As families get ready in the morning to leave for school and work, the last thought to come to their mind is the amount of contaminated air they will inhale and whether the water they are drinking is safe. But this is sadly the reality for many people of color who live five feet away from a petrochemical facility or a sewage treatment plant. For far too long, minorities have been victims of the toxins released by chemical plants, oil refineries, and polluting facilities, damaging their quality of life.
Since the emergence of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s when the results from the United Church of Christ national study Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States was released in 1987 found that hazardous waste facilities are often located in poor communities of color, little to nothing has been done to protect minorities facing the burden of disproportionate environmental harms and risks compared to whites. The government is not prioritizing the health of these communities, which has been a long-standing problem.
Because of systemic racism, government negligence, and the use of subsidies, poor communities of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans are bearing degrading living conditions that could potentially lead to their death.
Although the environmental justice movement wasn’t fully recognized until the 1980s, environmental racism fueled by the ideals of white superiority has existed for centuries. To best understand the complexities of environmental inequalities against minorities in the United States, it is critical to analyze the ideals with which America was founded.
In Carl A. Zimring’s book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, he examines the social and cultural constructions of race and hygiene in American life. Zimring goes into great detail about the impact of Thomas Jefferson on the ideals of Americans, such as his distinct contribution to the Declaration of Independence where he wrote: “All men are created equal.” Throughout his life, Zimring explains, Jefferson valued a “pastoral democracy, a strong and alluring vision that provided Americans with romantic views of men living happily and empowered in nature” given it allowed an egalitarian society of equal farmers, unlike in the monarchist European nations spurred with uncleanliness and disease from manufacturing. (Zimring 14) However, throughout his life, Jefferson contradicted his own beliefs and the values he aspired America to embody as he believed in a social order that placed Native Americans and African Americans inferior to whites given their “unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, made a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” With this prejudice against non-whites, when the colonial cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia exponentially began to grow because of industrial developments, which Jefferson feared after his visits to what he considered “polluted, impoverished urban slums” of Paris and London, the sanitary system jobs created between 1870 and 1930 to help clean the cities unhealthy risks that contributed to outbreaks of chlorella and yellow fever were given mainly to African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics. Just as the enslavement of African-Americans was justifiable for Thomas Jefferson and other whites, the assignment of “dirty jobs” to minorities was acceptable, associating the dichotomy of clean and dirty to whites and non-whites, respectively. Anionalized bias against minorities has existed for centuries.
After the environmental justice movement was in full effect in the 1980s and 1990s, the government began to take measures to address communities’concernsn; however, the government, to this day, does not prioritize minority communities as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights is negligent. This office was created to ensure agencies receiving funding from the EPA do not act in any discriminatory manner as mandated by Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a valuable tool to combat environmental racism. But in 2015, an investigation by The Center for Public Integrity released that the EPA’s Office of Civil rights was poorly enforcing its mission. The analysis showed a pattern of rejection as “the office had not made a formal finding of discrimination in 22 years, despite having received hundreds of complaints.” From 1996 to mid-2013, 265 cases were reported, but only 13 were accepted for further intervention. The rest of the cases were rejected without investigation, dismissed upon investigation, referred to other agencies, or resolved with voluntary or informal agreements. It is clear that the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights “rarely closes Title VI complaints alleging environmental injustice with formal action on behalf of communities of color” when they are undeniably having to bear living in toxic conditions. This was the case for a community in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that filed a claim against the city’s Northern Wastewater Treatment Plant that emitted flies, odors, and pollution. Although their living conditions were extremely unhealthy, the Office of Civil Rights rejected their complaints a total of 4 times in the span from 2009 to 2012, making residents of the communities like Gregory Mitchell feel as though regulators “say something to blow you off and just forget about it.”
Without the intervention of organizations like The Center for Public Integrity and active activism, the government, knowing poor and minority communities have less political and economic power, will continue to be negligent. The carelessness of the government, driven by capitalism, continues to this day as seen in the Flint water crisis caused by the ill-advised decision of Michigan state governor Rick Snyder and his administration that, attempting to cut costs, completely changed Flint’s source of water to the Flint River, causing death and health risks to residents of the predominantly black community of Flint. Within a month of the switch in April 2014, community members began to report changes in the odor and color of the waste; nonetheless, the government dismissed their concerns for a total of 18 months, all while knowing about the pattern of Legionnaires cases and exposure to lead due to the corrosion of the pipes. Nick Lyon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, was aware of lead the Legionnaires outbreak by late January 2015, but did not alert the public as he said in his emails that “he can’t save everyone” and that “everyone has to die of something.” Until resident LeeAnne Walters took action to reach out to Virginia Tech engineer Marc Edwards to test their water after her family began to get sick. The water sample Edwards tested contained lead concentrations above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency action level of 15 micrograms per liter—four of the samples contained above 5,000 micrograms per liter and one sample contained 13,200 micrograms per liter. Edwards and his team on the study concluded that the irresponsible decisions of the governor and state appointment emergency management to not add anti-corrosion chemicals, which would have only been $200 a day, will not only cost them $395 million, as projected by a Health Affairs study but also the irreplaceable lives lost due to the outbreaks of Legionnaires and unprecedented effects of lead in the children once they become adults. After three years, the water system is considered “restored” by the Environmental Protection Agency. The last released data by the EPA on the lead condition in Flint was in 2016 demonstrating that only 17 out of their 208 water samples are above the action level of 15 micrograms of lead per liter. Furthermore, the EPA awarded $100 Million to Michigan for Flint Water infrastructure upgrades. Although the EPA seems to be taking action now, their efforts were delayed for far too long as they were involved in dismissing the residents’ complaints in 2014 and 2015.
Attempting to cut costs and maximize profits, the government’s and pollution-producing companies’ market dynamics contribute greatly to environmental racism. Undeniably, the government has been the greatest contributor to environmental racism due to them prioritizing profits and convenience rather than the safety and equality of communities of color. While they should be protecting and investing in improving poor communities of color, the government is instead offering tax incentives to companies that they will not want to miss out on as they “act in an economically rational way and place their facilities where it is cheapest to do so.” (Taylor 69) Although the communities in ‘Cancer Alley’, an area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, have been battling against the continued establishment of noxious facilities, the author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility Dorceta Taylor explains the relationship of the state government and companies. Because the state of Louisiana “has roughly 11% of the country’s petroleum reserves, and the state is the second-largest producer of refined oil in the U.S.”, corporate lobbying, tax breaks, and incentives have become a common strategy of the state to entice petrochemical companies. ( Taylor 32) The tax incentives through some of their programs including the Industrial Property Tax Exemption program that has been in effect since 1936 do not require the companies to pay any local property taxes for up to ten years, and after tperiodriod, their corporate taxes are reduced.
With the alluring tax incentives offered, the company’s next step is to decide on where in the state they are going to locate their facilities, seeking out and exploiting the path of least resistance where communities “have little or no political power, social capital, or community efficiency.” (Taylor 81) Kept in the shadows, the communities are unaware of the generated risks and perils from the petrochemical facilities. This is evident in the communities of ‘Cancer Alley’ where the long-term exposure to toxins such as graphene, and glyphosate, among many other toxins, are placing families at risk. In May 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency claimed the limit for cancer risk from chlorophane was an annual average of 0.2 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter, and anything above the limit would increase the risk of developing cancer. Before this new release of information, community members were utterly unaware of previous statements from the EPA that exposure to chlorophane is likely carcinogenic. The main chlorophane producing facility in the cancer alley Denka that produces synthetic rubber questioned the EPA’s method of calculating the risk to humans of breathing in chloroprene because there was no concrete way to know the EPA’s test on rats and mice would have the same effect on humans. Denka argued that 31.2 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter of air is the safe level for humans to inhale over their lifetime. While these companies are devoting more time to proving wrong the health warnings from the EPA to not have their business interrupted, people are dying in Cancer Alley, and state officials have chosen to not interfere.
Moving forward, the government needs to be actively involved in protecting communities of color regardless of the amount of money it takes becpeople’sples’ lives are at risk daily. Corporate lobbying, tax breaks, and incentives need to come to an end because a flourishing economy will only continue the institutionalized bias that marginalizes minorities in hazardous living environments. It is an integral step forward to pass laws that specifically protect minorities from environmental racism because one office in the EPA is not enough to hold accountable the federal, state, and local governments and companies.