The racist suffocation of environmental justice

The racist suffocation of environmental justice
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“I can’t breathe” are the words changing a nation. Hopefully part of that change will be more breathable air and better respiratory health for the Black and brown communities who have been the victims of systemic racism that runs rampant in municipal waste management practices. These very practices are also contributing to higher COVID-19 mortality rates in those neighborhoods.

For decades, low-income communities of color have been targeted for the placement of dirty industries, particularly waste facilities such as trash incinerators, which emit a toxic plume that includes nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide (both of which are associated with pulmonary health risks and damage) as well as lead and mercury. This is part of a longer, historic pattern in virtually every aspect of racial inequality — from higher unemployment rates for communities of color to poorer health care, elevated infant mortality rates and inferior schools

It was not surprising that a Harvard University study published in April showed that higher levels of particulate matter are associated with a 15 percent higher COVID-19 mortality rate. We have long known about the health vulnerabilities that air pollution causes; during the Obama administration, I led the EPA’s analysis of waste facilities that revealed communities adjacent to these facilities were disproportionately minority or low-income and at greater risk of exposure to hazards. The facts of environmental injustice and health consequences — and recommendations to combat it — are also laid out in the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ new action plan. With 80 percent of solid waste incinerators located in environmental justice communities (communities hampered by pollution and other industrial sources), some of the underlying reasons for a racially disproportionate COVID-19 death rate are all too clear.

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Sadly, even some of the most dedicated environmentalists have repeatedly sidelined matters of environmental justice. I worked on these issues for many years in New York City and nationally, examining the use of trash incineration and waste facilities in different parts of the city. I saw whole neighborhoods of wealthy “progressive” white New Yorkers — vocally dedicated to recycling and “saving the planet” — spend their seemingly limitless money and time to prevent their own responsibility for managing waste to ameliorate the historic targeting of waste facilities in communities of color. As a person of color who has experienced discrimination and racially motivated assault myself, the experience was deeply disturbing.

The fight against burning trash — an environmental abomination that is on the rise due to global shifts in how recyclable materials are managed — must put environmental justice at the top of its “why” arguments from this day forward. Waste incineration is an industry that built itself on the backs of environmental justice communities. The decisions to burn trash in minority neighborhoods did not happen in a vacuum; they were built on top of the systemic racism of land use and chosen because the residents have a limited capacity to fight back. COVID-19 has exposed this modern racism as deadly, and George Floyd’s final, haunting words matched this concurrent injustice.

Going forward, any consideration of building, expanding or further subsidizing waste burning  facilities — even with claims of the newest, best, cleanest technology — must squarely prioritize location, the history of racism and environmental justice. Municipalities across the U.S. have regressed to burning valuable resources in the wake of China’s decision to stop importing our recyclable materials. We cannot solve this problem by reverting to an outdated, dirty, resource-wasting form of waste management that is not only contrary to environmental and economic considerations, but also ignores history. 

Not being able to breathe is one of every human being’s greatest fears. Hearing those words from a dying man, in the midst of a pandemic that threatens some lives more than others, was the tragedy that commanded long-overdue attention to systemic racism. Of the many poignant lessons of this moment in our history is that place matters and air matters. Decisions about where and how to manage solid waste can be brutally unjust. Targeting these communities must be exposed and stopped. Communities of color must be allowed to breathe.

Mathy Stanislaus served as the U.S. EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration.