By BLISS SANDO
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation defines environmental justice as: "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies." So does the US Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, all too often Americans living in minority or low-income communities bear an unfair amount of environmental burdens caused by toxic dumping, landfills, factories, power plants, cell towers, etc.
This pattern, which emerged as a concept in the early 1980’s, has sparked the passage of numerous laws and regulations that aim to protect minority and/or low-income communities from pollution and other harmful environmental problems. Unfortunately, the problem is not solved yet. All too often these laws and regulations are not enforced, or simply do not provide enough protection for communities whose environments are threatened.
Examples of Environmental Justice
Brockton, Massachusetts, which is home to many low-income and minority residents, is just one of the 32 areas in the region with ongoing environmental justice issues. Alex Bloom of Enterprise News reported that “Brockton is home to two trash transfer stations and a wastewater treatment plant,” and that the burning of sludge at the wastewater plant, among other things, has caused residents to express concern about the region’s air quality. There has also been a recent proposition to build a natural gas power plant in the town. Erik Potter of Enterprise News describes the state’s environmental justice policy as “decade-old” and “lacking any teeth.” The state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Richard Sullivan Jr., promised to look into new air monitoring systems last fall, but has not committed to any action as of yet.
Detroit, Michigan’s 48217 zip code area, which has a 75% African-American population, was deemed the most polluted area in the state and the third most polluted in the nation by a University of Michigan study. This fact is due to the presence of Marathon’s multi-billion dollar tar sands oil refinery—which was expanded in 2008—and the city’s wastewater treatment plant, both in the area. The Huffington Post blog reported that for over four years, Marathon’s refinery “has operated in the area while admittedly emitting tons of environmentally hazardous toxics each year in excess of EPA guidelines.” The health and property values of the area’s citizens have undoubtedly been negatively affected, and as is common in cases of environmental justice, getting the responsible parties to rectify the situation has proven to be a long and difficult process.
Ringwood, New Jersey is a scenic area in the northern region of the state and is home to mostly middle and upper-middle class citizens. However, an old mining community within the borough, often referred to as “Upper Ringwood,” is home to a minority and low-income community. 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 a reinvestigation of the location, which was re-listed as a Superfund site in 2006.
Getting to the Root of Environmental Justice
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. Also a core cause of environmental injustices is the United States’ severe economic inequality.
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 to grow at its current rate, these dangerous materials will eventually begin seeping into neighborhoods of the upper class. If fulfilled, this hypothesis is still years away. 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 spectrum that exists throughout modern society.
Upholding Environmental Justice: Government's Role
Since the concept of environmental justice was recognized over three decades ago, the issue has been growing in size and importance. However, it is still far from where it needs to be. Environmental Justice issues are largely under-reported, and hardly ever show up in local, state, or national political debate. This is because residents of poor and minority communities have little to no representation in government, and therefore have little to no voice.
As it stands now, environmental justice issues are all too often left to be discovered and advocated for by the residents of the affected communities and environmental groups. In these cases, the residents and environmental organizations are usually up against large corporations whose financial status and sheer size give them the upper hand. The fact is, the task of discovering toxic waste and other harmful pollutants in communities should not be left to the residents. It is the responsibility of government, specifically on the local level, to protect the interests and well-being of its people; therefore, it is they who should be held responsible.
Bliss Sando is a junior at Ramapo College majoring in Communication Arts with a focus on digital filmmaking.