Residents from the flood-stricken Mississippi Delta region to northernmost Alaska told a Senate panel Thursday that the federal government has ignored poorer areas for decades that continue to be threatened by flooding and lingering pollution of land and drinking water.
The subcommittee hearing—the first on environmental justice by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in nearly 15 years, Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said—threw the spotlight on inequitable impacts of increased flooding along the Mississippi River, including record rainfall in 2019.
Alaskan, Mississippi, and Alabama residents told the Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight that their poorer and largely rural communities bear the brunt of pollution from chemicals, unsafe drinking water, and failed sewage treatment and lack the political muscle to get action from federal agencies and Congress.
The panel’s focus on how pollution disproportionately impacts low-income and often minority communities comes amid President Joe Biden’s push for all federal agencies to pay greater attention to the issue, including steering 40% of clean energy, climate change, and other resources to such vulnerable communities.
Delbert Rexford, a community leader and former councilman from Barrow in Alaska’s North Slope Borough, said tribal communities still struggle to get federal help to clean up federal lands conveyed to Alaskan Native people, which included pollution from abandoned military sites.
The Interior Department studied the issue in the 1990s, but the region has struggled to get federal attention, said Rexford, president and CEO of the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp. His group is among hundreds of for-profit Alaska Native village corporations launched after Congress in 1971 transferred millions of acres and funds to settle land claims by native populations.
Federal funding to clean up polluted areas has “been a drop in the bucket,” Rexford said, as the community continues to push the Environmental Protection Agency to prioritize sites under the agency’s Superfund program.
Biden’s Justice40 and other environmental equity efforts suggest the U.S. has begun to “course-correct decades of persistent injustice,” Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Merkley said.
“Yet, despite growing attention, one has to only look at the disparate impact” of heatwaves across the U.S. and wildfires, Merkley noted, “to know that we have barely begun to address environmental injustice.”
The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), said there has been a “growing recognition of the need to address environmental justice” such as the Flint, Mich. drinking water crisis, but “not all cases of environmental injustice receive the same attention"—including challenges in rural Mississippi.
Flood Control Needs
Mississippi resident Tracy Harden told the panel the Delta Region has suffered repeated economic setbacks from Mississippi River flooding, including historic rainfall in 2019 and in June, with storms ruining crops and destroying homes, which then drains economic support for local businesses.
Harden, who owns Chuck’s Dairy Bar the Delta town of Rolling Fork, is among those pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to add a massive pumping system—which has been debated for decades—as an extra flood control measure to the existing levee and other flood control structures built under the Yazoo Backwater Project.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January issued a record of decision essentially greenlighting the project, but hurdles, including funding, remain.
“What we need to see in the Delta are the pumps. Because without them we won’t be able to have many job opportunities—the businesses are closing and people are moving,” Harden said. But many environmental groups oppose the pump project, arguing it would drain tens of thousands of acres of ecologically rich wetlands in the southern Delta region.
‘A Reminder of What Happens’
Other witnesses urged Congress to focus on resources on basic sanitation issues such as sewage treatment and clean drinking water, including Catherine Flowers, an Alabama advocate.
Biden’s push to boost infrastructure funding, and efforts to build infrastructure to better withstand climate change impacts including flooding, shouldn’t ignore unmet sanitation needs in rural areas, said Flowers, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council advising the Biden administration on environmental justice matters.
She cited a 20-year battle by residents of Hayneville, Ala. to address overflowing sewage and the needs of other rural communities facing failed septic systems in areas not served by public systems. Such challenges aren’t limited to minority communities, she said, and affect rural areas across the U.S. including predominantly white communities, she said.
The challenges “are a reminder of what happens when poverty, inequality, failing or no sanitation or infrastructure, and climate change comes together,” she said. “This is indicative of the failing infrastructure and sanitation inequality that exists throughout the United States, whether in Montgomery, Alabama, where many older black people own failing septic tanks, or Martin County, Kentucky, where poor white families are also seeking sanitation, and environmental justice, as well as good paying jobs.”
During Flowers’ recent visit to Mount Vernon, N.Y., “I’ve met families that have been unable to flush their toilets for more than 20 years,” she said.