Environmental Justice: Healthy Places for All

United workers
United Workers / Flickr

 

Poor communities and communities of color are adversely affected by environmental problems more than other demographics. Coal plants, landfills, refineries, and other hazardous projects -- and all the health problems that go with them -- are found in these communities at a higher rate than the population at large.

Why is this? According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, corporate and government actors have found it easier to site polluting infrastructure in places where people are unlikely to fight back: poor people often lack connections to decision makers, information about health impacts, and the resources to hire technical and legal advisors who could help them resist these developments.

In addition, low-income families are stymied when they want to take part in the green economy. For example, while rooftop solar has grown exponentially in southern California, credit score requirements exclude many low-income families.

EarthShare members are working around the country to ensure that, in the words of the Sierra Club, “no community bears disproportionate risks of harm because of their demographic characteristics or economic condition.” 

In Minneapolis, Sierra Club organizers helped amplify the voices of community members who were concerned about a proposal to increase the capacity of a trash incinerator in a neighborhood where people of color make up nearly 50% of the population. After years of work, the proposal to expand the incinerator was denied. Fittingly, the decision coincided with the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice.

“Our children cannot continue to bear the brunt of pollution while others cash in at our expense. We need to invest in more recycling and compost. This is cleaner, safer and would provide more jobs for our community,” said Karen Monahan, an Environmental Justice Organizer at Sierra Club who helped pressure Hennepin County to deny the proposal.

In February 2014, The Environmental Protection Agency proposed updates to its safeguards for farmworkers exposed to pesticides. Ten to twenty thousand US farmworkers are injured by pesticides on the job every year because the existing law doesn’t have a robust enforcement measure.

Earthjustice, an organization that petitioned the EPA for years to strengthen these rules, cautiously celebrated the move, but says the new proposals don’t address the underlying demographic reasons for pesticide exposure, particularly the language and citizenship barriers that keep people from confronting their employers:

“Farmworkers are predominantly Latino, majority foreign-born, with varying immigration status and English language proficiency, and failure to account for the barriers that prevent these workers from learning and speaking out about the hazards they encounter at work is a recipe for failure,” said Earthjustice Legislative Representative Andrea Delgado.

Despite these threats, poor communities are also running projects that not only protect the health and economic security of their neighborhoods, but present scalable alternatives to business-as-usual.

In 2004, the Earth Day Network joined a coalition of Latino, African American, low-income and environmental organizations to launch Campaign for Communities. The coalition has been working to educate voters on the environmental issues that impact their lives and empower affected communities to take part in the political process.

During the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, Campaign for Communities registered hundreds of thousands of voters and turned out more. The coalition’s on the ground Latino voter engagement helped pass an important green jobs & education bill in California – Proposition 39 – in 2013.

EarthShare Michigan member charity The Greening of Detroit is addressing the city’s high unemployment rate through green infrastructure and conservation. Their Green Corps program has collectively employed more than 1500 Detroit youth since its inception.

“Transforming this city from a post-industrial urban center into a healthier, safer and greener environment will take commitment and a bold new way of thinking,” they say.

And Communities for a Better Environment, an EarthShare California charity, is working throughout the state to establish Green Zones: historically underserved neighborhoods or cities where residents have a greater voice in land-use decisions, economic development and pollution enforcement.  

We can’t have sustainability without equity. That’s why environmental organizations have stake in clean air, water, and land for all.  

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