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Environmental racism has plagued communities of color for decades.
Pollution, climate change, and more have stripped from these communities the right to their most basic needs: clean water, food, air, and safe housing.
Here's a look at how these issues spurred the environmental justice movement—and how much work still needs to be done.
Dr. Robert Bullard (Credit: University of Michigan)
Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University is known as the "father of environmental justice." A leading activist for the movement since it emerged in the 1980s, he's been at the forefront of the cause and ultimately defined the movement:
"Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations....Today, zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual's health and well-being. Individuals who physically live on the "wrong side of the tracks" are subjected to elevated environmental health threats and more than their fair share of preventable diseases....Reducing environmental, health, economic and racial disparities is a major priority of the Environmental Justice Movement."
Bullard's work has escalated into a national movement.
While the dialogue has begun, the work to be done is widespread and ever-present.
North Richmond, California, is a community beleaguered by factory pollution. (Credit: Robert Durell)
Air pollution: This 2018 study found that communities living below the poverty line have a 35 percent higher burden from particulate matter emissions than the overall population. Non-whites had a 28 percent higher health burden and African Americans, specifically, had a 54 percent higher burden than the overall population.
In detail: In a 4-part series, we uncovered a staggering asthma rate among Pittsburgh's children.
Worth your time: Environmental injustice in Pittsburgh: Poor, minority neighborhoods see higher rates of deaths from air pollution
Chemical waste: People of color make up nearly half the population in fence-line zones – areas closest to hazardous chemical facilities. They are almost twice as likely as whites to live near dangerous chemical plants.
In detail: In June 2012, EHN dispatched reporters to seven communities to report on their struggles to cope with an array of environmental threats. Years later their stories still resonate with all of us, as many of these communities still face disproportionate impacts from pollution.
Lead exposure: Although childhood lead exposure in the United States is decreasing, children of color are still disproportionately affected by lead poisoning, according to the CDC.
Water contamination: Concerns about drinking water contamination among minority groups have been reported since the 1950s. Water quality is certainly still an issue today; for example, people of the Navajo Nation have dealt with water contamination since the 1950s uranium mining of the region, as well as the Gold King Mine wastewater spill in 2015. Today, one in three homes in the Navajo Nation do not have a tap or a toilet.
Climate change: The effects of climate change, such as extreme weather conditions, can have devastating impacts on low-income communities. Extreme weather can displace residents that lack a safe place to go or the capacity to rebuild, and even cause death, especially if housing is old or inadequately built.
In detail: Our coverage in New Bern, North Carolina following Hurricane Florence documents the challenges of the community's most disenfranchised.
Problems such as police brutality are correlated with environmental injustice. (Credit: Jamelle Bouie/flickr)
Environmental injustices contribute to disparities in health status among populations of different race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Due to disproportionate exposure to contaminated air, water, toxic chemicals, unsafe workplaces, and other environmental hazards, poor, disenfranchised, and minority communities face more health problems. Children, due to their developing state and age-related exposure patterns, are most at risk.
Health problems proven to correlate with environmental setting include:
In detail: This article by CityLab following the death of Eric Garner in 2014 makes a case for the link between environmental justice and police violence. The article remains incredibly applicable to what we are seeing today.
Environmental Health News has a strong history of award-winning reporting on disproportionate health and environmental threats confronting, more often than not, people of color and low-income communities across the United States.
These stories resonate with all of us, regardless of race, color or class. We invite you to explore the issue with us.
Here are just a few of our recent environmental injustice stories, investigations and analyses. For all of our original reporting, visit our newsroom.
Federal rollbacks of environmental protections, and an inept COVID-19 response, disproportionately impact communities of color. Read more here.
A bribery scandal over contamination cleanup exposes corrupt behavior from trusted leaders. Will the high-level trial and charges bring the neglected community long overdue environmental justice? Read more here.
Tackling cumulative exposures, rather than one pollutant at a time, is key to correcting environmental injustice, experts say. But progress remains too slow in the most affected neighborhoods. Read more here.
Researcher David Pellow on how powerful institutions are criminalizing communities of color and deeming them undeserving of clean air, water and healthy housing. Read more here.
The Kinzua Dam, which protects Pittsburgh from flooding and pollution, came at a steep price for the Seneca Nation of Indians. Read more here.
Talking to Black residents living in communities along and near Route 65 about where they live and their experiences in these places, in the context of their connections to water. Read more here.
"Other states are trying to identify [at risk] areas … this is the time for Michigan to do the same." Read more here.
Sacred Water is Environmental Health News' ongoing investigation into Native American struggles—and solutions—to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation. Read more here.
An ongoing series featuring the stories, analyses and perspectives of next generation environmental health leaders who come from historically under-represented backgrounds in science and academia. Read more here.
One easily might have assumed the parties gathered in the historic Pump House at The Waterfront Saturday were there to take up opposite ends of a bitter debate that has raged for generations.
The neighborhood around Brooklyn's heavily polluted Gowanus Canal was, for years, an untouched time capsule.
A 2007 agreement aimed to reduce regional emissions, then political winds shifted.
"Without adequate planning and preparation for a potential decline in the coal industry, we'll end up with a massive loss in tax revenue as well as employment opportunities."
Women and people on low incomes are more likely to report mental health problems due to weather.
"We have a climate gap in this country. The main reason being that millions of low-income people, many of them minorities, tend to live in the geographical areas that are most impacted by climate change."
When it comes to leadership in environmental organizations, key positions are still held by white men.
Ethnic minorities represent less than 20 percent of staff at environmental organizations, despite representing more than 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to Dorceta Taylor, a University of Michigan professor who authored a 2014 study looking at the disparity. In environmental advocacy and grantmaking organizations as well as governmental agencies, power is held largely by white men, according to the study.
"We haven't solved the problem, but there's been an upward trend," Taylor said Friday at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference.
Women have made significant gains, she noted: From 1988 to 1990 they made up just 30 percent of the staff in environmental organizations. Today, she said, that number is around 62 percent.
Environmental justice reporter Yessenia Funes agreed that things are improving.
"There's a long way to go still," Funes said, "but things have gotten so much better than when I started reporting in this space just five years ago."
Although women now hold a majority of positions in environmental organizations, they're still mostly white women, Taylor noted. And the positions they hold are primarily entry-level.
"As you start to hit the glass ceiling, the numbers of women in C-level positions drop significantly," Taylor said, adding that her newest research shows that significant gender and racial wage gaps still persist—and that they're the largest for women of color.
"We are starting to see changes at very high levels. Presidents and vice presidents of major environmental organizations are finally starting to include people of color."
Grist executive editor Nikhil Swaminathan, who moderated the panel discussion, said that diversity in the stories about environmental work is just as important as diversity within environmental organizations.
"Environmental organizations have a diversity problem," Swaminathan said. "Journalism does, too. It's important to tell stories that reflect the audience you want to have."
Rhonda Anderson, a Detroit-based environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, pointed to journalist Zoë Schlanger's reporting on toxic air pollution in Detroit as an example of why including diverse voices in stories about environmental health is so important. After that story broke in 2016, the EPA was forced to take action.
"When you cover these stories, it makes a major difference," Anderson said. "You can literally save lives."
Editor's note: This week, the Society of Environmental Journalists is holding its annual convention in Flint, Michigan. EHN.org reporter Kristina Marusic is there, and senior editor Brian Bienkowski is conference co-chair. Follow the conversation on Twitter at #SEJ2018
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