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Five questions on the environment, health, and the Americans who suffer most

Back in 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to do something about the fact that minority and low-income Americans bear the brunt of the health and economic impacts of pollution.

The action was meant to be a turning point, bringing new attention and enhanced legitimacy to the nascent environmental justice movement.

But two decades later, low-income neighborhoods still bear far more than their fair share of the burden from environmental pollution, including health problems.

Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, will speak about the movement  at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Admission is free, but registration is requested here.

Environmental justice is a common term, but you specifically use the term environmental injustice. Why is this an important distinction?
The term environmental justice refers to communities that are disproportionately exposed to toxins.  So it seems that what we want is justice. That's a positive thing.  But what's actually happening is injustice. That's why I say it.

It's unjust that we have communities that are bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden of our lifestyle, as a nation, in terms of the excesses of our society, in terms of consumerism and all the production that is needed to keep up with the throwaway society.

We are constantly producing things. Those factories are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income communities. Pollution from the transport of those goods – and the waste – whether it's shipping channels or trucks, affects those communities disproportionately.  The landfills and incinerators are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income communities.

And then there's all the energy we produce, much of which we waste. Whether it's oil refineries or oil trains or coal plants, these facilities tend to be disproportionately located in communities of color or low-income communities.

All of that, I would consider to be unjust.

What is the harm that results from living in an affected community?
They are many. And they are connected. It includes everything from one's political standing in society to one's economic standing, issues around housing, gender, health, immigration status, and criminal justice issues.  All those are inextricably linked to each other and linked to the issue.

For example, we have these major industries – food, energy, waste  –  built on a market-driven dynamic.  So when you're trying to create energy, you want to use the cheapest fuel.  Industries want to site facilities in places where it is cheapest for them to operate and where it's  most politically feasible – where they're not going to get push-back.

Alabama is basically the garbage dump of our nation; 26 states send waste to Alabama because that state has the lowest per-ton cost of receiving waste in its landfills. It's the communities that are next to these landfills that pay the price. Like Uniontown, Ala., which is very poor and has a large African American population. That community ends up being host to that toxic waste.

We have a community like Dixon, Tenn., where the landfill liner eroded and TCE – trichloroethylene, a carcinogen – got into the water supply.  The white families received a letter saying not to drink the water. For whatever reason, the African American families did not receive a letter. They continued to drink the water. It came to light when they started getting cancers and other diseases.

You can name these examples.  Unfortunately, they're a pattern. They're emblematic.

African American children are three to five  times more likely than the national average to enter the hospital because of asthma attacks, and they are two to three times more likely to die from asthma attacks.  This is because of various exposures. If a child with asthma is out of school because of poor air-quality days, or if they are in school and have trouble paying attention, then they are less likely to achieve education attainment. We know that if a child isn't on grade level by the third grade, he or she is more likely to enter into the prison pipeline.

We also know that if you live next to a toxic facility, your property values, on average, are 15 percent lower than they would be otherwise, and it's property values that finance our school systems.

What needs to be done?
So much. One thing is that we need to de-link money and politics. These same companies that are amassing all this wealth, in order to maintain that wealth, they are using our very dollars to lobby against energy efficiency, to lobby against clean energy, to lobby against the transition we need to make to have a life-preserving environment in our communities. That linkage means that even though we all as community members might recognize that we want to have a cleaner environment and healthier lives, our votes are being suppressed.

There are so many ways, whether it's in the courts or in the legislature, that we have our rights being suppressed by these moneyed interests and their disproportionate sway over our democracy.

We need to make a fundamental transition as a society, from a society that wastes too much in the first place, shifting to recovery, reuse and recycling of our goods.  We need to shift away from shipping so much food long distance – because of the pollution that comes from that – and moving toward having local food movements, producing good, nutritious food, which grows jobs.  We need to shift away from burning fuel for energy and shifting to natural resources of the sun and wind.  We need to make a fundamental shift from these destructive extraction processes and move from domination by a wealthy few  to democracy for all and toward a society that's more focused on resilience, regeneration and cooperation amongst our communities.

What is the most significant opposition you face?
Certainly, from those wealthy interests.  From that well-heeled lobby.  Our practices and systems aren't governed by the people, but more by corporate interests.

To some extent, environmental injustice is hidden from people. I think that people would care more if they knew more. I went to Standing Rock [in North Dakota, the site of protests over an oil pipeline]  at Thanksgiving. I stood there while these indigenous folks were in prayer and ceremony. I stood there while the police were in riot gear with tear gas and water cannons. There was this whole militarized assault on people who were in prayer and ceremony, trying to protect their water rights and their land. As a nation, we are a compassionate people, and whenever people do see injustice they act.  But a lot of times these acts are being suppressed, and people don't necessarily understand what makes it possible for these things to happen with impunity.

What gives you hope?
Just being at Standing Rock with a person who is a high school teacher from California who just pulled up stakes and decided to be there. Standing with veterans who went there en masse. They somehow saw their own struggle in what is happening at Standing Rock and wanted to address it. Seeing those linkages across communities and experiences was very moving.

There are communities that are growing their own food, generating their own energy … that's the whole concept of a thousand points of light. That definitely gives me hope that if we continue, we can use  these small efforts and take the transition of our culture to scale. The more we do these things, even at the local level, it can add up to a transformation.