Originally published in State of the Lehigh Valley 2021, Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges (LVAIC)
Peter K. Crownfield, Internship Coordinator, Alliance for Sustainable Communities – Lehigh Valley; and
Devon Jewell, Junior at Moravian Academy
The most basic level of environmental justice is making sure that poor or minority communities, often called ‘EJ communities’, do not suffer disproportionate impacts and have an informed and effective voice in the decisions that affect them. After many decades, though, this basic principle of environmental equity is still a goal that is often unrealized. It is essential to eliminate these unfair impacts, repair the damage, and make the victims whole — but even that would still fall far short of living up to the term environmental justice.
Environmental justice has to mean more than just spreading the harm more equally — it has to mean actually preventing harm, making sure people are not being harmed by their environment in the places where they live, work, and play — now and in the future. This is not intended as an ‘academic’ or theoretical analysis, but as a discussion of ideas that we need to consider if we are to achieve full EJ. Before we examine the situation here in the Lehigh Valley, let’s take a quick look at what has happened to date.
Events That Moved the United States Towards Environmental Justice
We identified some historical events that led to advances in our understanding of Environmental Justice.
● In the 1960s, following the Civil Rights movement, people became increasingly aware that pollution, disruptive infrastructure projects, and environmental hazards were often intentionally located in or near communities that were mostly Black and/or poor.
● In 1968, the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] mandated greater transparency and included a ‘polluter pays’ approach, but actual achievements often fall short of those goals (Council on Environmental Quality, 2021).
● In the 1970s and 1980s, the EJ movement continued to grow, raising awareness of disproportionate burdens to minority and poor communities and the failure to include them in the decision-making processes.
● In 1990, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) called a regional conference on EJ that included Indigenous people who brought a different way of thinking about people’s relation to the environment and to each other. SWOP called out ten major national environmental organizations for failing to work with activists of color, for accepting massive support from major polluters, and for failing to have people of color on their staffs and boards of directors. One important result of the SWOP conference was the formation of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), which remains active today (Indigenous Environmental Network, 2021).
● A major step forward came in 1991, with the People of Color Environmental Justice Summit. Hundreds of delegates assembled in Washington DC and developed a comprehensive declaration of ’The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice’ that broadened the definition of environmental justice to include all people and the places where they live, work, and play.
● In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 directing all federal agencies to develop environmental justice plans. This gave a boost to the environmental justice movement but seemed to result in more talk than real change. It focused on environmental racism and equity, not the broader, more universal principles from the Summit.
● In 2014, Texas Southern University’s School of Public Affairs published a report on the state of environmental justice 20 years later (Texas Southern University, 2014). It included many reports from people who praised the executive order — but others provided indications that all was not well:
“Even now 20 years after the signing of the Environmental Justice Executive Order, communities in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley are still fighting for justice and a safe future for their communities.”
—Darryl Malek-Wiley, Sierra Club Environmental Justice & Community Partnership Program, New Orleans, LA
“The only ones celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Executive Order is the federal government for succeeding to put on the biggest fraud and sin against EJ communities everywhere.”
—Suzie Canales, Executive Director, Citizens for Environmental Justice, Corpus Christi TX
● Later that year, the Flint water crisis proved the critics’ point. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force described the Flint water crisis as “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice” (Compbell, 2016). The same report quotes Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the School of Public Health at Texas Southern University, as saying the Flint water crisis was a classic case of environmental racism, where “… regional EPA officials and state officials in Michigan responded first with a cover-up, and then defensively—either trying to avoid responsibility or minimizing the extent of the damage.”
Why Has There been So Little Progress?
Despite all the nice words from federal and state agencies, it seems clear that racism and other factors continue to block even the most basic level of environmental justice. These failures also violate the Civil Rights Act, since it bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin (and later, sexual orientation and gender identity). Even achieving those oft- repeated goals would not achieve the broader principles outlined at the 1991 Summit, which included preventing harm before it occurs, shifting the burden to polluters, and redressing existing inequities.
Let’s Move Towards Real Environmental Justice
To achieve real environmental justice, we need to actually prevent harm. We need to protect human health and the environment. As early as 1970, European governments had developed what they called a precautionary approach, but this was largely ignored in the U.S. (Brands, 2009). It was not until 1998 that the Science & Environmental Health Network convened a group that developed a clear definition of the Precautionary Principle:
“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”
Even today, though, regulations still fail to prevent widespread exposure to pollutants that are not only toxic, but are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Instead of protecting people and the environment from harm, regulatory agencies like the EPA actually determine what level of harm they will permit (at least until the damage is proven beyond any reasonable doubt). They do not follow the Precautionary Principle, so we continue to encounter these life- and health-threatening pollutants in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink — and in many products that we buy.
“In 2005 a small study of the umbilical cord blood from 10 randomly chosen newborns in the U.S. showed that babies are now coming into this world “pre-polluted” with 200 industrial compounds.”
While this study was limited due to the high cost of testing for multiple pollutants in blood samples, we do know that the chemicals listed in the report have great potential to harm human health (Environmental Working Group, 2005). We’ve known for decades that many common pollutants, such as industrial chemicals and pesticides can persist for decades and cause intergenerational effects. However, the EPA, successive administrations, and Congress all seem to be more interested in producing impressive rhetoric and protecting the polluters (and their profits) instead of protecting the environment and the people. (The same can be said for most state governments and agencies.) One clear example is the exemption of all fracking processes from clean water and other standards. As E.G. Vallianatos and McKay Jenkins demonstrated in Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA, the EPA has a long history of protecting polluters. In 2015, in a review of Poison Spring Carol Van Strum writes:
“Ever since its creation in 1970 the US-EPA has been a failing organization, serving the corporations it was there to regulate, falsifying data, suppressing the truth about pesticide toxicity, and crushing whistleblowers.”
In 2015, an article was published by the European Union Times saying that the EPA has banned a type of pesticide that is dangerous to birds and bees and can even kill them. While talking about the ban on these products Jonathan Evans, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, says:
“EPA has recognized these products are dangerous and they are not going to allow new ones, [but] it “will do nothing about the existing harm that is occurring to…pollinators from already registered products.”
In July of 2019, the EPA said that they would not put a ban on pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos is used to control pests and foliage on many different types of fruits and crops. When the EPA made this decision, Erik Olson, senior director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “Scientists have repeatedly made it clear that chlorpyrifos is linked to long- term harm to kids’ brains…. Until EPA gets this stuff out of our fields and off our food, this fight is not over.”
To achieve environmental justice, we think it is essential to protect all people, including youth and children — and future generations. The idea of considering the welfare of children and future generations is not new — in fact, it was stated about 1,000 years ago in the Haudenosaunee people’s ‘Great Law of Peace’, founding what is often referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy. Benjamin Franklin was impressed by their governance, and even brought some of their concepts into the U.S. Constitution (Yancy, 2021). (Unfortunately, he did not include the need to consider future generations, or for that matter, the central role women played in Haudenosaunee society and governance).
In general, planning and politics today rely primarily on economic considerations and short-term thinking that discounts or ignores the importance of impacts on future generations.
The challenge is to make government, politicians, and planners incorporate comprehensive, longer-term thinking — to remember that two of the key principles of ecology are that everything is connected to everything else and that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Leaving a polluted planet for others to deal with is not environmental justice. Today’s youth and future generations deserve a safe and healthy environment and climate, and their voices need to be considered in EJ concerns. As Greta Thunberg said at the New York City Climate Strike in September 2019: “We deserve a safe future. And we demand a safe future. Is that really too much to ask?”
Environmental Justice in Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley
The state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP) says its mission is “to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment… work as partners with individuals, organizations, governments, and businesses to prevent pollution and restore our natural resources.” We could point to many cases where they have failed to do so, and it would be more accurate to say they, just like the EPA, are in the business of deciding how much harm to permit. In 1997, the DEP took a first step towards EJ, when they denied a permit for yet another polluting facility in the already-burdened, majority-POC city of Chester. DEP went on to set up an environmental justice working group and, finally, an office of environmental justice.
In the Lehigh Valley, many people thought the closing of Bethlehem Steel put an end to air pollution here — but we still have some of the worst air quality in the nation, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation. While the exact rank varies from year to year, their 2021 report puts the Allentown metropolitan area as #1 — the worst air quality in the nation (AAFA). The extent of the problem here is depicted in this 2012 map from Clean Air Task Force:
In addition to creating environmental injustices, these decisions fly in the face of Article 1 §27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which says:
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”
In 2012, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a breakthrough ruling that agencies must live up to this requirement. When state and municipal officials fail to follow the Precautionary Principle, they are allowing harm — and violating the PA Constitution that they swore to uphold.
Global warming and climate change have made it obvious that environmental injustice affects everyone, even those who did not contribute to the problems. Throughout the world, the unfolding climate catastrophe is already a leading threat to public health. It will have huge impacts on the Global South and on young people and future generations everywhere, but they have no voice in the actual decisions the two most basic principles of environmental justice.
A new report released in October 2021 by PennEnvironment confirms the problem (Environment America Research & Policy Center). The real culprits here in the Lehigh Valley are vehicle emissions and the cement kilns, complicated by the fact that the Valley is an ‘air basin’ that tends to retain air pollution. Based on national statistics, this causes or is a major factor in about 300 deaths per year in the Lehigh Valley.
While the harm from air pollution is Valley-wide, local conditions add to the burden in areas where people are exposed to higher- than-average traffic from nearby roads and high-traffic facilities. Warehouse distribution centers are an obvious example, but parking structures and large commercial buildings can be equally problematic — yet several such facilities have been approved just this year in problematic locations.
Major highways span the Lehigh Valley, and there are numerous distribution-centers ‘warehouses’ here, so it is not surprising that the Valley is a significant generator of the greenhouse gasses (GHG) that fuel global warming and the climate emergency. Use of fossil fuels for heating, generating electricity, motor vehicles, and industry all contribute to the problem. Two major contributors are widespread use of natural gas (with total climate impacts roughly equivalent to coal) and consumption of plastic (which releases GHG when manufactured, in use, and when it is disposed of). The Bethlehem Climate Action Plan addresses ways to both mitigate and adapt to climate change and has a strong focus on environmental justice and environmental equity. It also calls for integrating global warming and the climate emergency throughout the educational system.
Why Aren’t All Lehigh Valley Schools Teaching About Environmental Justice and Climate Justice?
It is startling to realize that — over 20 years after the impacts of global warming and climate change were widely known, and over seven years since the Bethlehem Area School District adopted a Climate and Sustainability Commitment (Alliance for Sustainable Communities) — that climate change is not integrated throughout the curriculum at all age levels. Although there have been some improvements in teaching the science, many students still graduate without having learned about the climate emergency or climate justice in school. At the 2019 Climate Strike rally in Bethlehem, local student Dhara Burak, then 14, said:
“…every time I think about the realistic future, all I see is the world ending. It’s the fact that I don’t get to dream because of greenhouse gasses and big oil companies…. All climate scientists agree: climate change is real, and the consequences are about to hit us hard…”
We Have a Long Way to Go
Past and current harms must be redressed, of course, but we also must move towards a realistic concept of EJ that focuses on preventing harm to all people rather than spreading it more equally; we must apply the Precautionary Principle (see above), protect youth and children, and give full weight to impacts on future generations. The mechanics of how to do this will vary according to the situation, but the key is to place people first in business and legal decisions.
This common-sense, harm- prevention approach is so obvious that we have to question why it was not done decades ago, as soon as we understood the widespread harm to people’s health from synthetic chemicals and fossil-fuel pollution.
Our understanding of environmental justice continues to grow. Australian scholar Christine Winter raises questions about what environmental justice means — when we are talking about the rights of nature. What is environmental justice for a river? …for a mountain? …for an entire ecosystem? We have not yet had time to digest her recently-published book (Winter, 2021), but these explorations could dramatically expand our thinking about environmental justice in the future.
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