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How a Charlottesville podcast brings environmental justice issues to light

“Broken Ground,” a podcast that discusses environmental stories in the southern United States, has recently come out with a new season that focuses on citizens — specifically in Norfolk and Charleston, S.C. — dealing with sea level rise and all the flooding that comes with it. The podcast is produced in the Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
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Photo credit: Carolyn Lane | The Cavalier Daily

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The environmental justice issue no one wants to talk about

Environmental justice is having a moment. The term, which encompasses the many ways by which low-income people and communities of color suffer an unequal burden from pollution, contamination, and climate change, has seen a surge in use, largely due to the recent American political campaign.
Democratic primary candidates frequently mentioned environmental justice (or environmental racism) in their stump speeches, campaign pledges, and in debates — an indication that ideas that were not in the political discourse a decade ago, may shape some future climate policies. Environmental justice came up frequently enough in the primary that the first-ever Presidential Environmental Justice Forum was held in November 2019 and drew Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, as well as billionaire activist Tom Steyer. It’s been a big focus of President-elect Joe Biden’s climate platform and was discussed frequently as he unveiled his climate team in earlier this month. Beyond the race for the presidency, the racial unrest of the past summer, as well as the patterns of infections and death due to COVID-19, focused attention on a number of systemic issues in the U.S., including unfair environmental impacts felt by Black and brown Americans.
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Photo credit: Grist / MCarson Photography

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Activists Eye a Superfund Reboot Under Biden With a Focus on Environmental Justice and Climate Change

The uber challenge facing the incoming Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency in its oversight of 1,570 hazard waste sites is best summed in a name that’s become synonymous with the daunting task: Superfund.
The “Superfund” started out as a trust fund created by Congress in 1980 to finance cleanups, paid for by billions of dollars in taxes on the chemical and petroleum industries. Congress allowed the tax to expire 25 years ago.
Now, with the trust fund empty, Superfund has become the name of a drastically underfunded federal program responsible for ensuring the industries responsible for these toxic sites do the cleanup, if possible. The EPA shoulders the financial burden using budgeted funds at sites where responsible entities no longer exist or can’t be found.
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Photo credit: Mark Harris for NBC News

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Warehouses create lower-paying jobs and environmental pollution in Fontana

Mayor Acquanetta Warren responded to an outpour of opposition to ongoing warehouse development in a letter to the editor on Nov. 27, 2020.
Unsurprisingly, she failed to meaningfully respond to residents’ growing concerns about building warehouses next to our homes and our children’s schools, as well as the harmful environmental impacts that are exacerbating in the city of Fontana, surrounding communities, and damaging our children’s health.
In her response, Mayor Warren affirmed to the community that she has opted for a “status-quo” approach to economic investment and advancement opportunities, even though residents want and have demanded better.
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Another PFAS detected in wells near Coakley Landfill

NORTH HAMPTON – Former state Rep. Mindi Messmer believes residents who live near the Coakley Landfill Superfund site should be concerned by detections of another PFAS contaminant in private wells.

“It is concerning because once again we have people exposed to a chemical that we have no enforceable standards for,” Messmer said after perfluorooctanesulfonamide (PFOSA) was found in private wells near the landfill. “Other states are taking steps to regulate PFOSA and New Hampshire needs to do the same.”

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Photo credit: Ioanna Raptis/Seacoastonline

Stories of Local Leaders

Northern Birmingham Still Dealing with Human Rights Issues: Living Room Leadership with Charlie Powell

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Charlie Powell, of People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) in Birmingham, AL shared his experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership series. He has been fighting to get his community relocated since 2012 from toxic facilities.
Before moving to Birmingham, Powell was in Phoenix, AZ. Because his father was in the service and traveled, his family could not go with him. Around 1962, after his father was out of the service, the family relocated to Birmingham. Powell was 9 years old. He described life in Alabama at that time as “experimental.” There were dirt roads, and no running water, leaving them to drink out of wells and springs. He recalled that he was not aware of how poor they were because everyone around him was in the same situation.
Birmingham at the time was known as the Steel City of the South. There was an abundance of mills and refineries. The options, careerwise, were to get a job at at a facility, continue on with school, or go into service. Though, no matter what, a job at a facility was always guaranteed because more so than not, family members would also work in those same facilities. Working in these places was hard, dirty, and nasty work, as Charlie describes it. As protection workers would wear a suit, face mask, ear protection, a hard hat, elbow and knee pads, boots, and gloves. Even with all this, you could still get residue all over your face. Often, he would need to go to the doctor and get residue removed from his ears. To this day, Powell has marks on his arms from when he was burned while working. The working environment was so extreme that workers would bring raw chicken for lunch and put it near radiating heat, and by lunch time it would be ready to eat. Though, the chemicals that went into the food were most likely harmful to the workers’ bodies.
“It was a big health risk out there.”
Because the pay was good, and he held jobs that no one else wanted — leading him to never being laid off, Powell continued working at the facility despite harsh conditions. He had a car, motorcycle, and a boat that he never even put in the water. Charlie said, “They was killing me alive, but I had more than I had ever had jumping up coming out of school.” He believes if he were able to do it over again, he would have chosen to go to school in order to preserve his health. Money and job stability was a big incentive to keep working in these facilities, creating more harm than good by polluting workers and the community.
While in a truck with his brother, Powell realized he needed to get out of his current employment and go into truck driving as a safer alternative. After an explosion occurred at the plant that affected and injured many workers, Powell knew it was time to leave. Some of his colleagues that stayed after he left died after retirement as a result from working at the facility. The facility eventually shut down, not as a result of the explosion, but because of the numerous fines it was not able to keep up with. Even though it shut down, there are many facilities still in operation in Northern Birmingham today.
The chemical exposure in the community was intense. You could smell it. You could physically see it at night in what looked like fog but was actually chemicals. Cars had to be washed multiple times a week because of the buildup, and if you waited long enough, you would have to scrape it off. Cows that would graze near the facility would also get contaminated, and the community would drink their milk.
Powell did not realize how bad the contamination was until he started paying attention to the news. He then found out he and his wife were both positive for asbestos. His wife was later diagnosed with cancer twice, colon and liver. She is still battling to this day. Because of this, Powell has a personal vendetta and needs to fight. One day while truck driving, he had a delivery to the facility he previously worked at. He refused to deliver and told his supervisors he would never go back there again. 
CHEJ’s own, Lois Gibbs, held a meeting in his community and said they needed a group to fulfill people’s needs. Charlie volunteered to lead the group, and in 2012, his wife came up with the name and PANIC was formed. 
“It got silent in the room, and I don’t know why I did that, but I stood up and said that I’d take it on and from that day to this one PANIC was formed.”
After the creation of PANIC, Powell held a meeting with the neighborhood and asked what they wanted and what their needs were. Some wanted relocation and some just wanted compensation. And since then he has been fighting for both. 
The soil on his property was 15 times the limit of contamination. It contained chemicals like lead, arsenic, and benzene from the plant. It was said that much of the dirt was actually field dirt placed in people’s lawns for aesthetic purposes such as filling holes. Though, this was not always the case as the contamination on Powell’s property was found in clay. The area where his property is located is known as the 35th Avenue Superfund Site.
There has been much corruption in Northern Birmingham. In 2017, one of the many people who were corrupt, former State Rep. Oliver Robinson pleaded guilty to conspiracy, bribery, tax evasion, and four counts of fraud. He received $360,000 from Drummond Company and the law firm Balch & Bingham to advocate against the site being put on the National Priorities List (NPL) and the clean up. Powell says the corruption should have been enough proof that the community should be relocated. The money used for the cover up could have been put towards clean up.
In the summer of 2020, community organizers in Birmingham, Alabama, coordinated a series of caravan protests calling for racial and environmental justice at the 35th Avenue Superfund site in North Birmingham. The next step for Powell is to get a response from Governor Kay Ivey to their demands for justice for those living in and near the Superfund site, and getting on the NPL. Powell has been told that getting on the NPL is not going to do any good, but he says to put the site on there anyways and let the community decide for themselves. 

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Biden taps Michael Regan to lead EPA, Deb Haaland for interior secretary

President-elect Joseph R. Biden tapped North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and named Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico as his pick for interior secretary, as he moved Thursday to fill out the team tasked with implementing a far-reaching climate agenda.
Mr. Regan, a veteran of the EPA during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, is currently the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
If confirmed, he would be the first Black man to serve as EPA Administrator.
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Photo credit: The Washington Times

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Introducing his climate team, President-elect Biden said his administration would respond to the existential threat of climate change “by building a modern, climate-resilient infrastructure and a clean energy future” that would put millions of Americans to work. “And we are committed to facing climate change by delivering environmental justice.”
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Photo credit: Angelia Weiss, Getty Images contributor

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Coalition presses for environmental justice in climate bill

BOSTON (SHNS) – A coalition of more than 40 groups that includes long-standing environmental organizations, big players in the state’s financial world, tech companies, and more sent a letter Friday to the lawmakers trying to hammer out a climate bill highlighting the importance of including environmental justice provisions in the final product.
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Photo credit: Massachusetts State House

Backyard Talk

When the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

By: Zack Schiffer, Organizing Intern
It has been one week since I began my community organizing internship with CHEJ.
Many pride CHEJ on its ability to organize ordinary citizens and lead them towards
accomplishing extraordinary things, but until spending a week with this dynamic team, I did not truly appreciate the level of dedication and energy that underlies this organization. On my
second day, I attended a virtual meeting where environmental activist Pam Kingfisher spoke
about organizing against a poultry feeding operation in Delaware County, Oklahoma. In many
ways, Kingfisher became emblematic of what this organization is all about: helping ordinary
citizens accomplish extraordinary things. As my time at CHEJ progressed, this mantra became
even more readily apparent to me.
In our current capacity, CHEJ has devoted itself towards a citizen’s campaign in Dallas,
Texas. In a small community known as Highland Hills, the Lane plating metal factory, which
closed its doors in 2015, left behind large amounts of poorly-contained chemical waste.
Overtime, these chemicals, some of which include cyanide, lead, and mercury, have leaked into
the soil and groundwater for the surrounding community to ingest. After hearing about this
serious problem (and how recently it came into fruition), I immediately realized this pressing
level of injustice. Many on CHEJ have experience working within the scope of injustices like
Lane plating, but for me, it was my first exposure to a complete disregard and wanton disrespect for members in a community. As we mobilized the community around this issue, my
preconceived notions of what a people-centered campaign would look like were quickly
disbanded. Although I often cynically envisioned a slow roll of back-and-forth communication
and free rider issues, our first town hall with Highland Hills community led CHEJ staff to sweep in like seasoned pros. From conveying information about the chemicals affecting Highland Hills residents to providing community members with a viable call-to-action, the Lane plating campaign had legs before it even started.
My tenure at CHEJ has been short thus far, but during the early stages of my internship, I
have come to fully appreciate the level of commitment underlying each and every member on
our dynamic team. These people care, and so do I. Allowing issues like Lane plating to hide in
plain sight is simply unacceptable, and after exposure to successful organizers like Pam
Kingfisher, I appreciate the power of helping the ordinary become extraordinary The future for
my internship looks bright, and with organizers like CHEJ at the helm of action, so does the
future for environmental justice in Highland Hills.