Seeking justice in a world of environmental racism

< Blog Home | 03.09.2016 | By Katrina Keleher



Members of the Flint community, 42% of whom are living below the poverty line, were told for eighteen consecutive months that their water was safe to use. Meanwhile, officials—including the EPA—knew it was contaminated. Cases like Flint are unfortunately all to common in America. Three-fifths of African-Americans living below the poverty line live in areas close to toxic waste sites, according to the US General Accounting Office, resulting in higher rates of health and safety concerns for those communities. The quality of life deteriorates systematically the closer one lives to environmental hazards. Insufficient and ineffective regulation, lax agency oversight, incompatible land use decisions are in part to blame for cases of environmental injustices.

In comparison to whiter and more affluent counterparts, communities of color are paying a much larger price to environmental disasters. We have seen extreme cases of environmental racism, similar to the paradigm we are seeing today in Flint, MI, on an international scale:

  • In Warren County, North Carolina, when the State of North Carolina illegally dumped 60,0000 tons of contaminated soil three miles south of Warrenton—a non-white majority town in extreme poverty.
  • In the Marshall Islands, where residents have been threatened with exposure to radioactive contamination due to US nuclear weapon testing since the mid 1900’s.
  • In South Durban, South Africa, where a quarter of a million low-income people of color live next to a petrochemical basin christened “The Durban Poison”.
  • In Bhopal, India, when the Union Carbide plant killed thousands of people with poison-gas in 1984.
  • In Lac-Mégantic, Quebec when a 74-car freight train filled with crude oil exploded, killing 47 people in the process in July 2013.
  • In Richmond, California, a fire erupted at the Chevron Richmond Refinery due to an aged pipe, killing 15 workers and sending 15,000 residents to area hospitals.
  • In Kettleman City, California, a high rate of children are being born with cleft lips or palate, likely due to the local dump filled with asbestos, pesticides, petroleum products, and caustics.

These massive injustices have been well documented in our history—and yet here we are in March 2016, listening to the news as we hear of underprivileged kids with lead-poisoning, farm workers with toxic pesticide exposure, and communities with cancer directly linked to environmental, preventable hazards. Why, then, is moral negligence continuing to be tolerated? Where is political accountability? Residents are aware and respond to issues as advocates for themselves, but they are not believed, trusted or found credible so injustices prevail until situations get noticeably desolate and urgent.

Reactionary vs. preventative mindsets

Environmental injustices need a trigger and a tipping point, as well as media attention, to become exposed. Economic oppression has resulted in power differentials, and power differentials have resulted in a lack of political accountability. In Flint, what would have cost $8 million initially to fix the corroding pipes will now cost $800 million and human livelihood, but those who knew of the contamination issue chose to ignore a preventative mindset. If we know these injustices are happening, and if we know how to prevent these injustices, then why is environmental racism continuing to thrive on a massive scale? How do we change this broken justice system? Can we change it? Ingrid Brostrom, Senior Attorney for Center of Race, Poverty & the Environment, has laid out our roles as environmental justice advocates: to organize, inform, and listen to the expertise of residents. We must highlight community stories, share stories to increase attention and resources, connect residents to resources, interact with agency decision-makers and connect agency decision-makers with impacted residents. We must remember that environmental justice affirms the right of all citizens to safe and healthy work and living environments, regardless of race, color, national origin or income.

Those with political influence and power are responsible for serving their communities effectively and safely. Affected communities are responsible for  advocating for themselves, while developed communities, countries, and privileged individuals are responsible for listening to and recognizing injustices, discussing solutions, and acting are steps we need to take on local and international scales to narrow the disproportionate opportunities between race and/or class groups. Greed, passiveness, and silence need to end–especially when they inversely affect human livelihood. Enough.

Katrina Keleher is studied geosciences and climate change studies at University of Montana. She is passionate about environmental conservation, climatology, community sustainability and education. In her free time, Katrina can be found hiking mountains & rock climbing.

Katrina Keleher received her BS degree from University of Montana, and currently lives in southern Oregon. She is passionate about environmental conservation, climatology, community sustainability and education. In her free time, Katrina can be found hiking mountains & rock climbing.