“My uncle died about five weeks ago because of the cancerous chemicals that are coming out of Exxon, and his kids are scared now, and I’m even scared now.… This [Washington, DC] is new to me, at least this air…It’s weird to be here breathing fresh air for the first time in my life.” – Diego Guadalupe Loredo, 15 years old, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services
Last week, Jonathan and I had the opportunity to attend a historic environmental justice convening hosted by the House Committee on Natural Resources, it’s Chairman, Representative Rual Grijlava and Representative Don McEachin. Environmental justice activists and others from all over the nation were present. Many different versions and definitions of the environmental justice concept exist. However, I believe most would agree that it maintains that access to a clean, safe, and healthy environment is a basic human right and that members of traditionally underserved communities must be given a seat at the decision-making table to influence all stages of decision-making regarding the issues that affect their lives. As stated by Chairman Grijalva, we cannot look at underserved communities as victims; rather, we must understand that these communities are made of people whose opportunity to make decisions affecting their well-being has been stolen from them. Creating a truly representative democracy means environmental justice communities must be able to speak for themselves—a core principle of the movement is self-determination. This blog will be a reflection of that core tenet: I am not a frontline community member and therefore have no firsthand experience of the realities surrounding environmental injustice, so I will not attempt to speak for those who have experienced environmental racism and injustice. Rather, this blog will serve as a reflection by someone who was present for the event as an audience member, someone who was there to listen and learn.
Environmental Justice Activists:
• Dr. Robert Bullard: Father of the Environmental Justice Movement, Distinguished Professor at Texas Southern University; award winning author and lecturer
• Dr. Mildred McClain: Harambee House/ Citizens for Environmental Justice
• Jacqueline Patterson: NAACP Environment and Climate Justice
• Richard Moore: Environmental Justice Health Alliance; Los Jardines Institute
• Diego Guadalupe Loredo: Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services
• Michele Roberts: National Co-Coordinator, Environmental Justice Health Alliance
• José Bravo: Just Transition Alliance; Panel Moderator
• Marianne Engelman-Lado: Yale School of Public Health
• Kim Gaddy: Clean Water Action
• Dr. Nicky Sheats: Thomas Edison State University John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy
• Jennifer Priscila Reyes: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice
• Angelo Logan: Campaign Director, Moving Forward Network
The event was broken down into three sections, as indicated below. The remainder of this blog post will discuss some key takeaways from the event.
Environmental Justice: Principles and Historical Context
Dr. Robert Bullard described the evolution of the environmental justice movement. He began by discussing how people of color and economically depressed individuals in this country have always known that they lived in unhealthy, toxic environments, not by choice, but because those in positions of power have gotten away with placing polluting facilities in the communities that often lack the resources to fight these decisions. Dr. Bullard told the audience about how he got his start in environmental justice. In helping his wife with a lawsuit she had filed over the placement of a municipal landfill in a predominately African American community, he began research to look for patterns of facility placement in predominately African American communities of the Houston area — evidence of discrimination. Dr. Bullard found that 100% of city-owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Read more about Dr. Bullard’s groundbreaking findings and consequential work here.
The movement has grown significantly since Dr. Bullard’s 1979 study. Environmental justice was even introduced on the world stage at the UN.
These are some key developments from the movements’ rise:
• 1983: Environmental justice organizing takes off in Warren County, NC, where grassroots organizers successfully fought against a PCB landfill.
• 1987: United Church of Christ study finds that race is the strongest variable in toxic facility siting determinations.
• 1990: University of Michigan holds 1st environmental justice academic conference.
• 1991: 1st National People of Color Environmental Justice Summit – significant because it was designed for and by people of color. Check out The Principles of Environmental Justice, drafted at the Summit.
• 1992: US EPA 1st Environmental Equity Report
• 1994: Environmental justice Executive Order signed by President Clinton, making it the first time environmental justice trickled up to the White House.
• 1999: Institute of Medicine study finds that people of color are exposed to more pollution than any other demographic in the United States, dispelling the myth that it’s mainly a poverty issue.
Incorporating Environmental Justice into Policy
“Yes, it’s about meaningful participation—that’s a must. But it’s also about community solutions. We are those local experts that you also need to engage while you’re trying to resolve the issues.” – Kim Gaddy, Clean Water Action
Convening participants made the strong point that different experiences lead to different policy recommendations. As emphasized by many participants, environmental justice community members are issue-area experts and must be treated as such by policymakers.
One of the convening’s overarching themes was that environmental justice policies must address the legacy that dirty energy has left behind – for example that it has disproportionately burdened environmental justice communities with cancer, asthma, and other diseases. Broadening the application of civil rights law, such as the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs receiving federal funding, to the EPA and other federal agencies jurisdictions was discussed as a major avenue for effectuating change. Right now, environmental justice communities are effectively barred from filing Title VI claims regarding the siting of polluting facilities in communities of color. There were strong calls for increased access to the courts as a strategy for challenging the unjust targeting in underserved communities. Throughout the event, there was also ample discussion on threshold definitions, such as cumulative impact and risk assessment, that often play a large role in decision-making. An assessment of cumulative impacts, one evaluating how multiple sources of pollutants and toxins work together to have complex effects on individuals, must be adopted in a widespread manner to ensure that everyone lives in a healthy, clean environment. A related recommendation regarded risk assessment, often used to determine whether chemicals present in products are at safe levels. Per the status quo, risk assessments are made with a 150-lb. white male as the standard. Michele Roberts maintained that this has to change. She described the reality chemicals pose different, and often more severe, threats to children, women, and the elderly, for example, than they do to a 150-lb. white man.
Lastly, to address lack of representation of underserved communities, policymakers must spend significant amounts of time in overburdened communities, such as by holding field hearings there. Doing so will advance the environmental justice community’s goal of being front and center at every level of decision-making surrounding their lives. Multiple panelists stated that it is simply not enough for lawmakers to “parachute in” every once in a while. Representatives McEachin and Grijalva discussed the inclusive approach they are prioritizing in drafting their environmental justice bill. Not only will they be working directly with environmental justice community members in person, but they have launched a PopVox portal, through which organizations and individuals can weigh in on the language and ideas presented in the bill. This kind of collaboration is completely unprecedented and the representatives’ efforts deserve to be applauded. Both representatives detailed a goal of building an equal relationship of trust between lawmakers and members of the frontline communities.
The Future of Environmental Justice
Given the incredible odds, the environmental justice movement has come an extraordinarily long way. But there is much work to be done in the fight for justice.
Last week’s convening was a momentous step in the right direction.