Delayed environmental justice was denied – Advice Eating

Delayed environmental justice was denied

It has taken a very long time, but environmental justice has moved to the heart of the environmental agenda. Here in New York City, the environmental justice movement fought for decades against the site of the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Harlem. With the site battle lost, activists pushed to improve the treatment plant and reduce its environmental impact. They worked on designing Riverbank State Park, a beautiful facility that sits above the facility. Percy Sutton and David Dinkins and most of the Harlem political establishment opposed locating the plant in Harlem. West Harlem Environmental Action, WEACT’s predecessor, and its visionary leader, Peggy Shepard, partnered with NRDC and successfully sued New York City to minimize the facility’s negative impact on the Harlem community. The history of the plant and its siting are thoroughly analyzed in a superb 1994 case study published in Fordham Law Review and authored by environmental justice pioneer Vernice D. Miller (now Miller-Travis). Miller’s case study describes the terms of the comparison between New York City and the community of Harlem:

“In April 1992, the city and DEP provided a $55 million fund to address North River’s construction and odor problems. In lieu of a fine for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the City DEP also established a $1.1 million West Harlem Environmental Benefits Fund, administered by a steering committee of community representatives. Through this fund, the community hopes to conduct a health risk assessment, a cumulative environmental impact assessment, independent monitoring of facility operations, development of urban gardens and safe playgrounds, development of local green industries, and environmental science internships for neighborhood youth and students.”

The history of the facility’s location is a case study in environmental racism, as the location magically shifted from mid-West Manhattan north to the northern part of the island. But times are changing, and we now have a President who is committed to environmental justice, and the wheels of the mammoth federal bureaucracy are turning slowly to implement his vision. It began with a sweeping environmental executive order issued by President Biden on his seventh full day in office. Among other provisions, Biden’s executive order created an interagency environmental justice council and established a government-wide approach to environmental justice. By order of the President:

“Agencies must make achieving environmental justice part of their mission by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate and adverse impacts on human health, the environment, climate, and other cumulative impacts on and those in disadvantaged communities accompanying economic challenges to address such impacts. It is therefore my administration’s policy to ensure environmental justice and promote economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have historically been marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and sanitation infrastructure, and healthcare.”

Last week, as part of efforts to implement the executive order, the Justice Department and EPA announced a joint effort to file indictments against polluters that impact low-income communities. There is ample evidence that communities of color and low-income communities are more exposed to pollution than more affluent communities. In addition, there is insufficient access to health care. Wealthy people are better able to avoid pollution and better able to manage health effects of exposure. Childhood asthma is a common example of this. A child living in poverty may not have access to the inhaler and other medicines that prevent and minimize asthma attacks, and the condition may worsen as the child gets older. For a child with better access to health care, asthma can be a childhood illness that they can overcome as they get older. writing in Washington Post Last week, David Nakamura and Darryl Fears found that:

“Experts have said that neighborhoods with higher concentrations of ethnic minorities and the economically disadvantaged are more likely to suffer from health problems caused by environmental pollution or destruction. A report Last month, 45 million Americans said they were breathing dirtier air because of racist redlining. The March study found that black and Hispanic Americans live in areas where disadvantaged populations were concentrated due to housing discrimination, compared to whites, with more smog and particulate matter from cars, trucks, buses, coal-fired power plants and other nearby industrial sources.”

In addition to Justice Department and EPA efforts to improve enforcement, the Biden administration has allocated significant funds from the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill to pay for environmental infrastructure such as lead pipe replacements in low-income communities. While the Biden team is engaged, opposition from some Republican governors poses significant challenges. According to Nakamura and Fears:

“…the administration has yet to flesh out how it will deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to communities in states with Republican governors opposed to its mission. Activists on the ground in states like Louisiana, Alabama and Texas have said they doubt they will ever see such funding.”

The federal environmental justice initiative as a whole is well-intentioned, and given the government’s slim majority in Congress, the strategy of drawing on resources not specifically dedicated to environmental justice is probably necessary. Last week, the White House named a new environmental justice chief for the Environmental Quality Council, as the Biden team’s first environmental justice chief resigned due to the non-stop pace of work. According to a report by The Washington Post Darryl fears:

“Jalonne L. White-Newsomean, an academic who has worked in government and with grassroots activists, has been elected as the Council on Environmental Quality’s new executive director for environmental justice. She will replace Cecilia Martinez, who said working 14 hours a day, almost seven days a week for more than a year has worn her down… Mallory runs an agency of just six people dedicated to environmental justice. Council members say at least 50 staff are needed, along with more funding that the government’s climate leadership, including national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, has failed to mobilize.”

Getting on the political agenda is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to achieve the organizational outcomes needed to change environmental outcomes. It is difficult to generate the resources needed to staff any type of environmental program, and new priorities such as environmental justice must compete for resources with long-established programs. There is still work to be done, and being a high priority for a president with a 40% approval rating is anything but reassuring. But in the past year and a half, Washington has made more strides than ever before.

As important as federal money and policies are to environmental justice, the real battles will continue to be local, fought by activists trying to protect their neighborhoods and families. The intensity and stakes of these conflicts are high. I saw this first hand when I was in Buffalo at graduate school when residents near the Love Canal saw toxic waste pouring into their basements and backyards. At Love Canal, the neighborhood association and its highly effective leader, Lois Gibbs, fought for years to achieve environmental rehabilitation and restoration. Lead pipes in Flint, Michigan and deadly poisons across America are more common than we care to admit. This is particularly unfair when our air and water overall are cleaner than they were half a century ago.

We’ve begun the transition to an environmentally sustainable economy, but we’re doing so in the face of the growing gap between America’s rich and poor. The concept of a Green New Deal provides a mechanism to use this transition to bridge this gap while protecting the environment. In New York City, Mayor Adams has upped the priority of environmental justice and appointed a new chief climate officer, Rohit Aggarwala. Adams also amalgamated a number of entities into a Climate and Environmental Justice Mayor’s Office to be headed by Kizzy Charles-Guzman, who reports to Aggarwala. In Washington and here in New York City, we see evidence of a real desire to address environmental justice issues. We won’t know for a while whether these words will be followed by deeds, but I remain optimistic as always. Delayed environmental justice has long been justice denied, but it’s never too late to do better.


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