In America, communities in the most polluted environments are often poor and/or made up of people of color, with race being the dominant factor. A report published by PLOS One in 2014 indicates that nonwhite Americans breathe in almost 40 percent more polluted air than white Americans.
The issue isn’t just the air we breathe. Starting in 2014, residents of Flint, Mich.—a predominantly African-American city—unknowingly consumed drinking water containing high levels of lead. On Wednesday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges against three people involved in the crisis, a moment that was striking because of how unusual it was.
"This is rare," Neil Rockind, a Detroit-area defense attorney and former prosecutor, told the Associated Press. "It’s very hard to find a similar case where people are charged for just being personally bad or neglectful at their job. Usually there’s some personal corrupt intent involved."
Like Flint, there are several black communities currently suffering violations of their right to clean air, fresh water and toxic-free neighborhoods. For more resources and a list of ways you can get involved, be sure to review the “How You Can Help” tips at the end of this article.
In February, Ohio’s largest newspaper, the Plain Dealer, published stories highlighting Cleveland’s lead-contamination problem stemming from older homes with lead-based paint. The article revealed that in the predominantly African-American community, countless children have been poisoned for years.
The percentage of children tested in Cleveland who were poisoned was two-and-a-half times the percentage of children poisoned at the height of the Flint crisis. Last month, John Sobolewski, with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, said that more than 6 percent of children in Greater Flint are believed to have elevated lead levels, whereas the figure soars above 14 percent in greater Cleveland.
2. “Cancer Alley” and St. Joseph, La.
Cancer Alley is an 85-mile stretch in Louisiana of 150 plants and over a dozen refineries, starting in Baton Rouge and stretching past New Orleans, where lethal levels of toxins have been released into the air and water for decades. The area received its title in 1987 because of the numerous cases of cancer in the community, inexplicable illnesses and deaths.
In February it was revealed that the mostly black town of St. Joseph, La., has silt- and sediment-tainted tap water that occasionally flows as yellow or brown. The water doesn’t have high levels of lead but has tested positive for high amounts of iron at levels that are 32 times what the Environmental Protection Agency recommends. This is not considered to be a serious health risk, and the state says that the water is still safe to drink. However, residents say that the water smells bad and can stain clothing.
3. Uniontown, Ala.
In 2008 a dam breach at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee sent a billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the Emory River. Those affected wanted to get rid of it but didn’t want the ash sent to their community.
Owners of the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Ala.—a city that is over 91 percent black—accepted the coal ash, even though it contains chemical elements such as arsenic, mercury, lead and boron. Owned by Georgia-based Green Group Holdings LLC, the landfill accepts industrial waste from 33 states.
In 2013, 35 Perry County, Ala., residents and activists from the nonprofit organization Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. In addition to unpleasant odors, fugitive dust, pests and declining property values, the complaint cites health issues including respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
Last week, Green Group Holdings filed a lawsuit against Black Belt Citizens’ officers for slander and libel.
Baltimore’s Curtis Bay neighborhood has a medical-waste incinerator, a coal pier that covers the area in soot and several chemical plants.
In 2013 Energy Answers International announced plans to build a garbage incinerator near two schools in the same neighborhood later this year, even though it suffers from the worst levels of air pollution in the state.
Last month, the Maryland Department of the Environment halted plans for the incinerator because its permit was no longer valid. Community organizations such as the student-led group Free Your Voice are working to restore the air-quality monitors removed in 2008, as well as find out what type of pollution they are living in, learn how it is affecting people and find ways to fix it.
5. Newark, N.J.
In early March, it was discovered that more than 30 of the 66 schools in the district tested positive for high lead levels in the drinking water. The school administration knew about the issue for over a year, yet failed to implement a solution. Mayor Ras J. Baraka has said that 17,000 children were potentially affected.
Water fountains in the affected schools have been shut off to allow further testing, and bottled water and coolers have become the primary source of drinking water.
Earlier this month, subsequent testing found elevated lead levels in eight more facilities, including two charter schools.
How You Can Help
When it comes to eradicating and bringing awareness to environmental racism, Khalil Shahyd, project manager of the Urban Solutions Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that “all justice must be environmental” and communities must become more collective in the protection of their public resources.
If you want to become an environmental-justice advocate, start by taking action in the following ways:
* Review the mission and purpose of environmental and climate justice and review resources.
* Call, email or write a letter to your local government officials (such as your representatives, mayor and governor) regarding your concerns.
* Volunteer for a local initiative, such as constructing an urban garden or participating in a river cleanup.
“We have to be active and adamant in demanding that our public assets be maintained and kept to a standard so they provide quality services to everyone,” Shahyd told The Root. “We need to make sure that other people understand how resolving these issues in our community actually adds value to the whole society; that it’s not just about us. Environmental justice needs to be the mainstream.”