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INSIGHT: Changing the Climate for Environmental Racism

Aug. 28, 2020, 8:00 AM

The environment and racism are two prominent and important topics in our country today. Both have far-reaching impacts, but their inherent connection is frequently overlooked. The combined impact is so deeply rooted in everyday life that even advocates often miss the connection.

The historic environmental toxic exposure suffered in many minority neighborhoods is part of the systemic racism evident in several aspects of our society and environmental justice belongs near the top of discussions to right those wrongs.

Poor Communities Are Preferred Location for Industrial Sites

Corporations have long sought out impoverished communities as a preferred location to build industrial sites. This is often the path of least resistance for chemical manufacturers. These areas typically have cheap land and labor, weak or easily influenced environmental regulations, and local residents have little power over any of it. In some areas, the people enforcing the environmental regulations are the same as or closely tied to the companies emitting pollution. In the past, some companies even conducted their operations in namesake towns (e.g. Monsanto, Ill.), while downplaying the health effects and environmental impacts of historic pollution on the surrounding low-income and predominantly minority neighborhoods. In addition, many of their workers live or lived in the residential areas around the plant.

Environmental racism is how particular communities, predominantly African-American ones, are disproportionately affected by environmental risk factors. This is seldom discussed but it is extensive and profoundly impactful. After decades of segregation, black communities were frequently relegated to less desirable geographical areas and were financially unable to leave. The lack of outside opportunities and the additional challenges faced when trying to get out and prosper in predominately white areas also provided a certain comfort and protection for many to stay. Even if there is awareness of a problem, these communities often lack the resources to change policy and fight back.

Go Local

Communities may struggle for national political attention on local environmental issues, but can unite and grab the attention of hometown politicians. In some areas, local governments, within the confines of state and federal law, can pass their own legislation requiring local industry to comply with stricter environmental regulations or pay additional fines. They can also require stringent environmental impact studies be performed before construction of new plants, installation of toxic emission monitoring stations, and offer free medical monitoring in the community to identify and promote early identification of negative health impacts. Local governments and communities can reach out to state environmental agencies to investigate and review plant emissions, records, and practices, and with enough information and momentum can do the same with federal agencies. Community action, more stringent environmental laws, stronger and more consistent enforcement, better education, and transparency are all important going forward.

We see this in our own toxic tort practice, as over 80% of our clients are from these type communities. A common theme for these clients is that they live in low-income areas with high rates of serious health conditions and limited educational and occupational opportunities, which often follow a cycle from generation to generation. Lawyers and law firms, like the Environmental Litigation Group and partners at the Law Center, are in a unique position to help better these areas. We can hold these companies accountable for their years of toxic emissions with litigation for injuries likened to toxic exposure, like cancer, and property damage. In addition, we can help promote education on the environmental issues affecting a particular community and assist in organizing resources and people to facilitate changes in policy and politics.

Political will in these areas is usually focused on addressing more clearly evident short-term needs, rather than problems like long-term toxic environmental exposure that can take decades to develop and require training and expertise to identify. This makes it easier for companies to operate with less attention to the broader issues. These are sophisticated entities with the resources to study their impact, but many devote those resources elsewhere or only look at the impact as it relates to their bottom line. Usually, when the problem is finally publicly identified, the effects on the community have manifested, and any potential solution is often too late and will only slow or lessen the impact going forward.

Long-Term Health Effects

In the world of heavy industrial toxic by-products, many have significant negative long-term health effects. To mitigate these health issues, companies must follow proper procedures in filtration, treatment, incineration, disposal, emissions, and use of toxic or harmful materials. Whether it’s PCBs, dioxins, furans, benzene, PFAS, uranium, particulate matter or a host of other toxicants, industry has often found the cheapest and easiest way to dispose of anything it does not want. As an added corporate incentive, the fines are sometimes cheaper than following the rules. In more recent times, stricter EPA regulations requiring proper testing and recording, random inspections, and higher fines have helped curb some of the worst actors, but we have a long way to go and enforcement varies widely from place to place.

Decades of industry caused dirty air and polluted waterways. resulting in these communities having statistically higher incidences of cancer, developmental and birth defects, cardiovascular, lung and endocrine disorders, and multitudes of other health issues related to toxic exposure. In communities already suffering from a lack of better economic opportunities, this problem is compounded by the need and cost of medical treatment. This is evident today with Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on the Black community. Part of that impact comes from the economic and social impacts that reverberate out from these communities—more people/generations living in small confines, regular occupational and residential exposure to respiratory irritants, and jobs you cannot perform remotely increase risk and exposure.

While the damage is done for many communities, measures must be taken to mitigate or eliminate toxic community exposure where it has gone unchecked. Policy changes, including stricter regulation, stronger and more uniform enforcement, and higher fines are part of the solution. It is a failed policy when the cheapest course of action is for a company to pay fines and remain negligent or lax with compliance on environmental laws.

Everyone knows about climate change and how pollution affects the world at large, but changing the climate for the people living around the source of pollution is at the core of both environmental and racial injustice. Focusing on righting the effects of environmental racism and its deep-seated impact will help tilt the systemic racism imbalance. Change will come from a strong policy system, pressure on polluters, and investment in the environment, which will create long-term jobs and improve life in environmentally impoverished communities. The longer we let it lie, the harder it is to correct from both scientific and societal perspectives, and it is already past due.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Kevin McKie is an attorney at the Environmental Litigation Group P.C., a partner of the Law Center.

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