In the News: Environmental Blight and Disaster.
Clip #1 : NC Now UNC-TV — Princeville Flooding
(scenes from the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew Flooding in historically black community of Princeville, North Carolina)
“You can see the watermarks on the left side of this house. It was above the door over here…”
Clip #2 : PBS NewsHour — Hazardous Military Waste Is Making Americans Sick
“A new investigative series from Pro-Publica called ‘Bombs In Our Backyard’ looks at the disposal of military waste and how its affecting communities across the United States.”
Clip #3 : The Rachel Maddow Show #StoptheBurn
“And this stuff just can’t be left to rot because when it does it tends to explode. You can’t just leave this stuff. It has to be destroyed. And there’s millions of pounds of it sitting at this site. And two years after those giant explosions shook Minden, Louisiana all the way to Texas and let the world know that this explosive toxic stuff was there in a quantity of millions of pounds. Two years after those explosions, the E.P.A. came in and they announced their plan to safely dispose of all that toxic explosive artillery propellant. The biggest pile in the country. They announced what they were going to do with it. Their safe plan of disposal was that they would set it on fire.”
Clip #4 : PBS NewsHour — The Danger of Coal Ash, The Toxic Dust the Fossil Fuel Leaves Behind
“Coal ash is an especially bad and dangerous byproduct of our dependence on coal and fossil fuels. Now, over the years a number of communities have dealt with coal ash spills that turned into emergencies with real public health concerns over what’s seeped into the water.”
Clip #5 : AL.COM –Visit at Your Own Risk: Uniontown’s Residents Plagued By Sewage Disaster
“You wouldn’t want to drive around on these roads because they got so many potholes. You wouldn’t want to be here certain times of the day because the odor gets so bad. You wouldn’t want to be here when my sewage backs up because the problem with the city sewage. You don’t want to be around the possibility of what coal ash can cost you. Visit at your own risk. (chuckles softly)”
Clip #6 : Now This News — How Uniontown, Alabama Became Victim of Environmental Justice
“The population of Uniontown is almost 90% Black and has a per-capita income of just $10, 934. They say that’s the reason they have been fighting battles against a local dump accepting coal ash, an antiquated sewer system, with little to no help from local or state government for years.
‘So they say you’re free in this world but seem like some of the things that are done to us is still Blacks and people living in poverty. It’s still…*huff*…you know, it’s just environmental racism.”
Clip #7 : Farm Sanctuary — Elsie Herring Describes What It’s Like to Live Beside an Industrial Hog Farm
“Well, before the hog industry came in we could sit outside and have the family over, friends over, do your gardening, not have to worry about the odor and the mist. Just on the other side of these trees, there’s a spray field and this is where they spray animal waste on us. They’re polluting my air, and others, everyone that’s living near these facilities. They’ve polluted our water, they’ve disrupted our quality of life. So, why are we being subjected to being forced to live with animals and their waste? So the pork industry can make a profit. I think that’s wrong. ‘Duplin [County]’s hogs generate 15,700 tons of waste a day — about twice the amount as the entire population of New York City’ (Rolling Stone).”
Clip #8 -9 : Vice News — How Newark Got Lead In Its Water, And What It Means For the Rest of America
“This is Mayor Baraka with an important message about your water. The city’s water is not contaminated with lead. It is not contaminated with lead. The only high lead readings were taken inside old one and two family homes that have lead pipes leading from the pure water source into those homes.”
“Good afternoon council. I see all y’all got bottled waters up there. Why don’t y’all have a pitcher of water from the tap, drinking from a cup, because you know it’s not safe. In 2017, a letter was sent out for elevated lead levels. We didn’t get that, but then you all said the water was safe in 2018. You have not been honest.”
Clip #10 : NJTV — With Lead Readings Elevated, Newark Distributes Bottled Water
“Tests at three homes turned up high lead levels…in two of them despite homeowners using filters designed to eliminate lead contamination.”
“I’m not happy about it that’s for sure.”
“We came back, we got the filters like we were supposed to get and we’re still having a problem.”
“Are you worried about…”
“Yes! I’m worried. I don’t want to get poisoned…and you’re poisoned…you could be sick…”
Clip #11 : CNN — Democratic Presidential Debates 2019
“And what’s your response to the Flint Water Crisis?”
“My response on the Flint Water Crisis is that Flint is just the tip of the iceberg. I was just in Denmark, South Carolina where there’s a lot of talk of it being the next Flint. We have an administration that has gutted the Clean Water Act. We have communities, particularly communities of color, and other disadvantaged communities all across this country who are suffering from environmental injustice. I assure you, that I lived in Grosse Pointe. What happened in Flint, would never have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is apart of the dark underbelly of American society.”
A story beginning with chattel slavery.
First and foremost this essay will primarily be a discussion on Black Americans’ history with environmental racism. However, it cannot go unacknowledged that the Native and Indigenous people of this nation experienced colonization and environmental exploitation first. In the past twenty to thirty years, all Americans are learning that to truly be American is to prepare for environmental hazards in one’s lifetime or generationally. All Americans, regardless of race are (if they haven’t already) realizing the ramifications of unfettered capitalism at all costs. Black Americans in particular, have experienced hundreds of years of environmental racism, in some form or fashion, starting with the advent of chattel slavery. Prior to the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, many of the enslaved were kept in horrific places such as the Cape Coast Slave Castle in Ghana or its sister location of Elmina Castle. Both locations were utilized for the detention of the enslaved until preparations were made for their sale in many locations across the globe such as Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The conditions therein truly outline not only cruelty but the beginnings of environmental racism as a constant experience for Black Americans.
I must preface, I am unfamiliar with the current state of all of the living conditions of other descendants of the African slave trade globally, but I am aware that in the hundreds of years since the official emancipations and where the descendants remain today — they all have been the recipients of environmental exploitation, color caste systems, racism, and economic disenfranchisement. With minimal light, food, air, access to water, bathing facilities, or the ability to relieve themselves outside of their cells, their prisons also became the incubators of disease. To this day, you can still see the dark watermark in some of the previous castles of the enslaved where there were multiple feet of solidified human waste that was only removed after some of these locations became world heritage sites. Some visitors to certain castles have relayed that the waste has not been removed and remains as a gruesome relic of human suffering of long centuries past.
Excerpt: Dr. Joy DeGruy — Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
“And so what was the state of things during the Maafa…and that’s the Middle Passage? Malik Yusef has a poem and he says how little kids try to describe the fact we came over on a cruise, but on a cruise you’re not usually abused. So this was a real different kind of a cruise. So let’s take a look at that out of argument about how many people died during the Middle Passage of slavery. The lowest figure documented with some figure of accuracy is 9 million. That’s the lowest one. And we don’t tie a yellow ribbon on for them. We don’t ever acknowledge them. When do you remember us acknowledging them? When? And they punished Spielberg when he tried to acknowledge it.
So we need to understand that these were millions of men, women, and children that perished in the trip over. Millons, and we don’t ever acknowledge them. Doesn’t that seem odd to you? How can that be? We’ve not forgotten. We have not forgotten, but they have been erased mysteriously from the pages of history. They’ve been erased! And why do we erase people…to remove the what? The Dissonance! Even during the filming of Amistad, the actors weeped, not on cue because they couldn’t help but weep. It got so they couldn’t have white people chaining them. They had to bring in Black people to do it because it was so unbearable. Spielberg knew! Why did he know? Because he didn’t forget his Holocaust. He didn’t and you shouldn’t.
So what I began to realize is that this has morphed into a kind of lie that the annals of history past or future will never have seen. This is the biggest lie that has ever been told, as if it never occurred. How could we forget them? Millions! And what was the trip like? Well, you know many of the cargo ships, they wanted to pack as many in as they could, they overbooked if you will. And they did that for one reason, because they needed to insure that a certain number would go to market. It’s like any other cargo you have, some of it will spoil and perish. And so they had to figure that out. They packed in, oh, tons of people, rows of people, 18 inches apart, 18 inches surrounding them, for sometimes months…18 inches.
Stay with me here! Stench filled, rodents, feces, its where they ate, it’s where they slept, its where they wept, its where they urinated, its where they defecated, its where they vomited, it is where they gave birth, and where they died, in 18 inches of space. How could we forget that? But y’all are free. So when we begin to look at this its not a pretty picture and I understand why people run from it. My children need to know who paid for them.”
The seminal 2007 text entitled Medical Apartheid by the Black American author Harriet Washington examines the dark medical history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. For the purposes of exploring the environmental racism they endured, the first few chapters are integral to understanding the inhumane and often grisly conditions that Black Americans were forced to live within during enslavement, for however long they lived, and the medical community that often condoned, coordinated, or callously regarded the welfare of Black Americans. The following quotes examine the ramshackle dwellings that were susceptible to severe summer heat and bitter winter cold that in turn accelerated illness and the ramifications of living in the closest proximity to livestock, especially for newborn babies.
“Enslaved African Americans were more vulnerable than whites to respiratory infections, thanks to poorly constructed slave shacks that admitted winter cold and summer heat. Slaves’ immune systems were unfamiliar with, or naïve to, microbes that caused various cases of pneumonia and tuberculosis. Parasitic infections and abysmal nutrition also undermined blacks’ immunological rigor. Before antibiotics and sterile technique, surgery was an often-fatal affair. Unaware of the connection between bacteria and infection, surgeons operated in their street clothes and with dirty hands in filthy environments, such as the shacks that served as “slave hospitals.” Even minor incisions or injuries could proceed to life-threatening infections with frightening rapidity.”
“Neonatal tetanus is caused by a bacterial infection with Clostridium tetani, which emanates from animal manure and thrives in wounds such as healing umbilical stumps. Thus, Sims perceived the connection between filth and illness, which was not yet an accepted medical belief, but he blamed the wrong parties. Owners built slave shacks on inferior lands near horse stables and other quarters and as far as possible from the whites’ dwellings.” Newborns with neonatal tetanus have severely depleted appetite, followed by bodily stiffness, then muscular contractions and spasms. Death is most often assured thereafter.
— Medical Apartheid (2007), Harriet Washington
Post Reconstruction (and plumbing poverty).
Even after the abolishment of slavery and the migration of Black Americans from the South to the North the conditions were no better and if anything appallingly worse because the United States Reconstruction Era had only remained stable for fourteen years. In this graphic and arresting account of Black life in Philadelphia in the late 1800s, there is a stark historical resonance to today in regards to the existence of severe plumbing poverty as it affects Black Americans in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Washington, and Oregon.
“Early sociologist W.E.B. Dubois found answers to this question in his 1899 study of Philadelphia, one of the first major studies to show the effects of urban living on African-American health. Surveying the homes of 2,441 black families in one city ward, he found that fewer than 14 percent had access to bathrooms. For those who could find a bathtub, many were “not supplied with hot water and very often have no water-connection at all” compared with white Philadelphians, who more often had full running-water bathrooms in their homes. Wrote DuBois: For so large and progressive a city its general system of drainage is very bad; its water is wretched, and in many other respects the city and the whole State are “woefully and discreditably behind almost all the other States in Christendom.” The main movement for reform must come from the Negroes themselves, and should start with a crusade for fresh air, cleanliness, healthfully located homes and proper food. All this might not settle the question of Negro health, but it would be a long step toward it.”
And to answer your question about how severe plumbing poverty is, here’s some pictorial data and research from the University of Oregon’s Shiloh Dietz and Katie Meehan. “Plumbing poverty is understood in a dual sense: first, as a material and infrastructural condition produced by social relations that fundamentally vary through space and, second, as a methodology that operationalizes the spatial exploration of social inequality. Drawing on millions of census records, we strip household water security down to a single vital measure — the presence of complete household plumbing — to assess its spatial and sociodemographic trends. We identify distinct hot spots (geographic clusters of higher than average values) of plumbing poverty, track its social and spatial variance, and expose its fundamentally racialized nature.”
The 1619 Project, Queen Sugar, Land Robbery, and the Devastation of Hurricanes.
I was incrementally gathering sources and scouring information for this environmental racism piece because I’ve written extensively about it in my previous graduate academic work, with a focus on the hog waste lagoons of North Carolina and the who, what, when, where, and how of the Flint, Michigan water crisis. I felt inclined to expedite this piece because the New York times recently debuted their long-form journalistic endeavor the 1619 Project in lieu of the 400 year anniversary of the beginning of the American chattel slave trade. Within the 1619 Project, they have highlighted many historic and significant events that have encapsulated what has been occurring in the 400 years since the beginning of the American slave trade such as the very founding piece of capitalism. This very capitalism drives the entire economic buying, purchasing, and selling power of the United States and the fact that the very identity of capitalism began with Black bodies is staggering and must be addressed at every level of education and politics.
There is poetry by brilliant writers and historical artifacts from the Smithsonian encapsulated within the pages of the project alongside reflections on Queen Sugar that reigned alongside King Cotton and its legacy as one of the highest-grossing domestic products the country has ever seen. I’ll be sure to address the relevance of this, especially when I discuss the critically acclaimed television program aptly named Queen Sugar. For some truly grim Googling, explore the term ‘blackbirding’ and the history of Pacific islander, Aboriginal, and South American slavery and their sugar story. The 1619 project continues with the stories of Black music that has its origins from the continent of Africa but is no longer strictly African and how these styles have shaped American cool and American sorrow. There are pieces on segregation via highway infrastructure, that also delves into one of the crucial tenants of environmental racism that where you live matters, what economic resources you have access to matters, and how adjacent you are to political power matters. There was a brief piece that spoke of medical malpractice on Black Americans but the story was shorter than I thought it would be and never mentioned Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid which I found very odd because her work is not obscure and has been lauded for its thorough research into race-based science-driven and fueled by racism which has acted as a further contributor to the separation of races, in not merely legislation but the medical community’s complicity.
My brief overview of the articles was purposeful to applaud their work but to highlight my surprise and center my personal disappointment that there was not an initial environmental racism piece in the released 1619 Project that could further highlight so many cohesive narratives of the Black American story. To not include a brief or thorough piece on the devastating impact of environmental racism that existed in 1619 to the present was a greatly missed opportunity for adding an additional layer to the Black American narrative of environmental exploitation, health disparities, and activism. There were no economic pieces on the current state of American Descendants of Chattel Slavery either or the current presence of the ADOS movement for reparations, and fundamentally why reparations should exist, why it is owed, why it is long overdue, and why it could make the lives of Black Americans more whole. Before I completely discredit the project for multiple oversights, the Twitter feed of the New York Times and head writer of the project Nikole Hannah-Jones has shared that there will be more pieces to follow digitally or in print. Sooo, if there isn’t a historical reflection on the ongoing historical significance of environmental racism well here’s this one…so there’s that…you’re welcome. Be sure to also check out my piece in the link below via Medium entitled HGTV: What Home Improvement Programming Tells Us about Race, Redlining, and the American Dream.
In other Black historical news this week, Vann R. Newkirk II, wrote a scathing piece on how millions of Black American families have been ripped from their farms via violence, politics, and economic subterfuge in the Mississippi Delta and it was succinctly named The Great Land Robbery. The region today is now significantly depleted of its Native/Indigenous residents and the Black Americans that lived there after the abolishment of slavery. This piece was oh so important because it contains the systematic dismantling of the American capitalistic dream that America espouses and the result of less Black-owned land in the form of billions of dollars of lost Black wealth. The significant increase of Black land loss generationally has highlighted another facet of environmental racism. If you have been deemed by law and lie to be inferior than your presence is not only undesired but undermined. If you can be bought out, forced out, or poisoned out the reclamation or gentrification of your land by the wealthy can be swiftly repositioned as an urban renewal project.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the particular dangers for the disabled and/or the elderly in regards to environmental racism and weather-related disasters. The hurricanes Katrina of Louisiana, Harvey of Texas, and closer to home for myself in North Carolina Matthew and Florence should have been extreme wake-up calls for the entire nation, let alone the Congress and Senate that have immense power in writing and passing legislation to assist those most affected by weather phenomena in our country. Alas, there has been everything to stymied monetary aid to funding mismanagement and a general acceptance that there will be another storm-related something and money will be thrown at it when the time comes. There’s also the additional layer of PTSD as it relates to these environmental contaminants or weather-related deaths and displacements. The monetary cost is important, but the tabulation of psychological and generational suffering is incalculable.
Excerpt — Queen Sugar television series
Charlie Bordelon: “We received a cash offer to buy our farm. Four million dollars from Jacob and Paul Boudreaux. It’s six times what Sam Landry’s offered.”
Ralph Angel Bordelon: “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Charlie Bordelon: “But now we know that the Boudreaux’s and the Landry’s are the same family. So, why didn’t they tell me that up front?”
Violet Bordelon: “Wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Charlie Bordelon: “This is the land that belonged to the Landry’s in 1889.”
Nova Bordelon: “26 years after emancipation.”
Charlie Bordelon: “And this is that same land in 1939…still belongs to the Landry’s except this part in the middle. It belongs to us now.”
Ralph Angel Bordelon: “What you getting at Charley?”
Charlie Bordelon: “Something happened here that we haven’t been told. Our farm belonged to the Landry and Boudreaux families. So they don’t just want our land. They want it back. Why?”
Violet Bordelon: “Y’all know that Ernest loved this land but he wanted y’all to come to it on your own…made us promise not to tell you.”
Mr. Prosper: “Unless you asked.”
Violet Bordelon: “Our people worked on Landry land as sharecroppers but during slavery they owned us. ”
Nova Bordelon: “Wait, you mean you can trace that…it was that particular family for sure?”
Violet Bordelon: “Yes, we know that for sure. One night the Landry’s came to take the land back.”
Charlie Bordelon: “Oh, God!”
Violet Bordelon: “Strung up Charles’s eldest brother, hung three more Bordelon’s over time, including Granddaddy Angel. Y’all Daddy ain’t just up and die. They killed him, slow. Every time he even took a good step they found a way to strike him down. Hell or high water, he wouldn’t give up. Not when he knew what it cost to get it.”
Nova Bordelon: “This land’s been paid for.”
Ralph Angel: “…over and over again…”
Charlie Bordelon: “No more running. No more taking the easy way out. I don’t have any answers, but all I know is we ain’t going nowhere.”
Debuting on September 6, 2016, on the Oprah Winfrey Network and created by Ava Duvernay, the television series Queen Sugar tells the stories of generations of the Bordelon family of Louisiana and its ancestral ties to land and the sugar plantation industry. The story mainly focuses on the patriarch’s children and how they are attempting to navigate their multi-faceted identities as Black Americans in the United States and what that truly means, especially because the reverberations of their story are so tangible. They discover in the first season alone that their Father was literally working himself to death to keep the land prosperous and out of the hands of the Boudreaux/Landry families that previously enslaved them but also lynched many of their family members to try and take the land. As the seasons' progress, the show adeptly navigates external and internal issues such as activism, criminal justice, colorism, and healing. The series also explores the physical and emotional weight of Black American-ness in such a visceral way through writing, showing-telling, and lighting.
The actors involved elevate the material even further to astronomical heights and ground the characters in such humanity that while watching the series play out you become intimately absorbed into every character’s journey. The reason I wished to commend the television program as well is for its unpacking of environmental racism in such a layered and nuanced way. The entire series weaves legislation, journalism, grassroots activism, agribusiness, and capitalism into its narrative subtly or bluntly if the narrative moment necessitates it. The story of environmental racism for Black Americans is not one that is usually told, if ever, especially with this type of budget, beauty, and primetime airing. There are a lot of Black American films or television series that have Black Americans as its focus but the legacy, immediacy, and urgency of environmental activism seem to always be left out or sidestepped. I would never say this is purposeful but again another remnant of Black Americans not knowing or being detached from our history, both past, and present. Well, today I’m going to share some more people, places, and states with you that will reiterate just how long Black Americans have been fighting for this human right called environmental justice.
Excerpt — Queen Sugar television series
Charlie Bordelon: “It’s not a poison chalice Jacob. Last time we spoke, I was rude and wrong. You tried to warn me but I didn’t listen. I apologize. I should be held accountable and you were trying to help. And I pushed back really hard, so hard it got me thinking. What am I really afraid of here?”
** He chuckles. **
Charlie Bordelon: “I’m not laughing.”
Jacob Landry: “We’re running against each other.”
Charlie Bordelon: “People make all kinds of arrangements to get what they want, or need, we both know that.”
Jacob Landry: “What’s the catch?”
Charlie Bordelon: “So Old World Energy is coming to St. Joe? Tell me about your deal with Old World Energy? About Hank Miller?”
Jacob Landry: “I don’t know what you’re talking about”
Charlie Bordelon: “For natural gas, fracking. I’m talking about the plan to turn St. Joe into another toxic ghost town. What’s the highway for? To get equipment in and out?”
Jacob Landry: “New highway makes new industry possible. They always do and it’ll bring jobs. Money!”
Charlie Bordelon: “That’s what you all said about the prison? Was it just a ruse?”
Jacob Landry: “When we surveyed for the prison we found gas deposits in St. Joe. My Mother teamed up with Old World Energy to lock down the land. Between the new tariffs and the trade wars, sugar don’t pay like it used to.”
“And so you diversified at the cost of an entire town?”
Jacob Landry: “This ain’t about Black and White Charlie. This is about winners and losers. Big Energy won this fight a long time ago. You just got to pick a side. We did. Eventually, you will as well.”
**Charlie hands him a folder. He opens it and only sees a Thanks sticky note.**
Protest and Investigating Environmental Injustice.
The following snapshot accounts of Black American environmental histories come from Facing South who investigated the EPA’s treatment of Black communities in the southern United States.
Warren County, North Carolina (1982)
“In small, rural Warren County, North Carolina, they’d decided they’d had enough. Vexed by a state decision to dump thousands of gallons of PCB-laced soil into a landfill not far from their homes and farms, the Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs held a weeks-long campaign against this move in 1982, fighting off police and government officials to stop the dumping. The residents were afraid that toxins from the tainted soil would leech into their groundwater, causing health problems.
At the time, Warren County had just secured a water utility system, thanks to the fledgling Soul City project, built in the late 1970s as a safe haven of sorts for African Americans from racial discrimination. In fact, the new water sanitation system was one of the first institutions Soul City’s architects built, providing Warren County with a service it had previously gone decades without.
Meanwhile, the state was planning to place another landfill just down the road in Rogers-Eubanks, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Black residents of Roger-Eubanks reluctantly handed over land in their community in the early 1970s for the landfill under a gentleman’s agreement that Chapel Hill would provide new water and sewer connections, among other municipal services. Chapel Hill is only just this year making good on its end of the deal. As Vann Newkirk II wrote about this in The New Yorker: Rogers-Eubanks provides an object lesson in the political and regulatory difficulties that communities of color can face once a hazardous-waste facility is built. For three decades, none of the parties listed on the original deed of sale for the 1972 landfill — the Town of Chapel Hill, the Town of Carrboro, and Orange County — followed through on Lee’s promises. In the same time period, the county requested grants from the E.P.A. to extend water and sewer services to two mostly white communities in the same watershed.
Sumter County, Alabama (1974)
“In 1974, EPA nominated Sumter County, Alabama as a possible hazardous waste landfill site. The county, located in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, is 71.8 percent is black. Over 35.9 percent of the county’s population is below poverty. In 1977, Resource Industries Inc. purchased a 300-acre tract of land just outside of Emelle, Ala. where over 90 percent of the residents are black. The permit for the facility was approved by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and EPA Region 4 over opposition of local residents who thought they were getting a brick factory. In 1978, Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. bought the permit from Resource Industries Inc. and opened the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill, often tagged the Cadillac of Dumps.
Sumter County has a legacy of farming and cotton production dating back to the plantation system of slavery and the sharecropper tenant farming system that followed. The hazardous waste facility was lured to the predominately black county during a period when the residuals of Jim Crow segregation still ruled the day. No blacks had held public office or sat on governing bodies from including the state legislature, county commission, or industrial development board from the county.”
Dickson County, Tennessee (1988)
The collaborations between EPA Region 4, the State of Tennessee, and the City and County of Dickson failed to protect the health and the environment of a black family who lives in Dickson’s Eno Road community. EPA Region 4 records indicate that trichloroethylene or TCE, “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” was found in the Harry Holt family’s wells as early as 1988, the same year the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) issued a permit to Dickson County for operation of a sanitary landfill in Dickson’s mostly black Eno Road community.
A 1991 EPA Site Inspection Report completed by Halliburton documents several state and federal approved contamination cleanups (i.e., wastes from on-site industrial dumps, plant contamination, soil containing TCE, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes and petroleum hydrocarbons from underground storage tank cleanups, and wastes from a train derailment) from mostly white areas in Dickson County were trucked to the landfill on Eno Road….Tests were finally conducted on the Harry Holt well on October 9, 2000 — where results registered 120 ppb TCE and a second test on October 25, 2000, registered 145 ppb — 24 times and 29 times, respectively, higher than the maximum contaminant level (MCL). The Holts were placed on the city water system on October 20, 2000 — twelve years after the first government test found TCE in their well in 1988.”
Escambia County, Florida (1991)
“Margaret Williams, a 73-year-old retired Pensacola, Florida school teacher, led a five-year campaign against EPA Region 4 to get her entire community relocated from environmental and health hazards posed by the 26-acre Escambia Treating Company (ETC) contamination, the nation’s third-largest Superfund site. In 1991, EPA inspectors found leaking drums had contaminated the site with dioxin, one of the most dangerous compounds ever made, nine years after it was abandoned by the owner.
The ETC site was dubbed “Mount Dioxin” because of the 60-feet high, 1,000-feet long, and 40-feet wide mound of contaminated soil an EPA contractor dug up from the neighborhood and covered with a plastic tarp. Some residents described EPA’s plastic cover as a “Band-Aid on a cancer.” By January 1993, the L-shaped mound held more than 255,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. In December 1994, the ETC site was placed on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL).
Because of the reckless digging, bulldozing, and faulty containment of the dust and runoff from the site, Margaret Williams help start Citizens Against Toxic Exposure or CATE. During excavation in 1992, residents living in nearby Rosewood Terrace, Oak Park, Goulding, and Clarinda Triangle communities constantly complained to Region 4 officials about acute respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, skin rashes, and other ailments…In Pensacola, Region 4 offered to buy African American homeowners’ existing homes in their price range. On the contrary, Region 3 offered the Delaware County, Pa. white homeowners brand new homes that cost an average of $651,700 each. These types of glaring inequities should not exist if there is one EPA and one set of rules that apply equally to all Americans, regardless of region or race.”
Perry County, Alabama (2009)
In December 2008, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant broke, spilling more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash over a dozen homes and up to 400 acres of the surrounding landscape, endangering aquatic life and the water supply for more than 25,000 residents. Six months after this tragedy in July 2009, a major environmental injustice was perpetrated by EPA Region 4 approval of TVA’s decision to ship 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash by railcar from the mostly white east Tennessee Roane County to a landfill located in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt, Perry County (69% African-American with more than 32% of its residents living in poverty) and to rural Taylor County, Georgia (41% of the population is African-American and more than 24% of residents live in poverty).
Region 4 justifies the Perry County decision in its “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQs) by declaring the Arrowhead Landfill to be located in “an isolated area, surrounded by large tracts of property, farms and ranches.” However, “isolated” is not defined. There are black home owners and black cattle farmers who live across from the landfill. The agency goes on to state that the “nearest residence is approximately 250 to 300 feet away from the site.” It failed to report how many homes and households line Cahaba Road (County Road 1) and Whitehill Road — two major roads that buttress the landfill property.”
The History, Science, and Politics of Flint, Michigan.
The state of New Jersey rarely makes the national news circuit or the international news for that matter but the city of Newark has been for the past month because they are currently dealing with a lead-based water crisis. The water filters that were distributed last October 2018 were thought to be effective in stopping the amount of parts per billion of contaminants in the water, but as the community has learned this was merely a band-aid to stop the hemorrhaging. You see, the infrastructure across the United States is all in varying states of modernity or decay especially in the oldest metropolitan states, lower-income cities, less populated counties, or an amalgamation of the three. Speaking of a similar metropolis, let’s talk about Flint, Michigan.
Excerpt — CBS Sunday Morning
“According to Virginia Tech Water Analyst Marc Edwards, Flint isn’t the only place where tap water is suspect.”
“You can’t trust the lead pipe. It’s a ticking time bomb. You think you’ve got it under control and suddenly the lead will start to fall off where it wasn’t before.”
“Lead pipes are still common across the United States, so is lead solder and plumbing.”
“So that’s a great message for the more than 10 million Americans that have those lead pipes in front of their house. I just wish we knew where those lead pipes are for me because we don’t.”
“How do I know that my house is free of dangerous piping?”
“The only way to know for sure is to dig a hole in front of your house and see what’s there. Ultimately that’s what we had to do in Flint.”
“As for Dr. Mona, she has a written a book about the invisible danger of lead in Flint’s water. Is the Flint water crisis a crime scene?”
“It is. It absolutely is a crime scene and there are victims. There are absolute victims and there are villains. Sometimes it takes a disaster for cities to be reborn.”
“She’s become a cheerleader for the good that’s come out of the water crisis, better education, better health care, but even she remains wary. Do you yourself trust the water here?”
“I drink bottled water here.”
The dynamics of race and class must also be examined in the Flint case. Critical theory has been done in the field of environmental discrimination. In particular, environmental racism falls under certain criteria and has the ability to change or fluctuate depending on internal/external biases, economics, and location. “According to Bunyan Bryant, environmental racism ‘refers to those institutional rules, regulations, and policies of government or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for the least desirable land uses, resulting in the disproportionate exposure of toxic and hazardous waste on communities based upon certain prescribed biological characteristics. Environmental racism is the unequal protection against toxic and hazardous waste exposure and the systematic exclusion of people of color from environmental decisions affecting communities’ (Girdner & Smith, pg. 61).”
Its important to be mindful that the institutions of power at the local, state, or federal level can influence one’s location/residence and employment opportunities/financial status. Upward mobility is very dependent on generational wealth accumulation, this includes where one lives and has the choice to live. Within the definition of environmental racism, the conditions of targeting and racism are introduced and left irrefutable. However, the economic components of rationality act as a countermeasure to claims of racism and siting patterns of hazardous facilities varies based on controlling costs and where it is cheapest to do so. Economic theorists also assert that residential sorting also affects the behavior of communities, and oftentimes is independent of race. The behavior of corporate or government entities should not be excused for any reason, however. The presence of “…. disproportionate siting in minority and low-income areas can be an unintended consequence of profit maximization and cost containment. Disproportionate siting can occur because neighborhoods with low commercial property values often abut neighborhoods with low residential property values….companies are attracted to areas with low housing prices and a high proportion of minorities because such locations lower any potential compensation that polluters might be required to pay (Taylor, Dorcetta E., pg. 70).”
White flight — or persons with the economic wherewithal to flee from racial and class compositions — can also flee due to noxious or hazardous sites approximate to their communities. White flight can oftentimes leave a community disproportionately racially marginalized. This includes, those that lived there prior to and those that move in once-white flight has occurred. The variance of the phenomenon of white flight varies from county to county, city to city, and state to state. The chicken and the egg theory is also applicable to hazardous waste siting. Industrial sites or toxic waste may have already been or gone, or conversely appeared whilst a community was living there. The willingness to pay and environmental tradeoffs that are associated with it also lends itself to cost-benefit-analysis economics. To elaborate, when an area is assumed or has documented hazardous risks, persons who are able to move or relocate away from the risk are able to do so, thus leaving those unable to move away behind. Those who have less economic prospects are trading off living with higher risks for more affordable housing, education, etc. Yet, the same persons with fewer economic prospects can and will pay more for appropriate housing to mitigate risks, which includes additional costs to keep the areas clean and installation of desired amenities.
Within Dorcetta Taylor’s 2014 text: Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility two theoretical perspectives are also examined to explain the power elites plus the inherent power imbalances levied on others, and how a community or location is classified as vulnerable. It is imperative to examine how systems of power would operate in a marginalized city like Flint and therefore the steps necessary to empower/aid those at most risk. Firstly, Taylor examines C. Wright Mills’s concept of the power elites and treadmills of destruction (pg. 94) that converge to create political, economic, and environmental inequalities. These treadmills emerge as large institutions of power that have the legal authority, legislation, monetary funds, etc. to achieve their aims but leave behind immense debt, death, and destruction. For example, the United States military has the powers of legislation, the scientific community with research, the storage, and deployment of munitions, the testing facilities necessary to conduct experiments, and so on. The end result is an over-equipped, overfunded, and sometimes overzealous institution that has the authority and capability to cause lethal and oftentimes unchecked harm.
The treadmill of destruction also operates at the racial/social/economic level as well. For example, marginalized and other-ized communities of color and/or sexual orientation can receive the full brunt of political legislation and segregation, under or overwhelming industrialization, and direct or indirect militarism — such as surveillance or frequent policing. Secondly, Taylor examines Cutter, Boruff, and Shirley’s main tenets on the research on vulnerability (pg. 95). “The researchers use the hazards-of-place model of vulnerability to determine the components of social vulnerability….risk, (the likelihood of a hazard event) interacts with mitigation (steps taken to reduce risks or their impacts) to create the hazard potential. The hazard potential is influenced by geographic factors (such as location and proximity) and the social characteristics of the place. Hence, the biophysical and social factors interact to produce the overall vulnerability of place (pg. 95).”
As mentioned previously with the treadmills of destruction, those already or made vulnerable face innumerable risks and hazards to their health and economic welfare.
The city of Flint, Michigan switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River on April 25, 2014 (MichiganRadio). Jarringly, the local and state government of Flint did not follow federal procedures by having a corrosion control plan for the pipes; this plan, which involves adding orthophosphates to the pipes, stops the water from corroding/disintegrating the infrastructure. It would have cost the city $100 dollars per day to add the orthophosphates. Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University found that lead levels in one home were at 13,200 parts per billion (ppb). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that dangerous or toxic lead levels begin at 15ppb. Thus, Dr. Edwards and his team found lead levels so high in certain homes that children and adult poisoning was irreversible. They continued to test almost 300 homes for lead poisoning and continuously found dangerous lead levels in the drinking and bathing water. “In recent years we’ve learned that simply testing the water one time doesn’t tell you much. The problem is coming from pieces of rust that fall off into the water at [random] intervals. Sometimes a chunk of that corrosion will fall off a lead pipe. If you’re unlucky and you put your glass under the tap at that time, you can drink a glass of water that creates the same lead exposure as eating eleven paint chips (Dr. Marc Edwards, Scientific American).”
The pipes in Flint were further compromised by high chloride amounts in the Flint River. Chloride is incredibly corrosive because its primary chemical composition is road salt. Salt accumulation expedited the process of pipe corrosion in Flint. There is a natural amount of salt in most rivers throughout the United States, but human distribution of salt brines, road salts, etc. during our harsh winters across the country has lead to said salt deposits running off or leaching into our waterways. Annually, the United States places 135 pounds of salt per person on roadways. On January 5, 2016, Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency for Genesee County, which includes the city of Flint. A few days later on January 13, a Legionnaires Disease outbreak was reported in Flint due to exposure of legionella bacteria which infects the lungs and causes pneumonia; More than 87 cases were reported, with a total of 10 fatalities. (mLIVE.com) Less serious bouts of the disease cause mild flu and are thus designated as Pontiac Fever. At present, it is unknown whether the rise of cases was attributable to the toxicity of Flint’s water system. The day after Susan Hedman — Michigan’s EPA chief regional administrator — resigned on January 21, the EPA declared 1431, i.e., “imminent and substantial endangerment” (TheWashingtonPost) and began handling the responsibilities for the water system from the MDEQ.
On November 15, 2015, a class action lawsuit was filed by the citizens of Flint against the state of Michigan and the city itself, which addressed claims of personal injury and property damage. (MichiganRadio) As of February 22, 2016, a petition has been signed to recall Governor Rick Snyder from office. The Emergency Managers, Mayor, and other appointed officials during the crises have been shuffled around the state of Michigan in various capacities or left office voluntarily. After almost more than three years, on March 4 the city of Flint has replaced its first residential lead pipe with a copper pipe, with about 8,000 more to go. (Alissa Walker, Gizmodo.com) “…the work can be performed quickly and relatively cheaply (about $2000 a line), but there is not enough funding at the moment to fix all Flint’s pipes…so far the state has only allocated $2 million. The “Fast Start” pipe replacement announced by Mayor Karen Weaver prioritizes neighborhoods with the highest rate of children under six, retirees, and pregnant women — all of whom are most susceptible to the effect of lead.”
Flint, Michigan — like many cities across the United States — represents a forgotten promise. When various economic industries sought their fortunes outside of Flint and the local government sought cost-saving measures during emergency managership, the lack of foresight in regards to human health seemed to be of least concern. The cost to transition to new water systems was expensive, but preventing your citizens from being permanently poisoned is priceless. No monetary, verbal, or written apology will ever be sufficient to the citizenry affected — especially the children who must now navigate the world leery of big business and their elected officials, and engage with the exhaustion of activism like Mari Copeny before they’ve even reached adulthood. In lieu of these injustices, what would justice ideally look or operate like in an ideal world?
In Eddie J. Girdner and Adam Smith’s 2002 text entitled: Killing Me Softly: Toxic Waste, Corporate Profit, and the Struggle for Environmental Justice, they elaborate upon this quandary. “Ultimately, ‘achieving environmental justice demands a major restructuring of the entire social order.’ Such restructuring would include a challenge to absolute property rights; a challenge to the logic of growth without limit; the right of everyone to a clean environment; the concept of security as a sustainable ecological system, rather than a military superiority; and social planning and grassroots democracy as the basis for environmentally sound growth (Girdner & Smith, pg. 66).” Thus, our entire thought processes about what we truly require and desire need to change; we need to engage with each other in equal measure as we do our natural world, to enact permanent environmental sustainability and compassionate human welfare. Everyone would most certainly have to live with less or be required to share. Humanity should reflect humaneness and this belief should extend to business practices and public policy. On a slightly positive note, the pipes in Flint are finally being replaced, but sadly the cost is far outweighing the speed in which they can be installed.
Excerpt — Dr. Joy DeGruy: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Dr. Joy DeGruy How many people think they understand what racism is? Show of hands? Come on. Yeah, you think you know.
**Audience murmurs and a few hands raise**
Dr. Joy DeGruy: I’m not suggesting I know, I just have a couple definitions that kind of came to me as I thought about it…how many people think there are White racists?
**A lot of audience hands raise.**
Dr. Joy DeGruy: How many think there are Black racists out there?
**Less, but a moderate amount of hands raise.**
Dr. Joy DeGruy: Okay. Now, this is an interesting thing because this becomes important as we begin to define concepts. I do that…I usually define concepts all the way but one of the things that I do is try to help people get a picture of what I mean by racism. So, tell me how it is…first category is White racism and then we’ll deal with Black racism. So White racism…tell me the ways in which White racism adversely impacts the lives of Black people? Just what are the ways that White racism can adversely impact the lives of Black people as a group? What are some of those ways?
**Audience person: Power.
Dr. Joy DeGruy: Power. But how is that defined, specifically?
**Audience responds with a few of the following responses, and Dr. DeGruy visually counts them off.**
Dr. Joy DeGruy: Education. Economics-employment. Housing. What else? Policing? Why are we here today? Healthcare. Okay. Now, we could actually kind of grow that list. Now, we’re going to move over to Black racism. Tell me the ways in which Black racism adversely impacts the lives of White people as an entire group?
**Person in the audience responds, difficult to hear the response, but audience is in rapt silence.**
Dr. Joy DeGruy: Thank you. The reason why you become silent is…there’s one that always comes up and that’s fear. White people are afraid of Black people. They are afraid of us, and it’s a very interesting thing because Black people know it. We know that White people are afraid but you have to start getting into psychology. What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid? But it’s an interesting dynamic…now you also see the difference in what racism is, do you not? Racism implies that you have not just prejudice but the power to do something with that prejudice. Now, I don’t like you, not only that, but I’m going to control whether you can get…I may say I hate you…I hate White people. I hate ’em, I hate ’em. It’s not going to change you getting that *chuckles* loan when you go to the bank. I could hate you all the way to the bank, not gone change. Do you see the difference, that whereas White racism says that not only do I not like you but I’m going to change the impact of where you can live? I’m going to determine with that racism where your powers are. Are you following me? And I’m talking about as a group, not an individual because people say I remember when my Uncle didn’t…I’m not talking about your Uncle. I’m talking about the whole group. I’m not talking about an incident. That’s the difference.
The Definition of Environmental Racism.
The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network defines environmental racism as the development of segregated communities as the result of governmental policies and marketing practices adopted by the housing industry and lending institutions. They continue to assert that housing segregation follows a color continuum with Black people being the most racially segregated minority group, wherein millions of Black people are geographically isolated in economically depressed and polluted urban (and rural) areas away from expanding suburban job centers or areas of rapid gentrification. Of greatest import, environmental racism defends, protects and enhances the quality-of-life choices available to white people at the expense of Black people. The systematic targeting of Black communities for the siting of sewer treatment plants, landfills, incinerators, hazardous waste disposal sites, lead smelters, and other risky technologies is environmental racism. Furthermore, the exclusion of Black people and other minorities from policy and other decision-making boards, commissions, and staff positions is also environmental racism.
The Commission for Racial Justice’s landmark study — Toxic Wastes and Race — found race to be the single most important factor in the location of abandoned toxic waste sites, with more significance than income, homeownership, or property value. The study also found that three out of five Black people live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites, 60% (15 million) Black persons living in communities with one or more abandoned toxic waste sites, with three out five of the largest commercial hazardous-waste landfills being located in predominantly Black or Latino communities that account for 40% of the nation’s total estimated hazardous landfill capacity, with Black people being over-represented in cities with the largest number of abandoned toxic waste sites in Memphis, St. Louis, Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta. Since the creation of this study, the number of cities that are environmentally toxic has greatly increased in number, type, and scope. I will explore the toxicity and location of some of these communities throughout the United States and the alarming frequency of their appearance as economic encroachment and devaluation has made healthy long-term life prospects precarious.
Do marginalized communities face heightened environmental discrimination? The answer to that hypothesis would be a glaring yes, but not due to any circumstances that are in the individual citizen’s control. Extraneous factors certainly influence where one lives, works, and ultimately comes into contact with hazardous/toxic materials. Environmental marginalization can also operate from a place of intersecting identities which varies from working-class communities with limited agency and political clout to neighborhoods and housing developments that are predominantly impoverished, that face their own particular sets of inherent discrimination, from a larger social structure. For this reason, a myriad of environmental disasters throughout history have received everything from positive sympathetic framing to negative accusatory framing due to their proximity to racial and economic categorization.
“We show that the closer you are to a [S]uperfund site the more likely you will find African American families. Moreover, the results found in this study support current research indicating that minority populations are at a significantly greater risk of environmental health issues.”
“The extent to which congressional districts are gerrymandered and exposure to environmental pollution was also telling. The more a district is gerrymandered, the less exposure to environmental pollution. To understand the true weight of this finding, it should be combined with the last question we answered that the more gerrymandering in a district, the less African Americans in that district.”
The “Environmental Justice: Evidence from Superfund Cleanup Durations” also discovered the following “…that the cleanup of Superfund sites listed in the initial phase of the program in the early 1980s suffered from a number of biases against sites located in black, urban neighborhoods but in favor of sites located in areas with a highly educated population.”
“These biases appear to diminish over time however, largely following the 1994 Executive Order which formally establishes Environmental Justice as a policy concern. After 1994 we see in fact a prioritization of cleanups in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Furthermore, some of these biases may have manifested themselves through the extent to which the community was involved with the cleanup process.”
No one wants to live on or near a Superfund site with contaminants, such as lead or asbestos. The culprit is the massive industrial complex itself and its lack of empathy for the environment or human beings. Industries and corporations often employ cost cutting, cheap, or quickly disposable alternatives of eliminating waste and sadly that same business model often applies to people. Despite the public outcry for change, raised awareness of their environmental situation, and continuing plight for a healthy ecosystem the communities have largely done the only work they can by relaying their story to any media outlet or international communities that will listen and take heed.
“In answer to ‘Which came first?’, our findings show that rather than hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities [TSDFs] ‘attracting’ people of color, neighborhoods with already disproportionate and growing concentrations of people of color appear to ‘attract’ new facility siting.” (Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities)
“Hazardous waste TSDFs were sited where white move-out and minority move-in were already occurring, and had been occurring for a decade or two prior to siting for some cohorts of TSDFs.”
From Sea to Toxic sea.
I’ve lived in North Carolina for many years of my life and I worry about contamination from hog-chicken-or turkey waste, landfills, coal ash, and the few nuclear power plants we have. I worry about the state of the United States because when things turn toxic, which they so often do across the country, Black Americans are often right in the crosshairs of industry and legislation. I’ve written extensively about all of the trauma, fear, physical and emotional weathering Black Americans have endured and we’ve navigated largely without psychological help. We’re truly an amazing people and I have nothing but respect, honor, and humility for our entire identity and history. However, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with therapy and I strongly advocate for it. We honestly and truly need it to fully heal, to include a national multi-generational Reparations initiative that would address the hundreds of years of maltreatment we’ve experienced. Truly, as disheartening as it is to continue this fight, I just want Black Americans to be aware and stay aware that your life matters, your health matters, and your earth matters. As saccharine as this ending may sound, stay woke, because we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and hold a mirror up to the hypocrisy of ‘America the Beautiful’, because environmental racism exists from sea to toxic sea.
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Barry-Jester, A. M. (2016, January 26). What Went Wrong In Flint. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-went-wrong-in-flint-water-crisis-michigan/#ss-7.
Blum, Elizabeth D. (2008). Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism. University Press of Kansas.
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Drum, K. (2013, January). Sick Kids Are Just the Beginning of America’s Lead Crisis. http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/02/lead-exposure-gasoline-crime-increase- children-health.
Edward, Marc. (2009 October). Gaps in the EPA Lead and Copper Rule That Can Allow for Gaming of Compliance. http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/michigan/files/201511/Gaming_the_LCR_WASA_2003 -2009_Oct_2009.pdf.
Girdner, Eddie J. & Smith, Adam. (2002) Killing Me Softly: Toxic Waste, Corporate Profit, and the Struggle for Environmental Justice. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Lovell, J. (2016, March 02). Q&A: What Really Happened to the Water in Flint, Mich.?
MacGillis, A. (2016, March 04). The Law that Poisoned Flint.
Mandanas, L. (2016, January 20). How Road Salt And Environmental Racism Caused A Crisis In Flint | Autostraddle. http://www.autostraddle.com/how-road-salt-and-environmental-racism- caused-a-crisis-in-flint-324344/.
Riegle, L. H. (2016, February 21). Harmful Economic Policy Poisoned Flint Before Lead Did. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-hansen-riegle/harmful-economic-policy- p_b_9287284.html.
Taylor, Dorcetta. E. (2014). Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility.
Thomas, J. K. (1995). Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. Rural Sociology, (2), 344.
Walker, A. (2016, March 04). Flint Just Replaced Its First Lead Pipe (Only About 8,000 More to Go). http://gizmodo.com/flint-just-replaced-its-first-lead-pipe-only-about-8-0- 1762971411.
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