Environmental racism is legally defined as "the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities."  Some common examples include water contamination, building landfills, and developing industrial plants in low-income or minority communities. The term Environmental Racism was brought to prominence in 1982 when the North Carolina state government announced a plan to move contaminated soil to a landfill in a majority black county.
Flint, Michigan is a city located to the Northwest of Detroit in Genesee county Michigan, along the Flint River. According to the U.S. Census, the city is 53.7% African American. In 2013, the Flint city government decided to change water suppliers from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). That option was projected to save the region $200 million over 25 years, according to Flint City Council. On April 25, 2014 the city switched its water source to the Flint River until new pipes were constructed and connected to the KWA water supply. Over time, several water quality issues arose. In May, residents complained about the smell and color of the water, and in August, the water was tested and was found to contain E. Coli. In February, high levels of lead were discovered in the water which is a neurotoxin. More than a year after Flint residents initially expressed concerns about the water, an independent Virginia Tech study published on September 19, 2015 found high lead levels across the city. One tested water sample had a lead concentration of 13,200 parts per billion. The EPA's lead limit is 15 ppb and anything at or above 5000 ppb is considered hazardous waste. According to a report released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's (MDEQ) supervision, the Flint water system did not adhere to two Lead and Copper Rule requirements: (1) develop and maintain an inventory of lead service lines needed for sampling, and (2) maintain corrosion control treatment after the water source switch in April 2014. The MDEQ did not issue a notice of violation or take other formal enforcement action regarding either requirement until August 2015. On October 16, 2015 Flint's water supply was reconnected to Detroit's water system. In January 2016, both Michigan governor Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Flint.
The circumstances and response to Flint's drinking water contamination involved implementation and oversight lapses at the EPA, the state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the city of Flint. At a news conference in January of 2015, Flint mayor Dayne Walling told reporters, "The city water is safe to drink. My family and I drink it and use it every day". The mayor made this statement just a few months after Flint water tested positive for E. coli, the city issued boil water advisories, and a General Motors engine plant announced it would stop using Flint River water. On January 11, 2015, Emergency Manager Darnell Earley said Flint would not be returning to the Detroit water supply, although city council members asked the city to stop using Flint River water. Earley, along with numerous other Flint officials, argued that switching back to Detroit water would increase the cost of water by $12 million or more. Earley along with another former Emergency Manager, Gerald Ambrose, have both since been criminally charged with multiple felonies for their role in the city's water crisis. On February 27, 2015, in an email to the EPA, MDEQ's Stephen Busch said Flint had an "optimized corrosion control plan." It was later revealed that Flint was not treating its water for corrosion. Stephen Busch along with Flint laboratory and water quality supervisor Micheal Glasgow and fellow MDEQ employee Micheal Prysby were all accused of tampering with evidence and making false statements. Glasgow, specifically, changed testing results to show there was less lead in city water than there actually was. Due to poor communication between the EPA and MDEQ, there was an incredibly delayed federal response in Flint. Communication between the EPA and the MDEQ did not convey key information about human health risks from lead contamination, and communication within the EPA was also problematic. Specifically, MDEQ personnel told EPA staff that Flint had an optimized corrosion control program in place, that the city conducted quarterly water quality parameter monitoring and did not have any unusual results, and that Flint continued to meet all applicable plant tap standards and treatment technique requirements. However, the state admitted in April 2015 that Flint was not using corrosion control treatment and argued that it was not required. The EPA also stated in its report on the Flint water crisis that EPA headquarters personal believed that regional EPA staff characterized the situation without a sense of urgency. Regional EPA staff did not make an official request for a headquarters' opinion until September 30, 2015. Lawsuits were also filed against two corporations: Veolia, and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam. Veolia was hired by the city as a water-quality consultant in 2015, and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam helped to operate the water treatment plant using the Flint River. The civil lawsuits accuses both firms of negligence and public nuisance, and also accused Veolia of fraud.
Cancer Alley, LouisianaEdit
An eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is known as cancer alley due to the numerous cases of cancer occurring in small rural communities in the region. Louisiana has the second highest death rate from cancer in the U.S. There are more than 136 industrial facilities located in the region, which are major sources of toxic waste. Seven out of the ten plants in Louisiana with the largest on- and offsite toxic waste releases are located in cancer alley. The population in this region along the Mississippi River is primarily African-American and low-income. In 1996, the community of Covent, Louisiana fought against the company Shintech who planned to build a chlorine alkali vinyl complex that would emit 611,700 pounds of contaminate in the air. The case garnered international attention and in 1998 Shintech decided to abandon its plan to the build the plant.
Chevron Texaco in EcuadorEdit
Between 1964 and 1992 Texaco polluted the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador causing water and soil contamination. In 1993, a group of 30,000 affected people filed a suit against Texaco. An agreement was reached in 1998 between Texaco and the Ecuadoran government that absolved Texaco of responsibility for the pollution. Believing that their government had sold them out, the afectedos continued to sue the corporation. Texaco was then acquired by Chevron in 2001. Ecuadoran citizens then began to sue Chevron. The people won the case in an Ecuadoran court in 2011, but Chevron, maintaining that the 1998 agreement absolved their liability, appealed the case in the U.S. Circuit Court. Citing corruption and bribery in the Ecuadoran court, the U.S. court ruled in favor of Chevron.
Durban, South AfricaEdit
The southern region of Durban, South Africa, known as South Durban, has suffered from severe pollution as it has become the industrial hub for two big oil refineries, a water treatment plant, toxic waste landfills, and numerous chemical process plants. Low income, black communities comprise an overwhelming majority of this region's population. This industrial basin has been dubbed the "Durban Poison" which disproportionately overburdens low-income communities with environmental stress and public health costs In contrast, residential suburbs in the northern region of Durban are home to some of Durban's most affluent and elite.
Coastal Plain, North CarolinaEdit
Demographics: The coastal plain region includes 43 counties and spans from Northampton to Scotland county. The region is vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes due to its "low-lying flood plains and high water tables". Additionally, it was part of the southern black belt which was first named due to the black fertile soil. But later, the term referred to the slave labor the agricultural economy depended on. The current demographics along the coastal plain includes the highest amount of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) as wells as high concentrations of minorities, most of whom are african americans, native americans and latinos.
Farmers: In the late 1980's the large scale hog farms increased significantly. "North Carolina moved from fifteenth to second in hog production among U.S. states, with approximately 10 million head outnumbering the state's human population of approximately 7.5 million". These hog farms quickly outnumbered and overproduced independent farmers. Now, most hog farms are under contract with large corporations which provide a management plan, own the animals, feed, and transportation while the operators (famers) own the land, buildings, and waste. Therefore, since these farmers rent the pigs they are incentivized to quickly grow them. If given the proper education and resources, contracted farmers would have more sustainable methods of waste management. Currently, the main issue is the excrete lagoons due to their horrid odors, additionally it cost about $300,000 to put an airtight cover on one lagoon. These airtight covers are able to withstand floods which makes them ideal due to the land's high water tables. However due to high costs, contracted farmers are forced to use lagoons, which negatively affect both the health of nearby communities and the local ecosystems. The benefits of providing the right conditions and opportunities can be seen through Tom Butler’s methods. He took advantage of government programs, at the time, and installed both air-tight covers on the lagoons and solar panels on his farm. The airtight covers reduced the smell and prevented it from overflowing. Additionally, he uses the biogas from the lagoons and solar panels to create electricity and now has his own electric utility.
Hogs: The hogs in these large scale farms live in overcrowded and confined spaces. Their excrements are collected in large lagoons. The feces are sprayed back onto the field, to prevent overflowing, and act as a natural fertilizer on soybeans and wheat crops. When the time comes the hogs are either sent to production or dead boxes. The corpses in the dead boxes along with soybean and wheat crops, become hog-feed, which is fed to new hogs.
Community & Environmental Health Concerns: Both the ecosystem and nearby residents have been affected by the contaminated air and water supply. The local community has reported various respiratory illnesses and chronic diseases such as asthma, lung complications, swine flu and bacterial pneumonia due to the air pollutant from the CAFOs. Nearby residents have also reported psychophysiological effects due to the fear of drinking contaminated well water and stress of strong odors. The lagoon spray inevitably enters the local water supply such as rivers, ground water etc. which has caused copious fish kills and algae blooms because of the high levels of biotoxins, phosphorus and nitrogen. Additionally, hurricanes have repeatedly flooded multiple areas along the coastal plain containing CAFOs. This causes a large number of hogs to drown and the lagoons to flood over into nearby communities, further contaminating the entire local ecosystem.
Professionalism: Elsie Herring was born and raised in Duplin County, NC. She attended NYU and worked for Dunn & Bradstreet and ABM AMRO Bank for 27 years. When she returned to Duplin County to take care of her elderly mother and brother with down syndrome, she decided to take a stand against the effects that CAFOs were having on her community. She launched a Change.org petition which was signed by more than 92,000 supporters from across the country. It called on the EPA to make its first ever finding of racial and ethnic discrimination against NC’s environmental regulatory agency. Through these efforts the EPA was confronted for its “blatant refusal to protect the African American, Latino and Native American communities that disproportionately bear the harmful impacts from CAFOs”. Her avid fight is against the large corporations not the local contracted farmers. It’s the large corporations that set the regulations the contracted farmers follow, so they hold the power to change the regulations. Due to the large number of lawsuits against massive corporations such as Smithfields, “North Carolina legislators reacted by adopting new barriers against nuisance lawsuits that all but eliminate the ability of neighbors to sue Smithfield Foods or any other agribusiness. “Critics billed the legislation as an attack on private property rights in order to protect a well-heeled industry”. Though such legislation makes it harder, Elsie continues to fight alongside the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) and many others, to voice the community and environmental concerns of the poor waste management systems of CAFOs.
Demographic information on COVID-19 deaths revealed that Black Americans had a disproportionately higher death rate due to the virus than White Americans. The disproportionate death rate may be due to the higher concentration of Black Americans in areas with heavy air pollution which can cause respiratory illnesses, exacerbating the impact of contracting COVID-19. Other factors include reliable access to clean water, overcrowding in homes, reliance on public transportation, and likelihood to be an essential worker(food, utilities, sanitation, etc).
Groups who fight against environmental racism call themselves environmental justice groups.
Environmental Protection AgencyEdit
The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. The EPA says these goals will be achieved when everyone receives:
- The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and
- Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
The OEJ provides financial and technical support to communities working constructively and collaboratively to address environmental justice issues. They also work with local, state, and federal governments; business and industry; community organizations; and academia to create programs, policies, and activities that promote environmental justice. The OEJ works closely with the EPA to stay in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that states that each federal agency is required to ensure that all programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance do not discriminate against recipients in any way based on race, color, or national origin.
Green Action is a multiracial grassroots organization that works with low-income and working class urban, rural, and indigenous communities to fight environmental racism and injustice and build a clean, healthy and just future for all. Their mission is to mobilize community power to win victories that change government and corporate policies and practices to protect health and promote environmental, economic and social justice.
The group accomplishes their goal by launching campaigns against groups that participate in environmental injustices. Green Action has started campaigns to stop incinerators and toxic waste dumping, reduce diesel emissions, and protect indigenous lands.
Environmental justice exists at the intersection of different civil rights laws, environmental laws, constitutional principles, and human rights laws. Environmental laws exist to set thresholds for granting permits. Even if a community is proven to be negatively impacted, it is difficult to win an environmental justice claim if the emissions occur below legal thresholds. Civil rights laws are powerful vehicles for promoting environmental justice.
The first environmental justice cases were brought under the Equal Protection Clause. Over the years, the interpretation of the law has changed. The burden of proof is on the plaintiffs to demonstrate intent to discriminate.
In Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management (1979), Browning-Ferris Industries was charged with placing a waste facility in a predominately black neighborhood. The Bean plaintiffs successfully demonstrated a pattern of siting waste facilities in communities of color. While the court acknowledged the placement of the waste facility was a poor governmental decision, it was not illegal. Demonstration of racial impacts was not enough, the plaintiff must also explore the historical context of the decision, and demonstrate how it is a departure from normal procedures.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Edit
Title VI generally prohibits federal funds to be allocated on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Section 602 of Title VI gives federal bodies the ability to create their own rules and regulations to prohibit discrimination. Claims under Section 602 do not need to prove intent, but rather disparate impact. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Sandoval that there is no private right of action to enforce disparate-impact regulations. Private rights of action to enforce federal law must be created by Congress. As a result, environmental justice advocates have moved away from bringing claims to court, instead focusing on filing complaints to the EPA.
Executive Order 12898Edit
On February 11, 1994, President Clinton signed executive order 12898 to address concerns with environmental justice and racism. The executive order made environmental justice a shared mission for all Federal agencies and established the Interagency Working group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG). The EJ IWG is a group that leads efforts to identify environmental racism cases, and provides guidance and coordination on environmental justice strategies to partner agencies to address these cases.
Environmental racism is a controversial topic. Many deny the existence of environmental racism and oppose litigation efforts.
Economics and ClassEdit
Studies have suggested that the disparate exposure of minorities to environmental hazards is due to socioeconomic factors outside of racism. One study claims that rather than environmentally hazardous sites being established near minority communities, minorities tend to move into homes near preexisting sites. The trend is explained as Market Dynamics, as the homes decrease in value when hazardous sites are established, making it affordable for those poor minority groups. Another study acknowledges racial disparities in historic industrial areas, but shows that recently industrialized areas correlate much more with education and income. The findings suggest that environmental racism contributed to environmental disparities historically, but modern disparities are due to differences in class.
There have been claims that environmental justice policies would further hurt minority and low income communities by depriving them of necessary industrial development. The Shintech plant planned in Romesville Louisiana was committed to hiring locally, but the project was cancelled because the emissions would disparately impact minorities, which make up most of Romesville. Cases such as Shintech may encourage companies to take industrial development from minority communities to white communities where environmental justice policies would not interfere. President Clinton's executive order 12898 and the policies that built on it are criticized for slowing development in major urban cities by adding to "already-crippling regulatory uncertainties".
Just Bad GovernmentEdit
When asked if the Flint water crisis was a case of environmental racism, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder responded "Absolutely not", instead blaming bureaucracy and unprofessional government culture. In response to the Newark water crisis, blame was put on incompetent government that is naturally more prevalent in urban areas than in suburban or rural areas due to economic differences, not racial differences.
This chapter provides a survey of some significant cases of environmental racism as well as advocacy groups, litigation, and opposition related to it.
The scope of this chapter has been limited somewhat due to the very broad nature of the topic. In the future, this chapter may be expanded to include cases involving government aid after a natural disaster, like the case of Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, or cases based on historical biases and practices, such as the case of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Many of the existing cases provide a brief overview, but can be expanded to include greater detail.
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