Racism and the Environment

Environmental Racism, part 1

It was 30 years ago, in 1987, that the United Church of Christ conducted a study. (The UCC is generally regarded as the next most liberal historically-Protestant denomination after the Unitarian Universalists. I went to a UCC seminary, and the joke that they themselves tell on themselves is that UCC stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” Some years ago, UUA and UCC teamed up to create the "Our Whole Lives" sexuality education curriculum. That was a joint project of our two denominations.)

The UCC’s work in the area of environmental racism has been way ahead of ours. Thirty years ago the UCC Commission for Racial Justice undertook an extensive study of the subject. Their report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, found that:
  • Communities with a commercial hazardous waste facility averaged 24% minority.
Even more striking,
  • communities with two or more [commercial hazardous waste] facilities -- or one of the nation's five largest landfills – averaged 38% minority.
  • communities with no such facility averaged just 12% minority.
Socio-economic status – class -- also played a significant role, but race was still more significant.
Minority groups continue to be burdened with a disproportionate number of environmental hazards.

The report is available HERE.

Let's now jump to a much more recent situation. Flint, Michigan. The city has just under 100,000 people, 41% poor and 57% African-American.

In 2014, Michigan state authorities, to save money, switched the water supply of Flint, MI, from Lake Huron to the Flint River, known for its pollution. Almost immediately, boil advisories had to be issued because fecal coliform bacteria was flowing into the homes of Flint. Because the Flint River is polluted to begin with, water from that river is corrosive. Flint River water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. Treatment with anti-corrosive agents would go a long way to address that, and federal law requires such treatment. But the state Department of Environmental Quality violated that federal law and simply didn’t treat Flint’s water with anti-corrosive agents.

So this corrosive water, unmitigated in its corrosion, began flowing to Flint. It was coming in through aging pipes, and because it was so corrosive, it leached lead out of the pipes. Lead content in the drinking and bathing water in Flint shot so high it met the EPA’s definition of "toxic waste."

In fairness to the state of Michigan, as fair as we can be, the switch to the Flint River was always meant as a temporary measure for two years while a new pipeline from Lake Huron was being constructed. OK, good to note. But, still! It is not OK for the water in people’s homes to be toxic waste for two years – or even for one day. Is there any doubt that what happened to Flint would never have happened to a predominantly middle-class and white city?

Black lives matter. Black lives matter because all lives matter. Yet black lives are treated as mattering less than white lives. One of the ways we see black lives counting for less is environmental racism – that is, burdening minority groups with a disproportionate number of hazards, such as toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and sources of pollution.

Consider the case of Altgeld Gardens, a housing community Chicago, was built on an abandoned landfill and is surrounded by 53 toxic facilities and 90% of Chicago’s landfills. Mercury, ammonia gas, lead, DDT, PCBs, PAHs, heavy metals, and xylene, are among the known toxins and pollutants affecting the area, and residents suffer excessive rates of prostate, bladder, and lung cancer; children born with brain tumors; fetal brains developing outside the skull; asthma, ringworm, and other ailments. The population of Altgeld Gardens is 90% African-American and 65% below the poverty level.

Chester, PA, has five large waste facilities (including a trash incinerator, a medical waste incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant) with a total permitted capacity of 2 million tons of waste per year – compared to merely 1,400 tons allowed in all the rest of Delaware County, PA.
Chester residents suffer a cancer rate 2.5 times higher than anywhere else in Pennsylvania and a mortality rate 40% higher than the rest of Delaware county. Chester is 65% African American.

Our nations floodplains have high populations of blacks and Hispanics, placing them at higher risk if a flood comes. And, in fact, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, institutionalized practices had segregated minorities into the most vulnerable low-lying areas. Not only that, but New Orleans’ evacuation plans relied heavily on the use of cars. In New Orleans, 100,000 city residents, disproportionately minority, had no car. Hundreds who could not evacuate died. And then, after the hurricane, the federal response, according to many black leaders, was slow and incomplete. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was 60.5% African American.

These are the results of racism manifesting in the way environmental issues are handled.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Environomental Racism"
See also
Part 2: No More Disposability

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