Environmental Issues students at the Maine Coast Semester spent a few weeks this semester working on an environmental justice issues unit. Students researched case studies and reported their findings to their classmates, and then they wrote these blog posts in order to spread their learning out to the broader world. Enjoy!
Imagine carrying a cloth over your mouth every time you step outside because the air is so polluted from coal ash. Imagine not being able to drink the water that runs from your tap because it is so contaminated with chemicals that it is unsafe to drink. Imagine being a parent worrying if your infant will be born with birth defects or will develop cancer. What if this is your life? Would you want something to be done about it? For many low-income, people of color communities, this hazardous nightmare is an everyday reality.
Toxic wastes are byproducts of manufacturing and industrialization in the form of liquid, solid, or sludge. As the amount of hazardous waste has increased in recent decades, the current number of landfills have failed to contain it in its entirety. Toxic chemicals — specifically lead and mercury — leak into the water, the air, and the soil, exposing surrounding communities with increasing rates of birth defects, cancer, and miscarriages. In Kettleman City, California only one birth defect was found in a span of 15 years until 2007, whereas in the past three years there have been at least 11 reported birth defects due to pollution from the deposit of toxic waste at the Kettleman Hills Landfill nearby. Although there may not be a hazardous waste landfill in every neighborhood, everyone is threatened by toxic waste. Every year Americans produce more than 400 million tons of toxic waste, and over 350 million tons of that waste is dumped into the ocean. This not only endangers the creatures in the sea but also pollutes the food and water sources of the entire nation.
Today, people of color regularly find themselves in compromising situations, as their drinking water is often contaminated with toxins from poorly-managed local landfills. In 2012, of the people who lived within three miles of failing coal plants, 53% were of color. In a coal ash leak from a power plant in Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) decided to dump the waste into a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama — a town of 90% African American population. In the case of Kettleman City, its residents are primarily low-income, Spanish-speaking, and 95% Mexican-American, which makes the town a target for big industry — such as Chemical Waste Management, the corporation that owns the landfill — who take advantage of their minority status. Despite having violated their permit for not reporting over 70 toxic spills, Chemical Waste Management has repeatedly been given permission by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to continue operations and even expand in Kettleman City, which imposes even more environmental injustice upon the residents. And this is just one case study of many throughout the United States. We must ask, why is it acceptable to expose a lower-class, predominantly black or Latino community to toxic waste when it is not acceptable to do so to a middle-class, white community? These are the questions that environmental justice organizations have been asking for years and which government, industry, and other authorities have been negligent in refusing to answer.
Since the Superfund Act of 1980, the handling and disposal of toxic waste has come under scrutiny, as increasing attention has been drawn to its environmental and health impacts. As the water crisis in Flint, Michigan finds its way to national headlines, more people are becoming involved in the environmental justice movement regarding toxic waste. Even though the Environmental Protection Agency has tightened its regulations on toxic waste sites in recent years, the injustice and corruption behind waste sites has yet to be fully addressed. We, as Maine Coast Semester students, invite you all to not only become more aware of this issue, but also to educate yourselves, attend environmental justice rallies, and voice your opinions. By making the leap from primarily minority communities shouldering the problem of toxic waste to every American doing their part to end this injustice, a clean and safe environment can be a reality for every citizen — not just the privileged.
-By Grace, Concord Academy, China and
Sienna, Home School, California
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