Environmental Justice and Industrial Pollution

I went to two environmental Town Hall Meetings this week.  The first, on the joint city/county Climate Action Plan in North Portland sponsored by the Urban League; and the second, sponsored by the Attorney General John Kroger to discuss his newly funded environmental crime division, along the banks of the Tualatin River in the town that bears its name.  One thing that stood out for certain is:  the environment is not an issue that attracts a diverse racial population to its meetings in this area.  As Marcus Mundy, President and CEO of the Urban League, quipped in his opening remarks and introduction of Mayor Sam Adams, he supposed by asking the Urban League to sponsor the event, the city expected a high black turn-out. Mundy went on to add that it was a good thing his family came.

But, not surprisingly, the burdens of climate change and industrial pollution fall disproportionately on the shoulders of African Americans.  According to  J. Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson who co-wrote the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, African Americans are thirteen percent of the U.S. population and on average emit nearly twenty percent less greenhouse gases than non-Hispanic whites per capita.  “Though far less responsible for climate change, African Americans are significantly more vulnerable to its effects. Health, housing, economic well-being, culture and social stability are harmed from such manifestations of climate change as storms, floods, and climate variability. African Americans are also more vulnerable to higher energy bills, unemployment, recessions caused by global energy price shocks, and a greater economic burden from military operations designed to protect the flow of oil to the U.S.
Like-wise, the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts Amherst published a report Justice In The Air, that determined “Air pollution from industrial facilities is unevenly distributed…A growing body of research has demonstrated that people of color and low-income communities often face the greatest environmental hazards. Toxic air pollution from industrial facilities is a case in point. Using the RSEI data, EPA researchers have found that nationwide, the most polluted locations have significantly higher-than-average percentages of blacks, Latinos, and Asian-American residents (Bouwes et al. 2003).”
And this seems to be true in Portland as well.  In the USA Today special report, The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools, the worst schools in Portland are all located in North Portland at the Roosevelt Campus.  
I don’t have all the answers, to be sure, but a city that wants to be the “greenest in the world” should start by cleaning up its dirtiest spots. And I believe also find a way to better engage a wider portion of the population in the conversation.  This may entail facing some hard facts of the burden of responsibility for clean up in certain neighborhoods. It might also entail considering it an environmental crime to allow legal, permitted, emissions that in effect have created sacrificial zones of toxic industrial air pollution hot spots in the city.

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