Justice for All
A grassroots movement declares minorities and the poor shouldn't unfairly bear the brunt of pollution
Sandra Svoboda visited WDET this week and spoke with Craig Fahle about this story. Listen here
Published: August 17, 2011
Standing on her front porch, Bettie Simmons can plainly point out why an environmental justice movement is so necessary.
"Look, I just cleaned this last week," the 71-year-old says as she points to the black dust that collects in clumps on window frames of her southwest Detroit home. "It didn't use to be like that here."
At his home nearby, Roland Wahl has mysterious gluey silver particles stuck on his backyard grill cover. "Some of the particles are so fine, they're like powdered sugar. And you breathe them," he says. He's also annoyed by the roar of the trucks that carry supplies, equipment and more workers to nearby industrial sites that weren't there when he moved in 40 years ago.
Up the street from Wahl, Linda Chernowas often finds a black, oily film on the pool in her yard. She describes it in a raspy voice. She's been diagnosed with reflex laryngitis, and her doctor told her to move out of her neighborhood, believing the pollution is exacerbating her condition.
The three are longtime residents of the area near where I-75 crosses the Rouge River. It's within ZIP code 48217.
Simmons, Chernowas and Wahl insist it was nothing like this when they and other long-time residents moved to the area. Now they say the continued industrial development — the Marathon Petroleum oil refinery expansion, new sewage treatment facilities, asphalt yards and other heavy industry — has diminished their quality of life and is damaging their health.
They'd sell their homes and move, but what can they get for them? The recent real estate downturn is bad enough, but the area's continued industrialization leaves them little hope. Who would buy a house and move to a street with trucks roaring by, the smell of sewage treatment in the air and the smoky glow of the oil refinery dominating the skyline?
The Detroit City Council has refused residents requests for a moratorium on industrial development in the area. That would cost the city much-needed jobs. And residents protested in 2007 before the council approved Marathon's $2.2 billion expansion in a deal that included about $176 million over 20 years in property tax exemptions.
These residents are on the frontline of the environmental justice movement, the roughly 35-year-old effort to ensure that minority and low-income communities aren't disproportionately paying the high price of industrialization with their health, quality of life and property values.
Environmental justice advocates — largely local community organizations but a growing number of government bureaucrats — seek to draw attention to the human costs of "progress" and protect the residents who live near pollution sources.
It's where environmental advocacy and civil rights meet to demonstrate the consequences of capitalism that are often brushed aside in the quest for development and profits. The movement is about establishing a balance — or at least making sure residents are considered in plans for development, expanded industry and construction projects.
"The main difference between regular environmental protectionism and advocacy and environmental justice is we bring human beings into the equation," says Patrick Geans-Ali, communications coordinator at East Michigan Environmental Action Council. "Typically, with most environmental groups — and we're about this 100 percent as well — it's land protection, air quality, water quality, land use, animal rights and protection. We're for all those things, but we feel a lot of the time when it comes to environmental justice, what's missing is the protection of human beings."
And in its 35 years, the environmental justice movement has had varying successes and failures.
"It's still a struggle," says Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and widely considered one of the movement's pioneers. "The environmental justice community is saying we need to make sure the EPA and other agencies hold the line."
Bullard says the movement suffered "a great deal of slippage and pushback" under Bush administration policies that favored industry over "costly" regulations and extensive permitting. But Bullard credits President Barack Obama and his EPA administrator for making environmental justice a priority for the agency.
That attention has not come without critics. An Investor's Business Daily editorial in October wondered if "green socialism" was the EPA's goal and criticized the agency for hiring an environmental justice coordinator. And the current climate in the U.S. House of Representatives could put roadblocks in the movement's path.
Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) recently released a list of 110 anti-environment votes taken in the house this year. Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, calls this chamber "the most anti-environment House of Representatives in history" intent on removing controls on power plants, oil refineries and factories in the name of jobs and profits.
But movement leaders insist environmental justice has an important economic development component, especially for people who live near industry.
> Email Sandra Svoboda