Vote As If Your Life Depends On It: Especially for US, It Does!

Toxic Exposure and the Importance of Civic Engagement in Communities of Color

In response to the disturbing information crossing my desk about the disproportionate dumping of oiled waste from the BP Oil Drilling Disaster in communities of color, I called our friend at the EPA and asked that he set up some visits for us to tour these landfills, as well as the waste processing centers, a.k.a. “staging areas” so that we can get a sense of what’s going on, why, and how it’s impacting communities of color.

What we discovered in our visits is the systemic and structural set up that makes it almost inevitable that this waste would find its way into communities of color, as so much other waste does.  Of course, this is not news to the environmental justice mavens who have been fighting these battles for decades.

In fact BP didn’t just wake up and say, “we’re going to dump this waste in communities of color”, though they certainly did have choices as to where to dump. However, what governed those choices is where we begin to see the age old dynamics that result in disproportionate exposures to a variety of toxins in communities of color.

BP chose its sites based on existing permitted sites for the type of waste they were disposing. They also chose the sites based on minimizing the transport distance for the waste. A third determining factor was which facility was able to offer the lowest cost for waste disposal. The result of their selection process was that out of the nine sites selected to process the waste, six were in communities that were predominantly people of color.

From ColorLines...

Why? Because permitted landfills are already predominantly in communities of color and the owners of the landfills in those areas are able to benefit from depressed land values and can therefore outbid competitors when vying for the contracts to process waste.  Conversely in the one community that was not disproportionately populated by people of color, Harrison County, in Mississippi, citizen’s action resulted in the waste not going there.

The oil drilling disaster is just one example of scores of situations that were touched on last year in our “Poisoned Communities” feature story, where multiple scenarios were shared illustrating the health impacts of exposures to landfills, industrial facilities like coal plants, etc.  According to studies led by Dr.  Robert Bullard, “Godfather of the Environmental Justice Movement”:  

Seventy-one percent of African Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards, as compared to fifty-eight percent of the white population. Seventy-eight percent of African Americans live within thirty miles of a coal-fired power plant, as compared to fifty-six percent of non-Hispanic whites. Asthma, which has a strong correlation to many of the same airborne pollutants that drive climate change, affects African Americans at a 36 percent higher rate of incidence than whites. African Americans are hospitalized for asthma at three times the rate of whites and die of asthma at twice the rate of whites. 

Sheila and her family in Dickson, TN who drank water contaminated by landfill seepage for years and are now afflicted with various forms of cancer, the New Albany IN families of the deceased coal plant worker and the family matriarch who lived two miles from the same plant, both of whom died of lung cancer never smoked a day in their lives, are just two of the many other examples of the combination of toxic exposure and lack of civic engagement needed to protect these communities. 

On the victory side, the families in Chicago who surround the toxin emitting coal fired power plants and also experience a disproportionate level of respiratory diseases according to the Harvard School of Public Health studies, led by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization are fighting back.  They have organized together and are now in the process of passing an ordinance regulating the toxic emissions from the two most toxic coal plants in the nation. That’s the power of civic engagement!

What can we do to ensure that our interests are being served in zoning, permitting, and other decision making that is central to our health, economic security, and general wellbeing?  We can make sure we are in hose decision making spaces, whether it’s the zoning boards, the city councils, the school boards, the disaster planning committees, etc. We need to make sure we are at every table representing the needs, the interests, and the rights of our communities. We also need to make sure we hold folks in those positions, folks we need to be responsible for putting in the places that will impact our lives, accountable for how they act and in whose interests. Thirdly we need to get involved even when we are not directly in those positions, such as what LVEJO helped the residents in Chicago do in developing and advancing that ordinance.

However, foremost, and most immediately, we need to vote. That’s something that we can all do, that we have a right to do and that we must do! Through the candidate selection process, which should be based on candidate records and actions on the issues that serve the interests of the communities, we can ensure that those in place have a history of making choices that are in the interest of our communities. By voting and demonstrating that communities of color are a formidable bloc that can be responsible for the rise and fall of elected officials, we can ensure that those in elected office are accountable to the needs of communities of color.

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