Opinion | Everyone deserves environmental justice

Hannah Shedd, Contributing Columnist

Environmental injustice refers to environmental practices disproportionately affecting minorities, people of color and low-income communities. This often looks like pollutants being diverted to minority communities and inequity in access to sustainable options. 

This can have devastating impacts. As with most social justice issues, minority and low-income communities are most impacted. From air and water pollution to unequal access to quality outdoor recreational spaces, environmental injustice is pervasive, and it cannot be ignored. 

The environmental justice movement

The environmental justice movement had a tragic beginning. This movement took off in 1982, in the impoverished areas of Warren County, North Carolina. The state government brazenly dumped 6,000 truckloads of soil containing toxic chemicals for the purpose of creating a waste landfill. 

Residents of Warren County detested the introduction of chemicals into their community and united against the landfill. The protests included acts of defiance such as marches and lying in the pathways of trucks to impede their movement. These actions resulted in over 500 arrests, the first time in United States history that arrests were made over the sitting of a landfill. 

Unfortunately, the government of Warren County prevailed. Toxic waste overtook these innocent residents’ community. However, the battle was not completely lost: It drew national media attention, which jump-started the environmental justice movement. 

Low-income and minority communities

It can be difficult for individuals to grasp the damage that is inflicted by landfills, incinerators and other environmental health risks impacting low-income areas. The average person does not calculate every outcome of their carbon footprint when they toss their waste in the garbage can, but odds are it’s contributing to the health issues of impoverished residents. 

How does garbage contribute to diabetes, lung cancer, strokes, heart diseases and other detrimental diseases in minority and low-income areas? To answer this question, we must look at the journey of waste in America. 

Let’s say you just finished a nice, cold bottle of soda. You toss the empty bottle in the nearest trash can and continue with your day. Now, a garbage truck will pick up all of the waste in that garbage can and send the bottle on its journey. After a network of transfer trucks, the soda bottle eventually arrives at one of three places: a recycling center, a landfill or an incinerator. 

Hopefully it would end up at a recycling center since it’s a recyclable; however, more often than not, it will end up in an incinerator or a landfill. These landfills and incinerators are most likely housed in low-income, minority communities

Landfills and incinerators contribute to a catastrophic amount of air and water pollution. Through targeting minority, low-income communities with landfills, the government is contaminating the drinking water of these communities. 

Not only are these communities’ water supplies threatened, but their air quality is also negatively impacted through the proximity of landfills. Landfills exude dangerous toxins into the air of communities close to landfills. These toxins have been linked to a variety of health conditions, including birth defects. Beyond health concerns, these residents’ quality of life is drastically impacted. Through living near a landfill, residents face noxious odors that make it difficult and unpleasant to breathe. 

Through the burning of waste, pollutants like mercury, lead, arsenic and carbon monoxide are released into the surrounding air. These communities are now at risk of a variety of health conditions, including cancers and respiratory diseases. The ash created through burning waste is also toxic to the environment and further exacerbates health conditions in targeted communities. 

Environmental injustice in the Black Belt 

Often, when considering social justice issues, we think of these issues as distant threats. However, the environmental justice crisis is affecting areas in close proximity to The University of Alabama. 

It is not shocking to discover that Alabama’s Black Belt is heavily targeted regarding environmental injustices. Originally named for the dark, fertile soil of the region, the Black Belt has been historically marginalized and still struggles with high poverty rates. 

To truly understand the environmental struggles that Alabama’s Black Belt is facing, one must examine an especially environmentally targeted town: Uniontown, Alabama. In late 2008, millions of tons of coal ash were transported from a predominantly white area in Tennessee to a landfill in Uniontown. Uniontown’s population is 84% Black, with 49% of residents living below the poverty line. 

Throughout a two-year period, this coal ash was dumped as close as 100 feet from some residents’ front porches. Some chemicals that this coal ash released into the air of the community include arsenic, lead and other radioactive elements. In turn, residents started experiencing respiratory problems, severe headaches, nausea and dizziness, among other health issues. Additionally, residents were forced to endure pungent odors and extreme dust, which contaminated all aspects of their lives. 

Residents of Uniontown banded together and filed a civil rights complaint to Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management. However, the Environmental Protection Agency denied the complaint on the basis of “insufficient evidence.” 

The denial of this complaint has only exacerbated the situation in Uniontown. As of 2018, the landfill is owned by developers based in New York and New Jersey. This change of ownership has caused this landfill to receive around a million tons of out-of-state waste. The recent effects of this landfill have been detrimental to the community, causing residents to either give up their homes and relocate or face potential health risks and extreme odors. 

Uniontown is only one example of many that expose the complete disregard by our governments for residents in low-income, impoverished areas. 

Outdoors for all 

Historically, environmental justice has pertained mainly to waste management. However, a new issue has arisen regarding environmental injustice: the lack of quality outdoor recreational spaces in minority and impoverished areas. 

A bill titled the “Outdoors for All Act” has recently been introduced in the Senate. This bill would create funding for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership, which supports projects involving outdoor recreation opportunities in low-income areas and works toward closing the gap in environmental injustices. 

Environmental injustice issues are unacceptable and are getting exceedingly worse everyday, but there are ways that we can combat this issue. 

First and foremost, recycling can cut down on the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators. Through cutting down on this waste, we can lessen the chance of impoverished communities facing extreme health risks. Recycling not only benefits the environment but also benefits vulnerable communities. Keep that in mind the next time you toss a plastic bottle into a trash can instead of a recycling bin. 

We must raise awareness and amplify the voices of these vulnerable communities. 

However, there is only so much we can do without the government’s help in settling these issues. While we must wait on the government to make positive changes regarding these issues, we do not have to wait silently. I encourage you to stay educated on the current state of these issues in our local community and hold our representatives accountable regarding environmental votes. 

Remember, you have the power to advocate for America’s most vulnerable communities. Educate yourself, raise awareness and use your voice to create environmental equality for all.

This story was published in the Environmental Edition. View the complete issue here.

Questions? Email the opinions desk at letters@cw.ua.edu.