By: Dylan C.
In March of 1942, America was on the verge of making history. The scientists of the Manhattan Project had successfully weaponized nuclear fission to develop a bomb capable of mass destruction; all they needed now was a place to test it. Unsure of the potential hazards and environmental impacts of the bomb, scientists identified two potential locations in Oak City, Utah, and the Pajarito Plateau in New Mexico. While the Oak City site was more suitable from a purely scientific perspective, testing would require the relocation of 40 white, Morman families who farmed in the area. So the government chose the New Mexico site, evicted the indigenous and Hispanic communities in the region, and dropped a bomb that has to this day made the area uninhabitable for those who used to call it home (Pena-Parr). The first nuclear test is one of countless examples of environmental racism, a form of systemic oppression in which marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by health hazards and environmental disasters due to discriminatory policy-making (Beech).
A History of Injustice:
Many point to the 1978 Warren County controversy as the start of the fight for environmental justice. 31,000 gallons of the highly dangerous chemical polychlorinated biphenyl needed to be dumped in North Carolina, and the state chose a landfill site in Warren County, an area with over 60% of the population made up by African Americans. Widespread outrage erupted among the local community, and, while the battle ended in defeat for the protesters, news of the movement spread and gained national attention (Banzhaf).
Following the Warren County events, a series of movements and organizations were launched in an effort to combat environmental injustices. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice released a landmark study which determined that race and income were the key factors in determining which communities faced the worst exposure to dangerous environmental conditions (Bullard). Incidents like the Warren County waste landfill continued across the country into the 2000s, and no event demonstrated this more than the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm had a disproportionate impact on minority and low income communities, but the disaster relief effort and cleanup for these areas was delayed and unsubstantial (Morse). Reilly Morse of the Center for Political and Economic Studies claims that “a powerfully discriminatory tendency in planning is for environmentally vulnerable low-income neighborhoods to be deemed disposable” (21), and that the areas most impacted by Katrina had delayed rebuilding projects and unsubstantial funding from the government (Morse). Link to complete historical background essay
Current Day Manifestations:
To this day, the impacts of discriminatory environmental policies are clear, as African American children are five times more likely to be exposed to toxic poisoning than white children (Beech). All across the country, marginalized groups and low income communities face disproportionate exposure to pollution and hazardous workplace conditions, leading to lung damage, respiratory failure, and other health conditions that exacerbate the impacts of Covid-19. The evidence is clear; recent data reveals Blacks and Latin Americans are three times more likely to contract Covid-19 and twice as likely to die in comparison to whites (Zeldovich). And in North Carolina, the state where the movement for environmental justice began, a recent study found that there were twice as many high pollution sites and factories in non-white areas than in predominantly white neighborhoods (Banzhaf).
An instance that is more local for me is the incident in San Francisco’s Hunters Point, which has more African Americans than any other neighborhood in the city. It was originally occupied by the Navy and became contaminated with radiation that seeped into the soil. Several large areas were deemed unhealthy and the Navy hired companies to remove the radiation so that the land could be used for residential development. However, it was revealed two years ago that the development companies had falsified data and lied about the level of contamination still remaining. The homeowners who had been living on the land were potentially exposed to health risks caused by the radiation, and have now sued the companies (Waxmann). Both San Francisco and North Carolina are examples of a common trend around the country – industrial pollution and hazardous projects that specifically harm minority communities (Desikan).
For Now Response:
At the Federal level, President Biden has the opportunity to enact several key reforms as his administration places a renewed focus on environmental justice (Eilperin). Firstly, representatives from the Office of Sciences and Technology Policy should have ranking positions within government agencies, and an intra-agency task force should be created to ensure the incorporation of environmental justice into the tasks of officials. Anita Desikan of the Union of Concerned Scientists writes that this cross-agency strategy will allow federal agencies to “carry out several critical activities to help reduce air, water, and other forms of pollution that regularly burden environmental justice communities”. Desikan goes on to argue that the Biden administration should significantly increase enforcement of Executive Order 12898, an act which currently loosely requires in-depth analysis of the health and environmental impacts of all policies. Strict enforcement of this act would prevent an instance like Hunters Point where testing for radiation fell solely to private companies (Desikan).
There are many opportunities for individual citizens to fight environmental racism. For starters, residents of communities that are close to or affected by environmental policies should demand full transparency for data and information relevant to the impacts of construction, development, and pollution. Labor union members should continue to fight for healthy working conditions with an emphasis on reducing exposure to pollution, toxins, and other health risks (Desikan). In addition, there are countless activist groups and organizations that fight to promote green policies, campaign for elected officials, and hold events to fight environmental racism. Greenaction is a California-based organization that fights for health and environmental justice. They work to “provide effective and strong campaign, organizing, strategic, technical, media and networking support for community struggles and for the environmental health and justice movement”. Volunteering for and donating to groups like Greenaction is a way to create real and lasting change in the fight against discriminatory environmental policies (Greenaction.org). Additionally, students should keep themselves educated on these issues so that, when they are able to vote, they will have the knowledge to support candidates and policies that aid the fight for environmental justice. Link to complete current problem and solutions essay
Thank you so much for visiting this page! If you have any feedback for me, please leave a comment. I specifically struggled with coming up with micro solutions and small scale action steps, especially for people my age, so please leave any suggestions you have. Also, do you think the specific examples I gave were effective, or should I have focused more broadly on wider data and trends to demonstrate the effects of environmental racism in the U.S.?