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News / Northwest

Why environmental justice matters, from the founder himself

By Conrad Swanson, The Seattle Times
Published: April 21, 2024, 5:54am

You might think of environmental justice as an old concept, old as the environmental movement itself.

Surely, you say, the father of environmental justice is long gone, his lessons passed down through generations, his legacy enshrined in the marbled annals of history.

But you’d be wrong.

Robert Bullard is very much alive and active. In fact, he was just in the city.

Bullard is a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

The sociologist’s intellect, fervor, comedic timing and thirst for justice are as strong now (if not stronger) as they were in the late 1970s.

Back then, Bullard’s wife — a lawyer — asked him to conduct research for a lawsuit she filed trying to block a landfill near a mostly Black neighborhood in Houston. He found that all landfills owned by the city and three-quarters of private landfills and municipal incinerators were in Black neighborhoods.

Houston disposed of the vast majority of its waste in Black neighborhoods, despite the demographic making up only a quarter of the city’s population. Those facilities brought with them health hazards, pollution, lower property values and more.

“We lost that court case,” he said. “But a movement was born.”

And he’s going to keep fighting. Even before he walked on stage at Town Hall, he had to argue the points he’s been making for nearly five decades. But he’ll keep after it.

“The first four letters of my name are what?” he said. “Bull. I won’t take it.”

What is environmental justice?

America is segregated and so is its pollution, Bullard said.

That pretty much sums up the basis for environmental justice and the 17 principles that now define the movement.

Institutional and systemic racism built into the fabric of our country means that the people who generate the least amount of pollution still suffer the worst of its effects. Or they suffer the greatest risk from environmental hazards because they receive fewer protections.

Think of the landfills and incinerators in Houston. Think of levee failures during Hurricane Katrina. Think of the communities across the country with oil and gas refineries in their backyards.

These problems are exacerbated by climate change. Poor and minority communities are increasingly at risk of degrading air quality, heat waves, flooding, losing power and more, Bullard said.

There’s no mystery to these consequences, Bullard said. They’re all the result of how we — as a country — planned and built our cities.

“You tell me your ZIP code, I can pretty much tell you what’s in your neighborhood and how healthy you are,” Bullard said.

“This is not rocket science,” he said.

Why should you care?

Because it’s all connected.

Think once more of Hurricane Katrina. Levees in wealthier and whiter areas of New Orleans were better maintained than those in poorer and Black neighborhoods, Bullard said. When the storm surge breached the latter, most of the city flooded.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said.

Environmental and climate effects often compound into greater problems.

Communities breathing more air pollution suffer respiratory and cardiovascular damage, stressing the health care system.

The asthmatic death rate for Black children is eight times higher than that of white children, Bullard said.

“That is unacceptable. That is preventable,” he said. “We should be mad as hell.”

Dense, urban areas without trees, parks or cooling centers turn into heat islands. Black, pregnant women face an increased risk of complications for their children, Bullard said. Students in schools without air conditioning or reliable access to electricity fall behind. Outdoor workers suffer both heat and poor air quality, and as conditions worsen, they might not be able to work at times.

Expand the problem to the national gross domestic product, Bullard said. This measurement of all goods and services produced in the country could drop 1.2% in the coming decades as climate change worsens.

But that’s a misleading figure because it averages the loss across the entire country, Bullard said. For areas across the South and the Gulf Coast, that loss could be as high as 20%.

These environmental injustices cascade across the country and their effects ripple outward to harm us all.

So what do we do?

The movement has enjoyed some success over the years.

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Bullard mentioned an executive order signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994, directing federal agencies to find and address areas disproportionately suffering from environmental hazards. Then, a year ago, President Joe Biden signed another executive order reaffirming Clinton’s commitment and laying additional framework to achieve those goals.

Plus, with the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration earmarked around $60 billion for the environmental justice movement, Bullard said.

“Now, the challenge is to ensure that those dollars flow to the communities with the most need,” he said.

Similarly, Washington has nearly $2 billion available for climate-related projects. A substantial amount of that money is dedicated toward environmental justice work, though some have questioned whether it’s being spent as intended.

With all that money available we must take care when placing hydrogen hubs and renewable energy or carbon capture projects, Bullard said. Otherwise, we run the risk of making the same mistakes we made with oil and gas refineries, mining operations, pipelines, landfills and more.

But wait, you might say, aren’t those facilities safer than oil refineries?

Maybe, Bullard said. But the communities in which they’re placed must have the right to refuse them. Or, if they’re built, those communities should benefit from the jobs they create or the energy they produce.

Political victories and funding packages can be short-lived, however, without constant pressure from the public, Bullard said. People must continue pushing for political, economic, climate and environmental justice together because they’re all connected.

“Vote, vote vote. Make our elected officials accountable,” he said. “We have to do it, there’s too much at stake.”