Environmental injustice refers to environmental practices that disproportionately affect minorities, people of color, and low-income communities. It often looks like pollutants being diverted to minority communities and unequal access to sustainable options.
This can have devastating effects. As with most social justice issues, minority and low-income communities are most affected. From air and water pollution to unequal access to quality outdoor recreation spaces, environmental injustice is pervasive and cannot be ignored.
The movement for environmental justice
The movement for environmental justice got off to a tragic start. This movement took off in 1982, in the poor neighborhoods of Warren County, North Carolina. The state government brazenly dumped 6,000 truckloads of dirt containing toxic chemicals in a bid to create a waste dump.
Warren County residents hated the introduction of chemicals into their community and united against the dump. The protests included acts of defiance such as marches and lying in truck lanes to impede their movement. These actions resulted in more than 500 arrests, the first time in U.S. history that arrests were made in connection with the seating of a landfill.
Unfortunately, the Warren County government prevailed. Toxic waste has invaded the community of these innocent residents. However, the battle was not completely lost: it attracted national media attention, which reignited the movement for environmental justice.
Low-income and minority communities
It can be difficult for individuals to grasp the damage caused by landfills, incinerators and other environmental health hazards affecting low-income areas. The average person doesn’t calculate all the results of their carbon footprint when they throw their trash in the trash, but chances are it’s contributing to people’s health issues. impoverished residents.
How does garbage contribute to diabetes, lung cancer, stroke, heart disease and other harmful diseases in minority and low-income areas? To answer this question, you have to look at the journey of waste in America.
Let’s say you’ve just finished a nice cold bottle of soda. You throw the empty bottle in the nearest trash can and go about your day. Now a garbage truck will pick up all the trash in that bin and send the bottle on its way. After a network of transfer trucks, the soda bottle eventually arrives at one of three places: a recycling center, a landfill, or an incinerator.
Hopefully it would end up in a recycling center since it is a recyclable product; however, more often than not, it will end up in an incinerator or landfill. These landfills and incinerators are most likely housed in low-income minority communities.
Landfills and incinerators contribute to a catastrophic amount of air and water pollution. By targeting low-income minority communities with landfills, the government is contaminating the drinking water of these communities.
Not only are the water supplies of these communities threatened, but their air quality is also negatively affected by the proximity of landfills. Landfills release dangerous toxins into the air of communities near landfills. These toxins have been linked to a variety of health issues, including birth defects. Beyond the health problems, the quality of life of these residents is drastically impacted. Living near a landfill, residents are confronted with noxious odors that make breathing difficult and unpleasant.
During the combustion of waste, pollutants such as mercury, lead, arsenic and carbon monoxide are released into the surrounding air. These communities are now exposed to various health problems, including cancers and respiratory diseases. The ash created by burning the waste is also toxic to the environment and further aggravates health conditions in the targeted communities.
Environmental injustice in the black belt
Often when considering social justice issues, we think of these issues as distant threats. However, the environmental justice crisis is affecting areas near the University of Alabama.
It is not shocking to discover that the Alabama black belt is heavily targeted when it comes to environmental injustices. Originally named for the region’s dark, fertile soil, the Black Belt has historically been marginalized and still struggles with high poverty rates.
To truly understand the environmental struggles facing Alabama’s Black Belt, one needs to look at one particularly environmentally focused city: Uniontown, Alabama. In late 2008, millions of tons of coal ash were transported from a predominantly white area of Tennessee to a landfill in Uniontown. Uniontown’s population is 84% black, with 49% of residents living below the poverty line.
Over a period of two years, these coal ashes were dumped 100 feet from the porches of some residents. Some chemicals that this coal ash released into the community air include arsenic, lead, and other radioactive elements. In turn, residents began experiencing breathing problems, severe headaches, nausea and dizziness, among other health issues. Additionally, residents were forced to endure pungent odors and extreme dust, which contaminated every aspect of their lives.
Uniontown residents banded together and filed a civil rights lawsuit with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. However, the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed the complaint based on “insufficient evidence”.
The denial of this complaint only exacerbated the situation in Uniontown. As of 2018, the landfill is owned by developers based in New York and New Jersey. This change in ownership caused this landfill to receive approximately one million tons of foreign waste. The recent effects of this landfill have been detrimental to the community, forcing residents to abandon their homes and relocate or face potential health hazards and extreme odors.
Uniontown is just one example among many that expose our governments’ utter disregard for residents of poor and low-income areas.
Outdoors for all
Historically, environmental justice has focused primarily on waste management. However, a new problem has arisen concerning environmental injustice: the lack of quality outdoor recreational spaces in minority and poor areas.
A bill titled the “Outdoors for All Act” was recently tabled in the Senate. This bill would create funding for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership, which supports projects involving outdoor recreation opportunities in low-income areas and works to close the gap in environmental injustices.
Problems of environmental injustice are unacceptable and are getting worse every day, but there are ways to tackle this problem.
First and foremost, recycling can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators. By reducing this waste, we can reduce the risk that poor communities face extreme health risks. Recycling not only benefits the environment, but also vulnerable communities. Keep this in mind the next time you throw a plastic bottle in a trash can instead of a recycling bin.
We need to raise awareness and amplify the voices of these vulnerable communities.
However, we cannot do much without the help of the government to solve these problems. While we should wait for the government to make positive changes to these issues, we don’t have to wait in silence. I encourage you to keep up to date with the current status of these issues in our local community and to hold our representatives accountable for environmental votes.
Remember, you have the power to stand up for America’s most vulnerable communities. Educate yourself, educate yourself and use your voice create environmental equality for all.
This story was published in the environmental edition. See the full issue here.
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