Seventy percent of the country’s most environmentally contaminated sites, including some in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are within one mile of federally assisted housing, according to a report by the nonprofit Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

That constitutes roughly 77,000 families living in public housing and homes paid for with vouchers at or near one of the nation’s polluted Superfund sites designated for cleanup by the federal government, according to the report released last month. These households, the report noted, are disproportionately in low-income communities of color.

“Environmental racism has played a central role in this devastation,” the report’s authors wrote. “Laws and policies have put Black and Brown communities in direct proximity to environmental toxins.” That includes the federal government’s allocation of housing assistance, they wrote.

“A confluence of historic policies and practices have encouraged the construction of federally assisted housing in areas of environmental contamination — and have also encouraged polluting industry to be built near existing low-income housing,” wrote the authors, who include lawyers who have advocated on behalf of public housing residents at a Superfund site in East Chicago, Ind.

The proximity of contaminated sites to public housing is an example of environmental injustice, instances of which range from the internationally criticized (climate change more acutely harming developing nations) to nationally condemned (lead-poisoned water in Flint, Mich.) to locally known (the legacy of waste treatment plants in the city of Chester).

Living on or near environmentally contaminated sites can harm residents’ health and quality of life. And many residents don’t know of the health risks to their community or do not have the means or opportunity to move.

The Shriver Center on Poverty Law, based in Chicago, advocates for economic and racial justice. The authors of its report recommended that government agencies work to prevent future environmental contamination, notify residents when they discover a site is toxic, and include affected communities in deciding how best to clean and redevelop known Superfund sites. They also recommended that tenants living on environmentally contaminated sites in federally assisted housing be compensated while the site is cleaned.

Superfund sites are places contaminated with hazardous waste and pollutants that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleans or forces polluters to clean. The sites have been contaminated for decades or longer, and are in various stages of remediation.

Living near a Superfund site is sometimes only one in a stack of environmental problems faced by residents of low-income communities. Camden, for example, is home to two Superfund sites, a regional incinerator, and a regional sewage treatment plant.

Scott Palimeno, of Lipincott, and Jacobs Engineers complete a compaction test with a density gauge at the Superfund site in Camden during its cleanup.
Scott Palimeno, of Lipincott, and Jacobs Engineers complete a compaction test with a density gauge at the Superfund site in Camden during its cleanup.

At the end of June, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill, cosponsored by State Sen. Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), that would require anyone seeking to build certain new facilities, or to expand existing ones in “burdened communities,” to meet additional obligations to get permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Companies or agencies seeking to build certain incinerators, sewage treatment plants, landfills, and other facilities with the potential for pollution would have to submit a report about environmental and public health impact on “burdened communities,” defined as census tracts in the bottom third for the state’s median annual household income.

Advocates have been fighting for more than 15 years for this type of legislation, which would cover a few million residents, said Kim Thompson-Gaddy, vice chair of New Jersey’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council and environmental justice organizer for the state’s chapter of the nonprofit Clean Water Action.

“Now you are putting the protection of the residents and communities first, as opposed to leaving it to an afterthought,” she said. “There’s a direct link between the amount of money a person makes and the color of a person’s skin, and how much pollution will be in their neighborhood. … If we can reduce the amount of pollution our community is exposed to, it’s a game changer.”

Thompson-Gaddy, a Newark resident, is relying on the legislation to help communities such as hers, for which the White Chemical Corp. Superfund site is one of many environmental concerns in close proximity to low-income housing. Residents of Newark have been drinking lead-contaminated water for years, while incinerators, ports, warehouses, truck traffic, its airport, and more contribute to concentrations of pollution in New Jersey’s most populous city, where residents also have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Thompson-Gaddy and her three children, ages 30, 20, and 16, have asthma, she said, which, along with other respiratory illnesses, is common in Newark and other environmental justice communities.

“The cumulative impact of this legacy of pollution is killing us, and we can’t breathe,” she said. She said that about a month ago, she read a report about how people of color and low-income people were dying at higher rates from COVID-19 because of underlying health issues caused by their environment and systemic racism. “My eyes started watering up because you know it, but when you see it, it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ You know?”

Workers remove contaminated soil at the Welsbach/General Gas Mantle Superfund site at Fourth and Jefferson Streets in Camden in 2009.
Workers remove contaminated soil at the Welsbach/General Gas Mantle Superfund site at Fourth and Jefferson Streets in Camden in 2009.

The Shriver Center report also supported some of the experiences of Ebony Griffin, an environmental justice staff lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia.

“Usually, where there is an environmental justice issue, there is a low-income housing development not far away,” she said.

Many residents, especially low-income ones, who live near Superfund sites — Philadelphia has four — have no idea, even if they have lived in their homes for decades, Griffin said. People who live in federally assisted housing often have to focus more on immediate needs, such as paying bills and getting food on the table, rather than attending community meetings or staying on top of planned cleanups. And they are often afraid to speak up about problems for fear of being kicked out of their homes, Griffin said.

The Public Interest Law Center gets lots of calls about polluted or dusty air, including in gentrifying areas where a lot of construction is happening, she said. Some residents in lower-income neighborhoods call with fears over lead in drinking water from old pipes, or concerns about the Enterprise Avenue Landfill Superfund site in Southwest Philadelphia, where chemical and industrial waste contaminated soil and groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency oversaw cleanup of the site in the 1980s and continues to monitor it. The Clearview Landfill Superfund site also contaminated parts of the Eastwick neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia and is in the final stages of cleanup.

Access to affordable, healthy food is another matter of environmental justice. Many of the city’s community gardens are in the poorest neighborhoods, and they are under threat of development and pollution, which residents have said has changed the taste of their food, Griffin said. The Public Interest Law Center’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative advocates on behalf of community gardeners.

The national accrediting agency for social work education includes the advancement of environmental justice as a core competency that future social workers must learn. Two Rutgers University instructors in the School of Social Work — Christine Morales, an assistant professor and an assistant director of admissions and recruitment, and Mariann Bischoff, a teaching instructor and management and policy field education coordinator — created and taught courses this academic year focusing on environmental justice for the first time.

Morales called environmental justice an umbrella term that encapsulates a wide range of disparities or concern for individual human rights and the protection of the environment, and social work can be part of the solution. They give the example of a social worker encountering a child with behavioral issues and having to look deeper into not just home life, but also environmental factors that may be contributing to the child’s behavior.

Morales and Bischoff talk about the importance of environmental justice at social work conferences and are looking into expanding environmental justice courses. “Any opportunity we have to educate anybody, we take it,” Morales said.