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
"We do green jobs," says Sandra Yu, a program manager at the nonprofit Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, "but we've also got to do advocacy work that produces policy that encourages local people getting hired in projects."
As the environmental justice movement refocuses for the 21st century, it also seeks to increase and support the green economy and increase collaboration between grassroots environmental justice and community groups and governmental agencies.
"If I had to really define the environmental justice movement in 2011, it would be that it still defines environmental in the context of where we live, work, play, learn and worship, as well as the physical and natural world. It emphasizes the whole idea that the movement is a grassroots, bottom-up, community-based movement," Bullard says.
"We emphasize the whole idea that a centerpiece of the justice movement is that we speak for ourselves. That's still a theme that says communities that are the most impacted should be able to speak for themselves."
Strategies for doing that will be part of a national environmental justice conference in Detroit next week, only the fourth such annual gathering sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It will draw an expected 500 participants. The conferences themselves are one measure of how what began as a protest movement has had an impact and influence on the establishment.
"We want to be a catalyst for Detroit becoming this new urban center where everyone could thrive in economic, environmental and social health. In pursuit of that goal, we focus on green jobs, civic engagement and sustainable development," says Yu, who is involved with planning the conference. "If you're talking about sustainable development, we don't want it to happen to people, we want it to happen together."
The national conference, headquartered at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, will hold meetings downtown that will focus on green job creation, the detection of pollution sources, and how to build better relationships between governmental agencies and community groups.
"Having the meeting in Detroit is more than just symbolic," Bullard says. "Detroit used to be the Motor City. It used to be a city of homes. Detroit used to be one of the major industrial manufacturing cities in the country."
Attendees — state and federal governmental workers, and local and national environmental justice advocates — will tour the southwest Detroit neighborhoods where Simmons, Chernowas and Wahl live to see what toll the residents are paying for the past and present industry in the area.
"We always do a community tour so people can actually go out and see what some of the folks are dealing with," says Laura McKelvey, group leader of the office of air quality, planning and standards in the community and tribal programs group at the EPA. "It's a great learning experience for the federal participants so they can get an on-the-ground sense of what people out in the real world are facing."
Patterns of pollution
Beginning in the late 1970s, environmental justice advocates started fighting against and publicizing the siting of landfills, incinerators and other polluting facilities in minority and low-income areas. The first landmark dispute was a 1979 case in Houston, where African-American homeowners fought to keep a landfill out of their suburban neighborhood. The resulting lawsuit was the first to challenge the location of a waste facility using federal civil rights law.
Three years later, protests over the location of a PCB-laden landfill in North Carolina — in a rural, mostly African-American county — drew national attention. That led to a 1983 U.S. General Accounting Office study that found about 75 percent of hazardous waste landfills in eight Southern states were in predominantly black communities.
Then in 1987, the national study "Toxic Waste and Race" found that race — not income level, land value or homeownership rates — was the most powerful predictor of where waste facility sites were located.
"It's no coincidence that the majority of landfills, waste facilities, industrial waste sites are in communities of color," says Richard Hofrichter, the senior director of health equity at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. "You can't explain that away too easily. There's a pattern."
With the election of President Bill Clinton in 1992, environmental justice advocates got significant support. In 1994, Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to make environmental justice part of their mission by identifying and addressing disproportionate and adverse impacts of programs, policies and activities on minority and low-income populations.
What had largely been a decentralized effort — community organizations in different parts of the country working toward largely local outcomes — now had the backing within the federal government.
Part of what that executive order mandated was that federal agencies identify disparate impacts of policies and projects on minority and low-income populations, but also work to prevent them. Another part of that effort included ensuring better public participation related to federal programs and activities.
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