A look at EHN's environmental justice series
Editor’s Note: Environmental Health News debuted a multi-week series, examining environmental justice issues, on June 4. For this series, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color, EHN dispatched reporters to seven communities across the United States to report on their struggles to cope with an array of environmental threats. On the 30th anniversary of a North Carolina battle that is widely considered the birth of the environmental justice movement, our reporters and photojournalists found a legacy of lingering problems and newly emerging threats that are jeopardizing people of color in low-income communities. Their stories resonate with all of us, no matter what color or class. - Marla Cone
|Jessica Tovar, a community organizer who leads 'toxic tours' of Richmond, Calif., walks along a trail with views of the Chevron refinery, where a series of explosions occurred Aug. 20, 2012, sending scores of residents to area hospitals, and driving a gas price spike across the state.|
Day One: The factory on the hill. A California community copes with 5 refineries, 3 chemical plants and scores of toxic waste sites.
From the house where he was born, Henry Clark can see plumes pouring out of one of the biggest oil refineries in the United States. As a child, he was fascinated by the factory on the hill, all lit up at night. In the morning, he'd go out to play and find the leaves on the trees burned to a crisp. "Sometimes I'd find the air so foul, I'd have to grab my nose and run back into the house until it cleared up," he said. During World War II, African Americans like the Clark family moved into the shadow of the refinery because they had nowhere else to go. Now they live within a ring of five oil refineries, three chemical plants, eight Superfund sites, dozens of other toxic waste dumps, highways, rail yards and a port. Low-income residents seeking affordable homes may save money on shelter, but they pay the price in health.
A specially created map of risks in Richmond:
A dynamic, multi-cultural community is transforming its political climate from a polluted company town to a vanguard in the environmental justice movement. Its jumble of smokestacks and storage tanks overlooking a port is one of the most industry-dense areas in the San Francisco Bay Area, and one of the most beleaguered. But residents of Richmond have reached across racial and social divisions to achieve some of the nation’s most transformative successes for environmental equity. The victories for these bulldoggish community activists have been piling up. "People have heard about Richmond,” said organizer Jessica Tovar. "They want to know how Richmond was able to fight the oil industry. We're making a bigger impact than we know."
It’s long been known that children in poorer neighborhoods like ones in Worcester, Mass., are more likely to be exposed to lead, industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust and other contaminants. Now, scientists are beginning to suspect that these low-income children aren’t just more exposed – they actually may be more biologically susceptible to pollutants, even at low levels. A growing body of research suggests that the chronic stressors of poverty may fundamentally alter the way the body reacts to pollutants, especially in young children. "It’s like having the fight or flight response turned on all the time," said Rosalind Wright, a Harvard epidemiologist.
Day Four: No beba el agua. Don't drink the water.
About 500 people, nearly all Latino farm workers, live in the long-neglected town of East Orosi with no sidewalks, street lights, parks, or playgrounds. Over half live below the poverty level. And like a growing number of Californians, they’re paying for water that’s not fit to drink. The poorest people in the state, mostly Latinos in Central Valley farm towns, have the worst water. “They think it’s normal not to drink water from your tap, that it’s normal to have to go buy bottled water. Part of our job is telling people, ‘This is not normal,’ ” said Susana De Anda, co-founder of the Community Water Center.
Head in any direction on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and you will reach gushing rivers, placid ponds and lakes – both Great and small. An abundant resource, this water has nourished a small Native American community for hundreds of years. So 10 years ago, when an international mining company arrived near the shores of Lake Superior to burrow a mile under the Earth, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa had to stand for its rights and its water. And now, as bulldozers raze the land and the tunnel creeps deeper, the tribe still hasn’t backed down.
Day Six: A legacy of diabetes.
The Rev. Thomas Long doesn't have any neighbors on Montrose Avenue in Anniston, Ala.. Everyone is gone, abandoning the neighborhood after widespread chemical contamination was discovered there in the 1990s. Long didn't want to move; he had lived in the same house for all but one of his 64 years. Now he is stuck. Stuck on a street with no neighbors. Stuck with a property he's convinced is unclean. And stuck with diabetes. As the EPA's cleanup of Anniston stretches into its eighth year, a new scientific study has linked the residents' PCBs exposure to diabetes. "Monsanto walked away not doing their job. They left a community still sick, still dying and very dissatisfied," Long said.
Day Seven: The climate gap.
By Doug Struck
The Shore Plaza East apartments have a stunning skyline view across Boston Harbor. These could be million-dollar condos. But the buffeting winds and increasing threat of storm floods relegate the apartments to subsidized housing, reserved for the poor. It is a pattern repeated often, one that puts the poor in the crosshairs of climate change.
By Crystal Gammon
What is it about East St. Louis – and other poor, African American cities across the nation – that leaves children with a disproportionate burden of respiratory disease? Is it the factories? The traffic exhaust? The substandard housing? For two decades, medical experts have struggled to unravel the mysterious connections between inner-city life and asthma, and while they have reached no conclusions yet, they suspect they know the answer: All of the above.
Warren County, N.C., 30 years ago: A Question and Answer session with two leaders of a battle that gave birth to the environmental justice movement. One of the poorest counties in North Carolina, Warren County drew national attention in the fall of 1982 when civil rights figures and religious leaders joined local residents trying to block construction of a landfill for PCBs-tainted soil. We talk with Deborah Ferruccio and Rev. Willie T. Ramey III, who were there at the beginning.
Day Ten: Opinions of environmental justice leaders and experts.
Fighting environmental racism in the name of charity and justice.
Faith-based justice demands that religious communities acknowledge this emerging fact: Those who have been the least responsible for climate change will be the first ones affected. They also will have the least ability to cope with impending disasters, community displacement and economic hardship. Climate change will be the ultimate form of environmental racism, as it will affect communities of color and poverty first and most severely.
Environmental policies must tackle social inequities.
Tales of environmental injustices around the country provide strong evidence that chemical-by-chemical and facility-by-facility regulation is inadequate to protect public health. Even today, 30 years after the birth of the environmental justice movement, the burden of proof still is placed on communities to demonstrate hazards and push for action. This needs to change.
By Marla Cone
Toxic tour: Neighborhoods in Southern California struggle with health issues related to traffic pollution.
The nation's top environmental health official visited the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor area to witness first-hand how communities are struggling with health issues related to pollution. “Los Angeles has its share of health problems and we suspect many of them are environmentally related,” said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Several times a year, Birnbaum visits communities – many in low-income, minority areas – where federal research dollars are spent to study pollutants and human health. 7 October 2011.
Columbia Journalism Review discusses EHN's series.
By Curtis Brainard
An eye on environmental justice.
A number of media reports in last year have examined the impacts of toxic pollution on communities, but few have emphasized, let alone focused on, the fact that low-income, minority neighborhoods tend to bear the brunt of the burden. That changed when the website Environmental Health News launched a special series about environmental justice – the notion that no one should have to put up with a disproportionate amount of risk because of their socioeconomic status. 7 June 2012.
By Rae Tyson
Warnings about contaminated fish fail to reach people most at risk.
Every state, including Wisconsin, has issued health advisories that warn of the dangers of eating fish tainted with industrial compounds and other chemicals. More than 4,500 advisories encompass 42 percent of the nation's lake acreage and 36 percent of river miles. 13 September 2012.
Unequal exposures: People in poor, non-white neighborhoods breathe more hazardous particles.
Coal plants smothering communities of color, report finds. Coal plants place a disproportionate burden on poor and largely minority communities, exposing residents to high levels of pollutants that affect public health, according to a new report led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 16 November 2012.
Photographers: Robert Durell,Tomas Ovalle and David Tulis
Logo graphic: Courtesy The Noun Project
The above work, by Environmental Health News, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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