Ohio has issues with environmental racism

Ohio has issues with environmental racism

Often the negative environmental and social effects of over-consumption and capitalism do not directly affect us and thus it is easy to dismiss them.

Most of us will never see the results of mountaintop coal removal, a process that blows the tops of Appalachian Mountains to access coal for electricity generation. However, we rely on electricity that is often generated by coal.

We will never know the poverty of all those who work overseas in the fast fashion industry for less than a dollar a day. However, we buy cheap, short-lived apparel.

We will never breathe the suffocating fumes from industrial facilities located in the poor, minority neighborhoods of America, like LaPlace Louisiana in “Cancer Alley.” However, we want our paints, solvents, rubber, steel and endless plastic products.

What if the true costs of what we buy included the added costs of externalities? How about the costs of damage to the environment in the form of air and water pollution? Could we add in the medical costs of cancer from workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals? And what about the costs of the social impacts to communities hosting the infrastructure for manufacturing our products? If we did add in all these costs, we probably could not afford to buy the stuff we now buy.

Today, our nation and the world are confronting the historical problem of systemic racism. We are becoming more aware of racism experienced by people of color in every aspect of society.

Attention also is being focused on the fact that poor communities of color or indigenous communities around the world are often those that pay the price of rampant consumerism. These costs come in the form of dirty air and water, polluting factories, exposures to pesticides, destruction of ecosystems, and sub-standard working conditions.

The term environmental racism was first used in 1982 by civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis, who said it was “racial discrimination in environmental policy making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.”

America’s history is full of examples of discrimination against indigenous Native American populations. In 1998 I had the opportunity to visit a reservation in New Mexico just a few miles outside Santa Fee. It was part of a field trip for a master’s degree class in “Environment and Community.”

It was like visiting a third-world country. I was shocked at the poverty, the horrible living conditions, the lack of a grocery store, a doctor or things we take for granted every day.

We also learned during that visit that many of the reservations in the Southwestern United States were located very close to uranium mines and nuclear wastes dumping sites. In a 2015 article published in Geosciences, it was noted Native Americans in the Colorado Plateau area including the Navajo, Southern Ute, Ute Mountain, Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma and several other Pueblo nations, with their intimate knowledge of the land, often led miners to uranium resources.

As a result of the mining activity, “many Indian Nations residing near areas of mining or milling have had and continue to have their health compromised.”

The tribal residents needed the jobs provided by uranium mining. Often, they were not informed as to the possible dangers of being around the radioactive ore. Most of the mines have been closed, but the radiation continues to harm residents who are exposed to radioactive particles found in the water and air around the mines.

Many of these mines located close to Native American reservations are so extremely toxic they have been classified as “superfund” sites. This is a designation given to polluted locations that are given priority to get funding for a long-term clean-up procedure.

Native Americans also were the target of environmental racism during the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The residents of Bismarck, North Dakota protested the initial route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, fearing it might pose a hazard to the water supply of the town. The town, which is 92% white, wanted the pipeline route moved. It was immediately rerouted away from the city without even so much as a public meeting.

The new route took the pipeline through many sacred indigenous sites and burial grounds, which exist on land protected by ancestral treaties. The pipeline also is close to the drinking water source for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

In the winter 2016, there were protests by members of the tribe. These members were soon joined by U.S. veterans and other citizens from around the world. The peaceful protests were met with tear gas, water cannons, attack dogs and rubber bullets.

Ohio has its own issues with environmental racism. In 1989 a Swiss company, Von Roll America, received a permit to build one of the largest hazardous waste incinerators in the world in East Liverpool, Ohio. The incinerator is 300 feet from homes and 1,100 feet from an elementary school, and in the floodplain of the Ohio River.

The company did their homework well, as they researched a possible location in the tri-state region that would accept an incinerator. They pitched the jobs and economic development narrative to the local politicians and chose a neighborhood in a part of the city that had low incomes and a minority population. They told the residents that only carbon dioxide and water vapor would come from the stack. They didn’t mention the dioxin or over four tons of lead a year in the stack effluent.

As our family became involved with local grassroots organizations that unsuccessfully tried to stop construction of the incinerator, we realized this was an issue of environmental racism. It was upsetting to watch residents sitting out on their porches or hanging their clothes outside while the toxic plume curled along the smokestack. Even worse, imagining what students would do if there was an explosion at the plant.

The fight for environmental justice still continues in the Ohio Valley. East Liverpool residents are now pushing back against a plan to incinerate toxic, PFAS flame retardants.

Additionally, residents of Dilles Bottom, Ohio and Moundsville, West Virginia are trying to stop the construction of a polluting plastic-making cracker plant by a Thailand-based developer, PTT Global Chemical America.

Sadly, environmental racism is still putting people of color, the poor and indigenous communities of the world at much higher health risks from toxic pollution.

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