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Houston’s high concentration of industrial facilities, lack of zoning, and early litigation around environmental justice made it a prime location for multiple EJ discussions at the recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference. Throughout the multi-day event, federal officials and other experts spoke about the origins of the movement and what they see in its future.
According to Robert Bullard, distinguished professor at Texas Southern University and co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. In 1979, Bullard and a team of graduate students embarked on a unique research project, digging through archival documents and paper maps and conducting field trips in support of a civil rights lawsuit. led by his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, to stop the proposed Whispering Pines landfill from coming to their middle-class black community of Northwood Manor.
They ended up finding that predominantly black neighborhoods housed all five city-owned landfills, six of the city’s eight incinerators, and three of four private landfills. From the 1930s to 1978, 82% of all solid waste disposed of in Houston was dumped in black neighborhoods, while black residents made up only 25% of the population.
As public outcry grew over Whispering Pines, the city built a new park for local residents in 1985 – part of their original demand to stop the project – but the class action lawsuit against Southwestern Waste Management ultimately failed. in federal court that year. The landfill was built later and is now owned by Republic Services.
Today it is one of many industrial sites in the East Houston neighborhood, including multiple closed landfills and the active McCarty Road landfill (among the largest in the state), which is also owned by Republic . According to a 2018 University of Houston Reportthis area has several census tracts with residents living below the poverty line, a majority of non-white residents, and a high “social vulnerability index” — illustrated by the heavy effects of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
While Bullard said the 1985 tribunal outcome on Whispering Pines was disappointing, it set a key precedent for what was to come.
“The case was presented ahead of its time,” Bullard said, “but it gave birth to a new methodology, a new design, a new legal framework and a new field of research.”
His efforts in Houston coincided with the 1982 protests against a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina — also a predominantly black region — that are often cited as the starting point for the environmental justice movement. Bullard continued to expand his work on environmental justice, including the publication of “Dumping in Dixie” and numerous other books, but as recently as the 1990s the concept had not attracted attention.
Carlton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, described in another panel how when he started working as an attorney in EPA Region 4 in the early 1990s, there was still debate over whether to use the term “environmental protection”. equity” or “environmental racism” – and whether or not the problem existed. President Bill Clinton later signed a trademark decree of 1994 ordering the federal government to take action on environmental justice issues, but experts say there’s still a lot of work to do.
“It’s because it represents a historical reality in our society that race and class have determined where people can live, and pollution is something that depends on where you live,” Waterhouse said. “So if we still see racial differences in where people live in cities, and where people live in cities, and where people live in rural areas – and we still see class differences determining who has to live next to a landfill, who lives where there are combined sewer overflows, who lives where soot migrates over a fence and settles every night – so we’re still going to see environmental injustices happening produce.”
During this panel, Waterhouse and other EPA officials discussed how Administrator Michael Regan and the Biden administration are operating with environmental justice as a priority. President Joe Biden has signed related executive orders around climate change and racial equity early 2021, and the EPA released equity action plan earlier this month.
A previously published OLEM component of that plan contains several mentions of waste issues, including the potential burdens of living near waste facilities and how the agency thinks its national recycling strategy can play a role because “increasing environmentally responsible management of materials will reduce the negative environmental impacts of waste on communities with JE concerns.”
In terms of far-reaching action to date, EPA panelists described how 2021 Infrastructure Act funding will be used for Superfund cleanups, brownfields remediation, recycling infrastructure , vocational training and other related fields.
They also highlighted how the agency engaged with local authorities to license a proposed scrap metal recycling facility in Chicago (the city denied permitsbut the company is appealing the decision), intervened to raise licensing issues regarding a oil refinery in the US Virgin Islands and led a tour with the Affected Communities Administrator in “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana. Since the panel took place, the The EPA has opened a civil rights investigation in pollution around the latter area – including consideration of a proposed Formosa plastics facility.
Waterhouse has repeatedly stressed why he sees a need for continued work on environmental justice issues, noting that even where facilities can operate within regulatory limits, they can still have adverse effects.
“People’s lifespans and quality of life are deteriorating daily from authorized and unauthorized discharges, as well as historic toxic pollution, some of which is in lands that people are not even aware of,” he said. he declared. “It is essential that we protect everyone, and that the amount of money you earn, the color of your skin or the language you speak does not determine whether or not you get sick and die from pollution. “
In another sign of federal interest, the conference featured remarks from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, on the Environmental Justice for All Act he is co-sponsor. According to Grijalva, some of the goals of the bill are to establish protections and rights for affected communities and to amend the Civil Rights Act to include environmental justice as an area of potential legal recourse.
“[We’re] trying to codify fairness in the discussion of environmental burden, and the same goes for climate and the same goes for decisions that this government and any government makes that affect people’s lives. They should be involved, they should be involved and they should be empowered to protect themselves,” Grijalva said. “It is time to create some balance.
While the Biden administration’s actions on this issue received generally favorable comments at the event, at least one area drew criticism. In a recent proposal detailing the methodology on how federal funds will be directed to underserved communities for environmental issues (part of the administration’s Justice40 initiative), race was not included as a factor.
Bullard was a speaker who disagreed with this approach. Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, was another.
“Race needs to be a criteria inside the decision-making process,” said Ali, a former EPA official. “When we didn’t and weren’t serious about using it properly, then we had areas sacrificed.”
Heather McTeer Toney, vice president of community engagement at the Environmental Defense Fund (and former EPA regional administrator), had a similar reaction.
“Try to say now that [that] metrics hasn’t been part of how communities have suffered from divestment is like saying we’re going to talk about civil war as just a disagreement between states,” she said. “If we try really talking about how we’re going to have solutions that are restorative…so we have to face the tough question.
During these and other sessions, panelists often linked environmental justice and climate change as areas where urgent action is required and special attention is needed for marginalized communities. Amid their concern, some also expressed optimism about how these issues might unfold.
“The 21st century doesn’t and shouldn’t look like the 20th or the 19th or the 18th century,” Ali said. “We have the opportunity right now to do better.”
While some in the waste and recycling industry are still wondering what the growing focus on environmental justice will mean for their operations, speakers made it clear that this topic is not going away.
“[In] 1979, environmental justice was a footnote,” Bullard said. “Today is a big headline.