Equality of Environment

by Enya O'Riordan on February 21, 2014

                    When most of us think about inequality, we consider measures of wealth or education or civil rights – but many disadvantaged Americans are also discriminated against in terms of the environment that they live in. In   more formal terms, I’m referring to what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls environmental justice. Environmental justice refers to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.  In 2012 Jane Kay and Cheryl Katz of the journal Scientific American published a story about the lives of the residents of North Richmond, CA, who are one of many communities of color across the US facing environmental injustices.

                    During WWII many African American families moved to the small town of North Richmond for two reasons – jobs at the nearby Chevron refinery and cheaper housing.  Today Latinos, blacks and Asians makes up 97% of the community, and most homes sell for below $100,000.  However, what they save on housing, they pay for with their health.  Five large oil refineries, three chemical companies, several dozen toxic waste sites, highways, rail yards and ports surround the city of Richmond.  Years and years of toxic emissions from these industries have taken a huge toll on residents’ health: residents of Richmond are at a significantly higher risk for heart disease and stroke, and their children are much more likely to go to the hospital for asthma than other children in the Bay area. It is the all too familiar combination of color, poverty, and  a polluted environment that is destroying the health of the people of Richmond. And this scene is certainly not rare – around 56% of Americans who live in neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of large commercial hazardous waste facilities are people of color.

                    Richmond has been the focus of much controversy over air pollution.  The U.S. EPA has calculated that more than 80% of Contra Costa county’s toxic waste emissions – the Bay Area’s most industrialized county – comes from its four oil refiners within 20 miles of Richmond.  The Chevron refinery alone, by far the community’s biggest polluter, released 575,669 pounds of chemicals into air, water and waste facilities in 2010.  This air contains many carcinogens, such as benzene, butadiene and nickel, as well as chemicals that can have severe respiratory or neurological effects, such as ammonia and sulfuric acid.  What is perhaps even more concerning is that residents are being exposed to these toxic industrial chemicals not only at work but within their own homes as well, according to a 2006 study.

                    This environmental discrimination, while devastating, offers a variety of options for creating a more just space in which all Americans can thrive. Poverty and environmental degradation are intricately linked, and therefore any sustainable development initiative must address the root causes of both poverty and pollution and seek solutions to this double-threat.  First and foremost, all of the existing environmental, health, housing, and civil rights laws already in place must be vigorously enforced in a non-discriminatory way.  Second, the U.S. government should initiate an action program to make available finances and infrastructure to bring clean and affordable energy sources to those communities who still rely on coal for energy.  Finally, in order to ensure better enforcement of air pollution laws and gain more funding from the U.S. government, all Americans and especially those living in affected communities such as Richmond must come together to achieve environmental justice.  By building a strong environmental justice movement, the American public can work to hold governments and big businesses accountable for air pollution and its detrimental health effects.



U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental Justice. ONLINE. Available: http://www.epa.gov/compliance/ej/index.html

Kay, Jane and Cheryl Katz. 2012. “Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Living with Industry.” Scientific American. ONLINE. Available: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/pollution-poverty-people-color-living-industry/

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