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Environmental Justice and its Indisputable Ties to Health Inequality in America

On the 29th of September, heavy rainfall caused unprecedented levels of flash flooding in New York City, cutting off major transportation routes from subways to roadways according to NBC New York.  Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York has since declared a state of emergency. However, this battle with rain and flooding is fairly new for states like New York. Government officials are aware of the worsening threat, yet the city’s wastewater and drainage infrastructure continues to be ignored and lacks proper pressure equipment, according to a 2022 FEMA report. In the report, City Comptroller Brad Lander wrote that many of the places which were flooded were apartments, which are generally occupied by “low-income people, people of color, and immigrants.” Climate disasters of all kinds are disproportionately harming marginalized and tribal communities across the United States. From floods and contaminated waters to air pollution, these environmental justice issues have historically harmed black neighborhoods and communities of color across the nation. These communities are also statistically less likely to receive funding to fix failing or broken water infrastructure that can continue to exacerbate flooding, according to the New York Times.

In 2023, one cannot truly claim to care for the environment without understanding the deeply rooted relationship with health inequality and environmental justice in the United States. Recently, the term “Environmental Justice” has gained popularity and notability in the public sphere. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the environmental justice movement is rooted in the belief that all humans deserve fair treatment and a safe environment regardless of one’s “race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” According to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, “following the 1980s Civil Rights movement, the Environmental Justice Movement was created in reaction to discriminatory environmental practices in housing. Some examples include toxic chemical dumps, the construction of factories creating poor air quality, and notably—lead poisoning.” Black and brown people are disproportionately affected by lead contamination levels in comparison to other racial groups in the United States.

Professor Robert Bullard, the former Dean of the Mickey Leland School Of Public Affairs at TSU, stated in an interview with PBS that “whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets’, or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.” Much of this environmental devastation is directly linked to poor health conditions of children growing up in these reservations or urban cities. As a result of systemic redlining and segregation, there are a multitude of instances where this devastation has resulted in great risks for air pollution, lead poisoning, and premature death across the United States.

One of the greatest examples of environmental injustice in the past decade is the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan. In 2014, Michigan officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the water reservoir, which resulted in lead from aging pipes leaching into the water supply, exposing around 100,000 residents to elevated lead levels, according to The American Bar Association. At the time of the water crisis, Flint had a population of 102,434, with a racial makeup of 57% black, 37% white, and 6% other races. Flint is also one of the poorest cities in the United States, with about half of all households earning less than $26,330 a year, and 41.2% of the population living below the federal poverty line. Looking critically at this case, in accordance with the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, Michigan officials violated federal regulations when the EPA discovered in 2015 that the corrosion control measures had not been added to Flint’s water treatment process.  This failure led to at least 12 deaths and 90 people sickened with Legionnaires’ disease from the untreated waters of the Flint River. This injustice was further exacerbated because of the city’s ineffective city planning, the lack of economic diversity, and increased competition for funding and resources, with the suburbs continuing to push the city below the poverty line.  In March of 2016, Governor Snyder’s nonpartisan Flint Water Advisory Task Force released its final report, stating that Flint’s poor, largely African-American population “did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental hazards as that provided to other communities.” 

In an interview hosted by the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor with Robin Grown, the CEO of Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead (CCOAL), she shared her own child’s experience with lead poisoning following the poverty and lead crisis in Cleveland, Ohio in 2017. Roughly 70 micrograms per decimeter were discovered in her daughter’s blood stream, resulting in an abrupt admission to the hospital. There, she received Chelation therapy, a weekly treatment of ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) given into a vein. In the interview, Grown stated that the therapy was “torture, with every 4 hours being another shot given. In fact, the shots could be so bad that sometimes doctors would have to remove the children out of their room to receive the treatment so they won’t obtain a medical trauma hospital.” Grown concluded the interview with a call to action, sharing that this experience was a direct result of  historical redlining and racism within the healthcare industry, both of which are failing systems that were created to support her.

Fortunately, some places have been taking steps and creating new policies to resolve the problem. Washington, D.C. has recently required lead pipe disclosure, which tackles past partial LSL replacements. Renters are now also required to state if there has been a history of lead poisoning in a building. This small requirement has created a ripple effect, with many other states across the U.S. from California to New York following suit. This past year, the government-wide Justice40 Initiative was created, with aims to provide 40% of the overall benefits of Federal investments relating to climate change, clean energy, and other areas to “disadvantaged communities who are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.” Lastly, the development of a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool seeks to help agencies identify disadvantaged communities, to assist in the success of the Justice40 Initiative by informing equitable decision-making across the Federal Government. 

It has become a nationwide necessity that we prioritize and actively combat environmental injustices on a global scale. Already, states have been spearheading policy options aimed at regulating where toxic facilities can be located and strengthening processes for determining how land can be used. With these rolling policies, such as New Jersey SB 232 (2020), which will deny land permits to any gas-fired power plants, wastewater treatment plants, and landfills that receive a disproportionately negative impact on health in the surrounding community, to New York’s SB 8830 (2022), which requires environmental impact statements to determine whether a facility will cause or increase a disproportionate burden on disadvantaged communities, the United States is making headway to protect not only the well-being of Americans, but particularly those who have historically borne the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards.

Environmental injustices not only harm individuals and communities, but also undermine our collective efforts to create a more equitable and sustainable future. By addressing these issues head-on, we can ensure that everyone, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status, has equal access to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. In doing so, we not only improve the quality of life for marginalized communities, but also strengthen the overall resilience and prosperity of our nation and the world. It is a moral imperative, a matter of social justice, and an essential step towards a more equitable and sustainable future for all.

Featured Image Source: “Here to Stay” by Ricardo Levins Morales

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