There are few things more precious to humans than the air we breathe; unfortunately, not all air is created equally.
If you need proof, take a ride across the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, past the sprawling oil refinery owned by the recently formed Philadelphia Energy Group, and spend a few moments wandering the streets of Schuylkill Southwest – where residents have spent decades dealing with the mysterious odors that periodically emanate from the glowing stacks less than a mile away.
Nearly three quarters of the neighborhood’s population is African American – more than half earn less than $25,000 a year – and while their story is not unique, they share something in common with similar populations of Americans scattered across the nation’s post-industrial landscape: They are being disproportionately deprived of quality air.
Over the years, research has shown that low-income and minority communities are breathing higher concentrations of dangerous chemicals and particulates than their upper income and white counterparts; and experts say they are paying the price for it, with higher incidences of learning disabilities tied to lead exposure, respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, and chronic heart disease and cancer.
Statistics show that African Americans are suffering the worst. Blacks are hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate of whites. Between 2001 and 2009 asthma rates in Black children increased almost 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with higher exposure to environmental pollutants listed as one of the causes.
Whether you choose to call it a “disproportionate burden of environmental risks and harms,” as the Environmental Protection Agency did in 2004, or “environmental racism” – the term preferred by community advocates – the problem is real, and it’s not getting any better.
A new report from the NAACP shows that despite a federal mandate designed to narrow the gap, poor people and minorities continue to be impacted by coal industry pollution more than any other group. The NAACP ranked 378 coal-fired power plants on the basis of toxic emissions and demographic factors and found that the income level of people living near polluting facilities is more than $3,000 below the national average.
More than two-thirds of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired plant – the distance at which health effects from fallout are most likely to be felt. The dirtier the coal plant, the higher the proportion of minorities living near it. Of the four million people living within three miles of the nation’s 75 “failing plants” – which account for the highest levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – 53 percent are minorities, while more than three quarters of the people living near the 12 “worst offending plants” are people of color, the NAACP found.
“Coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “There is no disputing the urgency of this issue.”
Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative, traveled the country as a co-author of the study and saw firsthand the human impact of these disparities.
“We saw a troubling pattern, and heard story after story of people who had health conditions that presented themselves after moving into areas near these plants, or saw a pattern of more people than the norm having these conditions,” she said, recounting the story of one resident who claimed that half the members of her church were on respirators.
Yet coal is hardly the only culprit. Thanks to its long history as a center of heavy industry, Philadelphia has earned the distinction of being one of America’s most polluted metropolitan areas. In its 2012 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association listed Philadelphia tenth on its list of cities with the worst particulate pollution, and just last week Philly was ranked the third dirtiest city in the nation by Forbes – with 18.5 million pounds a year of toxic releases, according to EPA data. The City of Chester – which sits just outside Philadelphia and where three quarters of the population is Black – is home to the largest trash incinerator in the state, and for years has been a focal point of environmental justice activism.
A pattern of discrimination
The NAACP report is just one of a number of studies released over the past decade detailing the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution on communities of color. An Associated Press analysis of data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory from 2005 shows African Americans are nearly 80 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is a problem. In 2009, the Ford Foundation sponsored a comprehensive survey of 300 metropolitan areas and determined that Blacks fare worse than any other ethnic group when it comes to exposure to air pollution from a variety of sources.
“If the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem,” the authors stated, “America must acknowledge that clean and safe air – which would seem to be a birthright of every person – is not currently an equal-opportunity affair.”
The study ranked the Harrisburg metropolitan area fifth in the nation for environmental racism, with minorities suffering more than 32 percent of the impact from industrial pollution despite making up just 13.5 percent of the population. Until it was shut down in 2003, the predominantly minority neighborhood of South Harrisburg was home to the largest dioxin polluting trash incinerator in America. (A plan to rebuild it forced the city into bankruptcy last year).
While both low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from environmental pollution, according to Philadelphia-based environmental attorney Mike Ewall – a long-time activist and founder of the Energy Justice Network – race plays a bigger role than class.
“If one were to compare a middle-class community of color to a low-income white community, and look at which community is more likely to have a hazardous waste facility sited there, the middle-class community of color would have a greater chance of being targeted for such a facility,” he said.
Patterson, of the NAACP, says that’s because environmental racism is as much a function of political capital, or lack thereof, as it is about income. Black communities have faced a history of political marginalization, making it harder to fight off proposed polluting facilities or close down existing ones, she says. Also, while poor white and Black families might have similar incomes, African Americans tend to have less wealth, which is an important factor when it comes to buying property. Patterson points to a study that found property values average 15 percent lower in areas near a toxic polluting facility.
The federal government has been aware of these discrepancies since the early 1970s, and under President Bill Clinton resolved to do something about them. In an executive order signed in February 1994, Clinton called on the EPA to achieve “environmental justice … by identifying and addressing…disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”
Twice since then, in 2004 and 2006, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General has analyzed the agency’s progress, and in both cases determined that it had failed to consistently integrate environmental justice into its day-to-day operations or direct regional offices to conduct environment justice reviews. Last year, the nonprofit Center For Public Integrity detailed dozens of open environmental justice cases “languishing” in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, some of which are more than a decade old.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA’s Administrator, has listed environment justice as one of the agency’s top seven priorities and says her goal is to make environmental justice and fairness part of EPA’s everyday decision-making. In 2010 the agency launched its EJ2014 initiative, which seeks to create a comprehensive roadmap for protecting and empowering communities over-burdened by pollution.
“EPA has always had a special role with respect to environmental justice, but in this administration, President Obama has really revitalized the larger issue of environmental justice, in which other agencies as well as ours are playing important roles,” she said, in an interview last March published in The Root.
But activists representing the environmental justice movement are dubious of the government’s ability to get anything done without legislative changes to the current mandate, which according to its own language “is intended only to improve internal management” and lacks “any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law.”
Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network, says current law “lacks teeth” because it includes “no remedies; there’s basically nothing enforceable in it at all.” He insists that any new initiative will require new laws with the power to hold polluters accountable, for instance, by revoking permits.
Meanwhile courts have tied private citizens’ hands to deal with the problem through legal channels. Ewall points to a legal precedent set in 2001 that prohibits private lawsuits alleging a violation of Title VI civil rights without proof of intent. “If you can’t prove that the disproportionate environmental impact is intentional, you’re out of luck,” he said.
According to the EPA’s website, while EJ2014 will “implement guidance [for] incorporating environmental justice into the fabric of its rulemaking process,” the program itself is “not a rule or regulation,” but “a strategy to help integrate environmental justice into EPA’s day to day activities.” Among the proposed reforms are changes to the permitting process to include more community involvement.