Environmental Justice


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   Environmental justice and community reinvestment are two sides of the same coin. Our communities on the one hand have much less access to credit, to bank branches, even to automatic teller machines; on the other hand, we are inundated with toxic uses that other communities would never accept.

   Until recently, environmentalism was conceived primarily as protecting forests and beaches and species of animals about to be hunted or poisoned into extinction. We support all these causes, but, as asthma and cancers and yet-to-be-named diseases continue to increase in our communities, environmentalism becomes less abstract, more immediate, and more necessary.

    Environmental justice has been defined by some as the intersection of civil rights and natural science. Others, mostly critics, have opined that it is simply a change or expansion of strategy by people interested in economic or racial justice, raising the more popular banner of environmentalism to advance their causes. This ideological debate, however, is revealed as little more than academic, when one considers concrete cases in particularly communities.

   Here in the South Bronx, where Inner City Press is headquartered, in 1991 a medical waste incinerator was built, to burn syringes and infectious material from hospitals in nine surrounding counties. The Bronx is by far the poorest, and most predominantly “minority” of these counties; it is also among the most densely populated. The medical waste incinerator was built bare four blocks from a high rise public housing development were thousands of families live.

   After six years of struggle, led by the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition of which ICP is a member, struggles that included shutting down traffic on the Bruckner Expressway which runs between the incinerator and the housing projects, and testifying at every venue possible, from lower Manhattan to Albany and beyond, the incinerator went bankrupt, and shut down. It has now been closed since July 7, 1997 -- although now Browning Ferris Industries, BFI, is in negotiations with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to re-open the incinerator. The struggle continues...

    During these struggles, the community people who skipped work, who brought their children with them after school, and who marched slowly down 138th Street even when no reporters could deign to cover it -- were characterized as extremists, as ill-informed, as hustlers, as ignoramuses. (Not unlike the Community Reinvestment struggles described elsewhere in this web site). But the people who marched were not only the activists, the local elected officials, the environmentalists -- it was primarily mothers and their children, grandmothers, car mechanics, taxi drivers, factory workers. Regular people, who knew, regardless of what the incinerator company’s paid scientists said, that this incinerator of hazardous waste in their community could only mean harm for the health of their children. If the incinerator was so safe, why hadn’t it been sited in the much less populated (but also more affluent) Westchester or Putnam Counties? This question was never answered.  See also, e.g., New York Daily News, August 5, 1996, "Med Firm Insists It's Safe:" "'The things that they are doing is presumptively dangerous to the community,' said [] the director of Inner City Press / Community on the Move, a Bronx activist organization.  'They are bringing in nuclear syringes from six counties.  The Bronx is already overburdened with waste transfer stations.'"

    The struggles continue, in the South Bronx and beyond.

    In what’s no known as “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, community residents and law students from Tulane have for years opposed a chemical plant by Shintech Corporation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) recently went on a fact-finding trip in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

     In Houston, the Sierra Club, Texans United and others in December 1998 filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the EPA, charging systematic lack of enforcement by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. More than fifty Title VI complaints are now pending before the EPA; as the last session of Congress ended, the Republicans added a rider to a bill financing veterans and housing affairs, prohibiting the EPA from processing any of these complaints this fiscal year. The sponsor of the rider was Rep. Joseph Knollberg, R-Mich; the rider was primarily supported and lobbied for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

     Again: environmental justice and community reinvestment are two sides of the same coin.  There is no reason for environmental justice activists to conceal the fact that they are concerned about both issues. If we are concerned about our communities, about our children, about our future -- it would be irrational to follow and be active in only one of these fields. As an academic matter, they may be two separate fields. But as a community matter, they are two sides of the same coin.

    ICP’s new Inner City Public Interest Law Center is becoming more active in environmental justices issues. Here below are some links to legal and other sources useful for local environmental struggles, including national groups with far more expertise than ICP. But if the issues you confront are not limited to a single unhealthy facility, if they intersect in any way with community reinvestment issues (either in connection with so-called “brownfields,” the moderately polluted and some say undevelopable sites that pock mark our communities, or otherwise), contact ICPILC, at (718) 716-3540, and we’ll do what we can.

Internet links:

Environmental Justice Links c/o Corpwatch.org

Environmental Legal Groups compiled by Clark Atlanta University's Environmental Justice Resource Center

Pacific Institute, Oakland, CA

Federal environmental laws c/o EPA

EPA's Interim Guidance on Title VI Complaints

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