The Importance of Environmental Justice

This week we learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was fully aware of the formaldehyde problems in the trailers it provided for victims of Hurricane Katrina. It knew these trailers were dangerous; it knew they could poison those who lived in them; and yet it did nothing. The majority of those unfortunate enough to live in these FEMA trailers are low-income families and people of color with no place else to go and few ways to fight back.

Everyone deserves clean air and water and a healthy place to live. But too often, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color get picked as sites for polluting factories, while wealthier, predominantly white communities are left alone. The Sierra Club's Environmental Justice (EJ) program supports community organizations as they work for fairness and equality.

Rhonda Anderson is one of the organizers in our EJ program. When she looks around the south side of Detroit, she sees environmental inequality every day – and the injustice falls on low-income families and people of color."There's one area, the very south end – it is what I would describe as our own cancer alley," Anderson told me, describing the endless oil refineries and manufacturing plants in the neighborhood. "It's African American, low-income – and it's so heavily industrialized. To me - it's killing the people."

Having grown up in Detroit, the issues hit home for Anderson. Being invited in by the community to help them was a chance for her to help them fight back.

"In this same area they just built a compost facility. They're also building a sludge incinerator. And there are two plans for international bridges. This is an area that has been neglected by the city for 30 years. If people can move out they do."

But Anderson said most do not have the means to move out – and still others want to stay put because it's their neighborhood and has been so for generations.

EJ organizers are invited into communities to be a bridge and network, to help the communities find their voice and put it to use. The way Anderson sees it, everyone should know about the realities of her Detroit neighborhood because the facilities there are a by-product of all U.S. consumption.

"Energy issues impact this community to a much greater degree than others. These folks are hit at the pump and at home – they live in the shadows of an oil refinery, an auto plant, a waste water treatment facility – all of that.

"This is about the environment - what's impacting this community here today will eventually impact everyone. If you want to know what global warming will do, look at this community."

Anderson's words speak volumes, and everyone needs to listen. Last week's introduction of the Environmental Justice Renewal Act in Congress is a strong statement for environmental justice, one that everyone should support. The bill would require that the government take discrimination and environmental justice issues into account when making decisions on siting facilities.

According to the "United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries' Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty" report in 2007, people of color represent the majority of those living within three kilometers of this country's hazardous waste facilities. This is unjust, and strong legislation to address these disparities has been long overdue.

"People of color and low-income populations are still disproportionately impacted by pollution, and this landmark legislation has the potential to ensure safe and healthy communities for everyone," Leslie Fields, our EJ director here at the Sierra Club, told me.

The strongest move for legislation similar to the new EJ bill was an Executive Order from the Clinton years, which was not enforceable. Reports from the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Inspector General have also shown that the agency did not comply with that executive order.

Anderson said everyone's equality is directly bound to those in communities like Detroit's south side – and hundreds of other neighborhoods around the U.S.

"This situation happens when people are isolated or devalued," she explained. "Then others think, 'It'll happen to them, not to me.' But we can't do that, you can't ignore this group over here. You can't say, 'It's them' and not 'It's us.'"

Make your voice heard on environmental justice and on the Environmental Justice Renewal Act.

(Here's an update from last week's post about ten things we'd like to see included in the economic stimulus package: Thirty-three senators, nine of which are Finance Committee members, signed our "Dear Colleague" letter in just one day! We think this will bolster our case when the vote comes up on the bill.)

Image credit:Irv Sheffey, Sierra Club Chapter-organized 'MLK Day cleanup in Washington DC'

Tags: Washington DC

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