Activists, Fighting Environmental Racism, Call For ‘Clean Air Revolution’ In Black Communities

“There are deep disparities between children in DC,” she added. “These areas have the highest rates of every disease…Residents living in these wards have higher mortality, stroke, COPD and lung cancer … Redlining is most evident in DC.”

Maryland State Representative Deni Tavares substantiated Crawford’s findings.

“I am a chemist. I worked at the EPA in enforcement of Super Fund sites. I saw the discrepancies. Prince George’s County has the worst air quality in the state. A landfill sits in Prince George’s County. All landfills sit in communities of color and there is a high degree of dumping in our community.”

Tavares, who represents District 2 in Maryland, said she is or has used legislation to target anti-fracking, eliminating Styrofoam and plastic straws. She said she is working resolutely to bring about transit equity and said environmental justice translates to preserve, protect and empower communities.

Antoine Thompson, executive director of the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition (GWRCC), a leading public-private entity that focuses on clean energy, transportation and environmental justice and equity, moderated the panel discussion. He told a Trice Edney News Wire reporter that environmental justice is definitely a human rights issue.

“The fact that we have so much data out there shows that based on zip codes and life expectancy, Black and brown people live shorter lives based on where water and transportation is,” he said. “It depends on the streetscape, the amount of cars and crime versus exercising … this is not by accident. Yes, it’s significant.”

The forum was sponsored by the GWRCC and Clean Fuels Alliance America as the launch of an Environmental Justice Community Forum Series, “a collaboration aimed at raising awareness and fostering dialogue on environmental justice (EJ) and the vital role of biodiesel in underserved or disadvantaged communities,” a statement described.

Thompson said asthma is not hereditary although that’s usually taught in many African-American households. “It’s fixable problem. Transportation is a big part of it. In DC, transportation is a significant driver … (and) zip codes matter …”

Thompson said having these conversations is critical.

“These conversations need to happen and are not,” he said. “There should be conversations about pollution from transportation, energy and the environment … 10,000 people are here (at the CBC Annual Legislative Weekend), there are 100 forums and just two are on environmental justice.”  

Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC, agreed that environmental rights has become human rights. One task facing activists and others is bringing together or at least being aware of all the disparate pieces of the environmental justice ecosystem.

“We have a handle on segments of the problem. It’s kinda like puzzles – one thing connecting to another, opening things up and moving us along,” Chestnut said.

As the conversation progressed, panelists emphasized that despite the often-deleterious effects of environmental injustices, there are numerous ways that individuals, organizations and governments are seeking to implement programs and strategies to address the issue.

Crawford and each of her colleagues on the panel went beyond diagnosing the various ills of environmental injustice and the attendant disparities and talked about programs, initiatives, campaigns, strategies and community collaboration and action.

“We are focused on equity. From that equity will come racial equity and environmental justice … there are new and different initiatives coming that we’ve never had,” Crawford told the audience.

Steve Dodge, director of State Regulatory Affairs at Clean Fuels Alliance America, focused on renewable fuels, including biofuels, diesel liquid fuels and biomass-based diesel fuels. He said 97 percent of heavy-duty vehicles use diesel, while 70 percent of cancer risk comes from diesel. Dodge’s power point presentation listed cancers, asthmas, premature deaths, loss workdays and avoided cost as the human consequences of air and water pollution and exposure to chemicals, toxins and a range of other pollutants.

“There are substantial benefits from using biofuels,” he said citing a health benefits study. “… there’s lots being done in individual states. The feds, not so much. They are woefully behind in reducing carbon.”

Crawford said a clean air revolution is manifesting before our eyes in large and small ways. An example is the $62 billion allocated from the Inflation Relief Act and more money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which “invests $7.5 billion in EV charging, $10 billion in clean transportation, and over $7 billion in EV battery components, critical minerals, and materials ….”  

Thompson, a nationally recognized leader for environmental justice, green business, housing, diversity and urban policy, shared a solution that took place in Buffalo while he was a state senator.

For decades, it was customary for politicians, policymakers and city planners to build highways in the midst of African-American communities, disrupting and destroying vibrant, energetic living spaces for racist reasons under the guise of progress.

In East Buffalo, NY, Thompson said that in 2003, he was able to secure between $5 million to $10 million in funding to reconfigure and/or remove parts of Express 33 which ran through the Black community. The highway displaced residents, led to businesses closing and produced pollution and other damaging health problems while causing cancer, lupus and an assortment of health problems for residents.

“I was a lone person on this effort. But 20 years later, the governor and U.S. senators support it now. There’s about $1 billion for the project,” said Thompson. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021 has funding to reconnect communities by removing some of the highways which ran through Black communities.”

Thompson said, “The federal government has put [in] money but there’s nothing stopping the states from doing the same,” he said. “This requires leadership, community advocates and vision. It can be done …”

Tavares, who said she’s been trying to get mechanics to change combustibles to diesel and encouraging more fleet management conversions, said environmental justice activists and advocates have to “meet people where they are.”

Dodge said there are no simple solutions but said he was bullish on significant improvements in air and water quality, reducing carbon emissions and sees greater collaboration by the corporate sector, industries, businesses and communities.

“Technological know-how is changing every day. It’s all part of the puzzle,” said Chestnut. “We will have other challenges but we must increase capacity, be ready, make a plan and focus on any disruptions, natural or otherwise.”    

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