Environmental Justice: Why It's a Black Thing

EPA chief Lisa P. Jackson says it's not about loving nature -- it's a civil rights issue.

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On Sunday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson will deliver a sermon at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 47th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. What do clean air and water have to do with issues that surrounded one of the most pivotal events of the civil rights movement? A lot, according to Jackson. The Root talked to her about the effects of environmental injustice on minority communities, the EPA's plan to make sure people of color aren't forgotten and why you don't have to love the great outdoors to care passionately about the ravages and real-life consequences of unchecked pollution.

The Root: Your sermon will be delivered on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, one of the most pivotal events of the civil rights movement. Explain how environmental justice is a civil rights issue.

Lisa P. Jackson: We talk all the time about the right to prosperity. The Declaration of Independence talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We talk about prosperity and freedom to prosper. It's hard to envision true freedom in that regard if everyone doesn't have equal access to the basics of living -- and the basics of living include the right to breathe clean air, the right to drink water that's free from toxins and the right to build your home and community in a place that's free from environmentally ravaged land and the pollution and health impacts that come along with it.

It's not just about freedom from pollution -- pollution equals poor health. Poor air quality contributes to three of four of the leading causes of death among Americans. So when we talk about environmental justice, we're talking about Americans' basic rights to have equal access to being healthy.

TR: What are some of the real-life consequences for the people who are affected by this issue? 

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LPJ: An example is that, with respect to the issues of air quality, most African Americans in this country live in urban areas, whether we talk about Los Angeles, Houston or smaller, older cities that may have industrial sources around them. So, the administration just initiated standards for power plants and those standards are going to save 11,000 lives a year.

Also, when we talk about environmental justice, we talk about communities that may have been abandoned or forgotten or that at one time were the sites of abandoned factories. Just one contaminated plot in such a neighborhood can make it a place where businesses don't want to grow or invest. One dollar spent on cleanup in those communities means $19 in private-sector economic growth, because you remove that barrier to economic opportunity.

TR: The EPA has a plan to protect poor, minority and low-income communities from health and environmental risks. What are some of that plan's main components?

LPJ: EPA has a plan called Plan EJ 2014. Our goal, quite simply, is to make consideration of environmental justice and fairness part of EPA's everyday decision-making. 

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