People of Color Take a Toll Due to Environmental Hazards

In August 2015, Steve Benally walked out of his Halchita, Utah, Navajo Nation home and heard a warning: do not use the water. The Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, had dumped toxic sewage into the Animas River watershed.

The big picture: Benally would lose his crop and suffer side effects on health, highlighting one of the environmental dangers some Native Americans, Black Americans and Latinos face due to pollution and poor government oversight.

Details: Study after study, communities of color are exposed to more air and water pollution, lead poisoning and toxic waste than richer white neighborhoods. Some examples :

  • In Michigan, Flint’s drinking water was contaminated with high levels of lead in 2014 after the city changed its water source from the treated water of the Detroit Water and Sewer Service to the Flint River. , causing a long-lasting public health crisis among heavily black communities.
  • There are now criminal cases making their way through the justice system regarding Flint’s water supply system, as well as state and national programs aimed at to sanitation there. The water source has been cut off, but the legacy of lead pollution, which is particularly dangerous for children, will reverberate for a generation or more.
  • Every October, Black residents of Glades, Florida suffer through “black snow“, thick soot in the air from the burning of nearby sugar cane fields. Studies show residents have high levels of respiratory distress and asthma.
  • Hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico have polluted water supplies, injured sheep and caused cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency has closed $ 1.7 billion in implementing agreements and regulations to clean the mines.
  • Residents of Hispanic towns near the site of the 1945 Trinity atomic bomb test say they have suffered from rare cancers through generations and have coped with dismissals of officials who refused their pleas for help.
  • The federal government has never apologized and opens the Trinity Test site twice a year for tourists. Residents near other testing sites were compensated.
Susan Black, who lost a son to neuropathy, walks through puddles in the Navajo Nation sandstone depressions near a uranium mine. Photo: Gail Fisher / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Threat level: Research shows that emissions of tiny particles known as fine particles are one of the largest and most uneven environmental killers in the United States.

  • A landmark study published in April in Science Advances found that black, Latino and Asian Americans face higher levels of exposure to dangerous particles than white Americans, regardless of their income.
  • This is due to their proximity to industry and construction sites and the associated emissions from cars and diesel trucks, the researchers found. Overall, this pollution causes up to 200,000 additional deaths per year in the United States, researchers have found – a disproportionate number of people of color.

In recent years, Democratic presidents – starting with Bill Clinton – have launched initiatives they believe would solve the problems, but there has been little progress.

  • Now, the Biden administration is putting “environmental justice” into its budget documents, making it a priority across government.
  • Biden’s EPA defines environmental justice as “The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, in the development, implementation and enforcement of laws, regulations and environmental policies ”.
  • The administration also says it will devote “at least 40%” of the profits from federal investments in clean energy to underprivileged communities.
  • In addition, infrastructure bills submitted to Congress include new spending to pay for the replacement of much of the country’s remaining lead pipes, starting with underprivileged communities.
Cleophus Mooney examines cases of water at his home in Flint, Michigan. Photos: Seth Herald / AFP via Getty Images

Yes, but: It is too early to know if all of this will bring any significant change to the communities most in need of help, or if any of the new spending will even occur.

  • Much will depend on the administration’s ability to get its broad agenda with many environmental justice related provisions through Congress this fall, including more funding for the cleanup of contaminated sites under the Superfund program.
  • According to a EPA 2020 analysis, 26% of all Black Americans, 29% of all Hispanics, and 24% of all households in the United States below the poverty line live within three miles of a Superfund site.
Henry Herrera, 87, shows the lack of hair on the back of his head and jaw resulting from cancer treatment years after attending the Trinity Test. Photo: Russell Contreras / Axios

The bottom line: We are a long way from knowing whether “environmental justice” plans will actually protect black Americans, Latinos and Native Americans from environmental threats or repair damage already done.

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