Mural on a house on Lawndale Avenue in the Little Village area of Chicago, Illinois. (Credit: Terence Faircloth/flickr)

Derrick Z. Jackson: Toxic injustices

Priority for abused communities must pervade every aspect of a Green New Deal.

A sobering afternoon in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago with Antonio Lopez showed what any Green New Deal must undo, let alone do.


Five miles southwest of the glittering downtown Loop, this gutsy neighborhood of some 74,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Latino, is a crowning citadel of organizing on behalf of environmental justice—that currently remains under toxic assaults that no privileged white district puts up with.

We drove by a mayonnaise factory with a multitude of tractor-trailer containers in its distribution lot. The facility was next to an elementary school and right across the street from a tree-lined row of brick homes. "This is where we first realized we needed to talk about diesel fumes in our community," said Lopez, senior adviser to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). "Kids should not arrive and leave school hit with noise and pollution from trucks rolling in all day."

We then swung by the site of a once-bellowing coal plant that was shuttered in 2012 by community protest. It sits on 70 acres of land, a footprint that could handle five Superdome football stadiums. But the celebration is now over as new developers, aided by a nearly $20 million tax break, are in the process of tearing the plant down to build a one-million-square-foot e-commerce distribution facility. The developers promise 360 construction jobs and 178 permanent jobs.

But with a projected 188 truck loading berths, activists fear a nullification of their work, with coal soot being supplanted by the belching of yet more diesel exhaust and the rumble of hundreds more trucks a day on streets where traffic already crawls painfully at rush hour. Studies have shown a strong link between traffic pollution and asthma. A 2011 editorial in the British medical journal Thorax warned, "Diesel exhaust is somewhat akin to tobacco smoke."

Next was La Villita Park, which by itself is a 21-acre urban paradise for play and picnics. It was developed over a remediated Superfund site polluted by the manufacture and storage of coal tar, asphalt, and roofing products from 1911 to 1982. The contamination bedeviled nearby residents in rain runoff onto their sidewalks and lawns. Complaints to state and federal regulators led to both cleanup and community engagement as to its next use.

Yet, like the coal plant, the job of restoration is hardly done. Directly across the street from La Villita is a fenced-off area blocking access to a canal contaminated with heavy metals. A City of Chicago sign reads in both Spanish and English: "Discharges may contain bacteria that can cause illness."

Lopez shook his head when he pointed out the sign. "We had to fight for even that sign to be put up to keep our kids safe," he said. "The water is so bad it sometimes bubbles up [with methane]."

We drove on, by Little Village's high school. Completed in 2005, it was built in response to a hunger strike by residents seeking better education facilities. But it also sits across from a packaging plant. Lopez said there have long been complaints about the smells from the plant, which sometimes force the school's sports teams to alter the location of their practices or cancel them altogether.

That night, LVEJO held a community-organizing meeting to prepare for a hearing with state environmental protection officials on the packaging company's operating permit. LVEJO Executive Director Kim Wasserman, the 2013 North American recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for accomplishments including the shutdown of the coal plant, informed the audience that she is often asked why can't the community demand that the plant be shut down. She said, "Shutting plants is hard to do, but we can try to control what is covered in their permit so they can continue to function safely."

After the meeting, Wasserman and Lopez talked of other victories, such as the restoration of a bus line to fill in a huge gap in service. One analysis found that while Little Village was similar in population to the wealthy and 79 percent white neighborhood of Lincoln Park north of downtown, Little Village had just seven intersecting bus lines, compared to 22 for Lincoln Park. Little Village is also an economic engine. It has a two-mile-long collection of restaurants, bakeries, clothiers, and barbershops that Crain's Chicago Business says does $900 million of business a year, making it the city's second-highest-grossing shopping district after the Magnificent Mile downtown.

"We did a survey of residents for their priorities," Wasserman said. "They said: air quality, public transportation, open space, and rats. I can't do anything about the rats, but we're working on the rest."

Chicago Sunrise Movement rallies for a Green New Deal in Chicago, Illinois. (Credit: Charles Edward Miller/flickr)

That's what America should work on too. A key statement in the Green New Deal, introduced last February in the House by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and in the Senate by Ed Markey of Massachusetts, is that along with climate change, "pollution and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental and economic injustices."

Acknowledging that destruction and giving full attention to the neighborhoods suffering from it is a core challenge in a Green New Deal. At the federal level, the commitment to places like Little Village had faded even before the rapacious Trump administration filled the leadership positions of environmental protection with former coal and chemical lobbyists.

For instance, in a bipartisan failure of Congress, the $2 billion in annual federal funding for Superfund cleanups that existed in 1999 has gradually been cut nearly in half.

Trump's overall attacks on science and massive rollbacks on environmental regulations and enforcement have made things much worse. A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) details how Trump's policies subject marginalized low-income communities and communities of color to yet deeper levels of disproportionate neglect. Many studies show that such communities are far more likely than wealthier, white neighborhoods to live in close proximity to incinerators, heavy traffic zones, and industries handling toxic chemicals, spewing asthma-triggering and brain-damaging fumes.

For instance, while African Americans make up 12.6 percent of the population, they account for 24.2 percent of people who live within a half-mile of a brownfield site, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Brownfields, as defined by the EPA, are "a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant."

Latinos, who make up 18.1 percent of the population, make up 26.1 percent of people who live within a mile of a Superfund site. The EPA defines Superfund sites as places where hazardous waste is being "dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed."

Despite this disproportionate horror, the UCS report says the Trump administration has launched the fewest number of criminal cases against polluters since the Clinton administration. In a staggering comparison, the number of EPA criminal enforcement cases concluded under Trump in his third fiscal year was less than half the number done under fellow Republican President George W. Bush, no environmental hero himself. The Trump EPA finished only 60 criminal enforcement cases, while the Bush EPA concluded 138 in its third fiscal year.

Waukegan Harbor. (Credit: Mike Steele/flickr)

A city that feels left out because of this federal abdication is Waukegan, 42 miles north of Chicago. Residents there are fighting for much tighter emissions controls on a medical-sterilizing plant because of its use of carcinogenic ethylene oxide (EtO). They are particularly angry because protests in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook forced the closing of another sterilizing facility.

But Willowbrook is mostly white and Asian American. Waukegan is much more heavily Latino and African American. A bill to ban EtO use in densely populated areas recently passed the Illinois House but has so far stalled in the Senate. The Chicago Tribune reported that a bipartisan coalition forced the shuttering of the Willowbrook plant, but there has been no kumbaya encore for Waukegan residents, who say both the state and federal departments of environmental protection are moving too slowly on their toxic pollution.

Residents like Diana Burdette, who believes she was badly sickened by EtO when she used to live closer to the facility, said their fight is ground zero for a Green New Deal. "This is proof that environmental justice is not just about plants and sun," she said. "It's about all kinds of socioeconomic reforms and racial equity. Why are we being asked to be home to this toxic employer when Willowbrook isn't? We could be a tech or research hub for green energy. We're screaming at the top of our lungs and we're barely being heard. It feels like we're being targeted."

Activist Edgar Sandoval drove me around Waukegan to show me other sites of pollution and former pollution. We went past a still-operating coal plant, which state regulators this year said has been polluting groundwater with coal ash. We went by a Superfund site left behind by an asbestos plant. Waukegan's waterfront is plagued with four Superfund sites from a history of heavy manufacturing and energy production involving asbestos, coke, solvents, and PCBs.

"This shows you that a Green New Deal can't be about any one thing," Sandoval said. "But we have to change the vision so history doesn't repeat itself. We've got to figure out a way to make these places usable for clean energy and help people get into the green economy in ways that matter to them.

"Take public transportation. Low-income people are driving old beaters around that can't possibly get any gas mileage. They're not going to run out to buy electric cars. They need transportation for their second and third shifts."

Mural in Little Village. (Credit: Terence Faircloth/flickr)

Other than besieged communities, no one feels the sting of ineffectiveness more than the legion of frustrated scientists and program administrators at the EPA. In a feature for the Prospect last winter, I wrote about how the agency's Region 5, which covers Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and contains more Superfund sites than any other region, had seen its ranks slashed from 1,250 staffers in 2010 to 987.

That number is now 945. A year ago, the entire EPA was down to 13,758 employees, the lowest since the Reagan era. Trump and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, propose to eliminate another 1,350 positions during the current fiscal year.

In a recent return to Region 5's Chicago headquarters, Nicole Cantello, the head of the local union for EPA employees, said the agency is engaged in a transparent effort to demoralize and control workers even more by unilaterally rolling back family-friendly telework policies, placing new restrictions on the time union officials can spend representing their members, and limiting worker data previously shared with the union. "They no longer have to tell me who's left," Cantello said, referring to top EPA officials. "We're flying blind."

Workers who agreed to be interviewed as union members said the EPA is further attempting to discourage them by disbanding teams of experienced pollution scientists and making some inspectors cut back on enforcement—which polluters hate—and focus only on permitting—which polluters want. "We're not able to fulfill our mission," said geologist Felicia Chase. "I feel like a glamorized customer service worker—for industry."

Greg Chomycia, who was on a now-defunct accident inspection team that had a combined 75 years of experience, said, "Our purpose is to prevent the next Bhopal here at home [referring to the 1984 Union Carbide poison gas disaster that killed thousands of people in India]. This is a field where there should be no shortcuts."

As another stunning example of the shortcuts the Trump administration is taking with our air and water, the Better Government Association (BGA), a nonpartisan Illinois watchdog group, issued a report this fall that found that the number of EPA inspections in Region 5 plummeted from 4,706 in 2012 during the Obama administration to 840 in the last year. The BGA report documented how the Trump EPA, after lobbying by the Veolia energy and waste management company, canceled an Obama-era EPA monitoring program on an incinerator that East St. Louis–area residents said was making them sick with possible lead, arsenic, and mercury emissions.

All this matters greatly if there is to be a socially just Green New Deal. Even in the agency's diminished state, vigilant EPA scientists keep demonstrating how they can be at the heart of a just transition for marginalized communities to pinpoint pollution and get rid of it to enjoy greener neighborhoods. In one particular neighborhood I've visited in southeast Chicago near the heavily industrialized Calumet River, EPA scientists armed with air monitors and soil sample kits are seen as allies in a ceaseless battle against mountains of petroleum coke and soil poisoned with neurotoxins like manganese dust and lead.

But a Region 5 that has lost a quarter of its employees in the last decade cannot be everywhere. Cantello said its former roster of five Superfund investigators is now down to two.

"We would not be able to implement a Green New Deal with the EPA we have now," Cantello said. "We're going to need more employees as so many are retiring." Half of the remaining national staff is reportedly eligible for retirement over the next four years, which could plunge the number of staffers under 8,000, the lowest number since the very first two years of the EPA, which was founded in 1970.

Loreen Targos, a 33-year-old Great Lakes remediation program officer whose department cleans up wetlands and urban rivers, is precisely the kind of young staffer the agency needs, embodying both a commitment to science and the anger many of her colleagues feel in not just the Trump era but even during the Obama years when EPA funding largely stagnated under Republican control of Congress. In an awards ceremony this summer where her team was personally honored by Wheeler for a lead and petroleum cleanup in a Muskegon, Michigan, wetland contaminated by a former oil refinery, Targos used her time onstage to unfurl a banner asking for a "fair contract to address public health and climate change."

Her union reported last spring that the number of requests issued by the EPA's Great Lakes office to companies for environmental testing dropped from an average of 43 a year by the Obama administration to just four in a particular eight-month period under Trump. Targos said she is trying to train herself to be an environmental justice (EJ) resource within the EPA, since it is clear that the Trump administration has no interest in it other than for occasional show.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. (Credit: USDA)

The UCS report found that the number of small community EJ grants, which averaged about 80 a year in the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, fell to less than 20 a year under Trump. The administration did this year announce 50 small grants, but the total amount, $1.5 million, is choked by the $3.7 billion Wheeler claims his regulatory rollbacks will save industry (i.e., polluters).

"I see my work as a form of environmental justice," Targos said. "So many communities are not just fighting to get rid of coal plants, they are trying to think about what will replace them. By cleaning up places, we can help them feel ownership of their spaces … if we can connect people by cleaning up places for everyone, not just for downtown development, that will be a start."

In Little Village, part of the anger is that activists have long been planning what could replace polluted sites. Three years ago, they commissioned a study with the nonprofit Delta Institute to envision the transformation of the area's many remaining brownfield sites. The study said the contaminated areas could ultimately be repurposed as indoor urban farms, composting facilities, commercial kitchens, street vendor sanitizing and storage, more green space, a water taxi dock, light retail plazas, and recreation fields specifically for people with physical challenges.

Yet, city politicians green-lighted the massive distribution center with a $19.7 million tax break, even though a Natural Resources Defense Council mapping of Chicago last year found that Little Village already shoulders the highest burden of bad air quality in the city. LVEJO fellow José Acosta-Córdova, who received his master's degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois–Chicago and has extensively studied the Little Village area, said, "To me, a just transition is not more metal shredders and anything that will make our air worse. We need to be thinking holistically about training workers for solar energy and green manufacturing. We have to talk about food sovereignty. We have so many restaurants, but can we locally source their produce? The bottom line is getting control of our land."

Getting control of at least a say in land use is a tremendous part of a Green New Deal in environmentally aggrieved neighborhoods. Robert Bullard, a distinguished professor of urban planning at Texas Southern University, considered the "father" of environmental justice for his decades of work and books documenting racism in toxic dumping, said it is time to look at how marginalized communities are zoned. Besides pollution, Bullard pointed out that the continued locating of industry in areas already oversaturated with it only widens the wealth divide, as homeowners in such areas do not enjoy the same rise in home values as communities without such industry.

"We have to adopt the same commonsense attitudes toward frontline communities that we have everywhere else," Bullard said. "Common sense would say that it makes no sense to have schools across from landfills, refineries, any kind of polluting industry. We have to have a new concept of the built environment that links to community health."

Bullard and others said that while some of the Democratic candidates are beginning to talk openly about reparations to African Americans, environmental justice offers a major chance to put talk into action for the disadvantaged in general. For instance, Bullard said that the federal formulas for funds to repair homes after catastrophic hurricanes, floods, and tornados, all being intensified by climate change, has to change from one that clearly gets wealthy homeowners on their feet before working-class communities.

"Environmental justice means restore and repair, to make sure we don't build on inequality," Bullard said.

Ana Baptista, director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center of New York's New School, a leading research think tank on sustainability and environmental justice policy, is concerned that the understandable rhetoric to declare climate change a planetary emergency, such as was exhibited at this year's United Nations climate summit, may downplay community remediation in favor of a more narrow, headlong rush to green energy. For instance, many EJ groups dismiss cap-and-trade programs that allow polluters to buy offsets while still polluting in frontline communities.

"Everyone wants to get to zero carbon emissions, but can we agree on how to do this while addressing inequality?" Baptista asked. "In the expediency to deal with a climate emergency, do we create unintended consequences, like gentrification, or put so much money into individual electric vehicles that we forget about public transportation?

"It's not enough to say we're going to train people for green jobs. Can we also, instead of hiring big firms, create cooperatively owned groups to train residents to themselves clean up Superfund sites and repair lead service lines? We should be thinking about scaling companies to a regional and local level to train and employ local workers. Actually having to sort and compost waste creates jobs."

The holistic thinking of the environmental justice community has been embodied in the Equitable & Just National Climate Platform, signed by more than 200 organizations and EJ leaders. The platform says that any meaningful climate agenda must "result in real benefits at the local and community level, including pollution reduction, affordable and quality housing, good jobs, sustainable livelihoods, and community infrastructure."

Much of that thinking is going on in places like Providence, Rhode Island. The city is home to innumerable former and current polluting industries. So Providence proactively worked with its Racial and Environmental Justice Committee to put out a climate justice plan. It is thought by many EJ leaders to be a breakthrough document resulting from collaboration at the outset, as compared to top-down models of officials devising a plan and asking for community input after the fact.

The plan calls for "green justice zones," to explore neighborhood measures to prevent displacement when neighborhoods become more attractive to gentrification; prioritize energy efficiency, green energy, and green jobs in underserved communities; reduce diesel traffic; and increase low-carbon transit options in overburdened neighborhoods.

"What gives me hope is the process," said Vatic Kuumba, an artist and project team member in the climate justice plan. "We know the mayor is still going to be pushed by polluters, but he is also going to be pushed by the people. Whether it's green justice zones or creating land trusts to own land, this has the potential to be an ownership model."

Fellow project team manager Pol Tavarez and the city's director of sustainability, Leah Bamberger, added that there was healthy pushing in creating the process, with city officials, including those not directly involved in the climate justice plan, undergoing intense anti-racism training. They said there already has been one major tangible result. An ordinance to charge consumers for plastic bags was vetoed by the mayor after the community and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee said the 10-cent fee was an unfair burden on the poor.

"That told me we're a central part of this process," Tavarez said.

That will be the measure of success of a Green New Deal. If the community is central to the process, it has a chance to deliver a greener day.

Derrick Z. Jackson is on the advisory board of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate. He's also a Union of Concerned Scientist Fellow in climate and energy. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

This post originally ran on The American Prospect and is republished here with permission.

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