling company (Beaver Oil) to keep and improve their keeping records for wastewater (at least 100,000 gallons) (“Environmental Justice,” 2019). There are several other achievements that EPA was to fulfill and complete, and they are still working on other projects. For example, EPA is working on EJ 2020 and some of their goals are still improving air quality and drinking water (“Environmental Justice”, 2019).

In conclusion, we must be consistent with what actions and methods to use in order to achieve environmental justice. Of course, people read and look at previous literature, where “justice was the result”. People can work, donate, and/or partner with non-profit organizations that focuses on environmental justice. For example, Sierra Club (Michigan chapter) and Michigan Environmental Council are organizations that work on getting environmental justice for vulnerable people and communities. In other words, we must do all we can to protect people (living creatures) and the environment.


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