Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dismantling Environmental Justice

By Bliss Sando

In this country and in most other parts of the world, communities of the lowest economic class experience the effects of environmental devastation first hand in the most severe forms.  Personally, I was unaware of the commonness of such occurrences until an issue of environmental racism surfaced in my hometown.

Improving economic issues right alongside environmental ones seems to me to be the only way to eliminate the rapidly expanding problem of environmental injustices and racism across the globe. When examining problems in the current socio-economic structure of this country, the role that large corporations and powerful nations play in socio-environmental issues—specifically instances of environmental justice—becomes evident.  I’ll start by talking about my own personal experience with an issue of environmental justice in my hometown in the United States, and move to examples of more global and large-scale issues of the same nature.

It is obvious that current issues of environmental degradation are directly related to this country’s unbalanced economic structure when cases of environmental justice are observed.  In the United States and elsewhere, hazardous sites such as power plants, landfills, and oil/chemical refineries are often place in or near poor communities made up of mostly minorities. Consequently, many situations have arisen across the country in which members of these communities are financially unable to move themselves and their families out of these polluted and dangerous areas. On the contrary, most upper class citizens aren’t directly affected by such severe pollution and environmental degradation. They are therefore either unaware of these issues or ignore them because of the immunity that comes along with their economic status.
Although it may not be visible on the surface of this country’s structure, instances of environmental injustices and racism are present in all areas of the United States.  In his article "Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters," Dr. Robert Bullard confirms the fact that many of these instances in which minority communities have poorer environmental quality and living conditions than white communities in the same area are a result of institutional racism within the government and the economy.

Environmental Injustice Hits Home

Several years ago, when my mother was elected mayor of my hometown, I began hearing of an environmental injustice that literally hit close to home. I grew up in Ringwood, New Jersey, a small suburban town that borders New York state to the north.  For the most part, Ringwood is a naturally beautiful and pristine area that is home to upper middle class citizens.  There is an exception to this description, however: an area known to locals as “Upper Ringwood” that is home to a community of lower class citizens who are mostly of mixed Ramapough Mountain Indian and African-American descent.

As Teresa Edmond notes in a 2008 article in the Suburban Trends, this minority community has suffered political and environmental mistreatment at the hands of the Ford Motor Company, a major corporation, for years. Over forty years ago, Ford dumped millions of gallons of toxic paint sludge in the remote woods of Upper Ringwood.  The dangerously polluted site was initially added to the National Priorities List of abandoned hazardous waste sites in 1983.  A cleanup followed, and the site was de-listed in 1994.  However, since then the presence of substantial amounts of remaining paint sludge and pollutants has prompted many complaints from residents in the area.  It turns out that the previous cleanup, during which Ford removed 8,300 cubic yards of paint sludge and contaminated soil, was left incomplete.  The Environmental Protection Agency is currently overseeing an ongoing reinvestigation of the location, which was re-listed as a Superfund site in 2006. 

The toxic material that remains in Upper Ringwood and its surrounding areas has been affecting this minority population for over a generation.  Toxins such as lead, arsenic, and benzene have been tainting the drinking water of the Ramapoughs and are believed to have been the cause of many serious health problems.

Paul Eugene Van Dunk is a current resident of Upper Ringwood whose family has been rooted in the area since it was an active iron mine during the American Revolution (Johnson).  Paul has lost two young family members, his daughter and his nephew, to cancer and he firmly believes that the sickness of both children were caused by the poisons left behind by the Ford Motor Company.  Paul dreams of moving his family out of the contaminated area in order to ensure the health of future generations, however he, like many other residents, lacks the financial means to do so.

In the “Toxic Legacy” website, reporter Jan Barry and his colleagues from The Record compiled a comprehensive report detailing the effects of Ford’s dumping in Upper Ringwood.  Barry reported that other chronic health conditions that are unusually common among Upper Ringwood’s residents are asthma and skin rashes, which the residents suspect are also caused by the environmental toxins surrounding their homes.

Although the Ramapoughs in Upper Ringwood are recognized as a Native American tribe by the New Jersey state government, the EPA notes that the federal government refuses to give them tribal status.  Up until recent years, Ringwood’s conservative town government has ignored the obvious environmental problems in Upper Ringwood, despite repeated complaints by residents at town council meetings.  Many residents of surrounding areas are beginning to realize that the Ramapoughs in Upper Ringwood, New Jersey have faced serious environmental, political, and social injustices for decades, resulting in harmful physical affects and poor overall quality of life.  This particular minority population is just one small example of the many socio-environmental injustices that affect the lives of minority populations not only in the United States, but across the globe.

A Global Problem

The global polarization of wealth and revenue and its effect on populations in poor and developing nations mirrors the same phenomenon that occurs within the United States’ national borders yet on a much larger scale.  Donald L. Kohn writes that the modern economic endeavors of global entities such as corporations and developed countries including our own have been and continue to drastically affect the economies, social structures, and environmental conditions of developing countries around the world.

In the book Faces of Environmental Racism: Confronting Issues of Global Justice, Selgun Gbasegesin writes about more than one instance of harmful and excessive toxic waste dumping in the African country of Nigeria.  The comparably more developed nations of Italy and Norway were each to blame for separate issues of large-scale dumping, as was a major electrochemical plant called Elma.  All three of these examples initially occurred behind the back of the vulnerable Nigerian government.  These events represent the seriousness of the environmental injustices faced by countless populations throughout the entire African continent as a result of excessive toxic dumping by more powerful entities.

Despite the arguably obvious evidence that all instances of environmental justice are caused by flaws in local, national, and global socio-economic structure, it seems that environmental agencies such as the United States EPA do not have much influence on such policy.  Perhaps this is the case today because when major environmental agencies were first developing, they lacked concern for environmental justice issues.  These types of issues were certainly not then as critical as they are now.  However today, as climate change poses a global dilemma of massive proportions, it appears that all world’s true superpowers, from the governments of developed nations to the executives of national and multinational corporations, must unite with the rest of the world instead of exploiting it.

Considering the crucial state of the Earth’s major natural resources, caused essentially by these superpowers, this hypothetical global union seems impossible without a gradual breakdown of corporations and modern mass-production.  Not only does this strategy have the potential to be the most effective way of preserving the human race (in that it may save the most human lives), but it may also be essential to the preservation of the global, all species-inclusive living environment.

Will we be able to dump the harmful byproducts of our excessive lifestyles on poor neighborhoods forever?  Since the number of such toxic sites in poor and/or minority areas are increasing, it seems that if dumping and mass-production continues at the current rate, these dangerous materials will eventually begin seeping into neighborhoods of the upper class.  It seems to me that only when the upper class is more directly affected by the toxic waste and other pollutants that lower class communities are forced to live with every day, will the necessary authorities openly acknowledge the problem and work to solve it.  Until then, why should only upper class communities be protected environmentally by our governments?

Although environmental regulations are in place in most cases, they are often ignored or sidestepped.  Regulations that protect the quality of the land on which we live must be reformed and more strictly enforced—and must be done so fairly across the racial and socioeconomic spectrums that exist throughout modern society. 

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