Backyard Talk

Individuals With Disabilities & Environmental Justice

By: Sharon Franklin, Chief of Operations
In a recent article in Environmental Health News, Environmental injustice and disability: Where is the research?, it sites that one group remains largely ignored: disabled people, who make up more than 25% of the United States population. When descriptions of environmental justice are made, the EPA doesn’t even include a category for individuals with disabilities. While a recent study Unequal Proximity to Environmental Pollution: An Intersectional Analysis of People with Disabilities in Harris County, Texas suggests that disability status—especially in combination with race, ethnicity, and income—can determine the amount of environmental harm exposure, it doesn’t address the environmental harm and exposure for physically challenged individuals. When we compare similar other marginalized communities, these individuals are also forced to live in areas that disproportionately expose them to environmental hazards.
While environmental justice researchers have spent decades trying to document these inequalities, there are only a few studies focused on the disabled population. Jayajit Chakraborty, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, observed that in Houston, where “neighborhoods located near pollution sources—like Superfund sites and hazardous waste facilities—were home to a significantly higher proportion of disabled people compared to the rest of the city. In addition, race, ethnicity, and age all further amplified these inequalities—disabled people of color and those aged 75 years or older both lived in even closer proximity to polluted areas, likely decreasing their quality of life.” Conversely, expanding on this research will be difficult, as work like Professor Chakraborty’s is uncommon.
Professor Chakraborty concludes that the goal has always been to expand the scope of environmental justice research. He hopes that studies similar to his Houston study will “lead to a better inclusion of people with disabilities in environmental justice research and environmental policy.”
Daphne Frias, a disabled youth organizer, told EHN researchers that the lack of available data is just a symptom of a larger problem: “ableism.” “It’s the idea that disabled lives are unimportant and disabled lives are invisible. It doesn’t matter if where we live makes us even more unhealthy.” That’s why Frias believes this framing needs to change. “Our community is beautiful and powerful, and I think that needs to be embodied instead of this doom and gloom narrative of how we’re perceived.” She added that moving forward, it’s important that researchers begin reaching out directly to the community and listen to their lived experiences. “It’s the phrase that [disabled people] always say, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”
Photo credit: Environmental Health News

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Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price

After a century of wielding extraordinary economic and political power, America’s petroleum giants face a reckoning for driving the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes.

An unprecedented wave of lawsuits, filed by cities and states across the US, aim to hold the oil and gas industry to account for the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuels – and covering up what they knew along the way.

Coastal cities struggling to keep rising sea levels at bay, midwestern states watching “mega-rains” destroy crops and homes, and fishing communities losing catches to warming waters, are now demanding the oil conglomerates pay damages and take urgent action to reduce further harm from burning fossil fuels.
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Photo Credit: Guardian Design/Getty Images

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From pollution to policing, this Asian-American group is expanding environmental justice in the Bay Area

Sandy Saeteurn grew up in Richmond, California, where Chevron’s massive 3,000-acre oil refinery reigns supreme. She’s no stranger to the refinery’s chemical flares, and she spent many of her childhood days home sick. She’s not the only one who has learned to link the refinery and the presence of illness in her community: A 2008 study (co-authored by Grist board member Rachel Morello-Frosch) found that almost half of all homes in the area had indoor levels of refinery-related particulate matter pollution that exceeded the state’s air quality standards.
Every day for nearly 120 years — longer than the city has existed — the refinery has processed thousands of barrels of oil. Its flares regularly paint the sky burnt orange before thick grey clouds of smoke cover the city. Chevron’s influence stretches beyond its pollution and the 3,500 refinery jobs it provides as the city’s largest employer — it also showers money on local elections and even runs a local newspaper, the Richmond Standard, which has been known to cast a positive light on the company.
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Photo Credit: Asian Pacific Environmental Network

Stories of Local Leaders

Poisoned Without Permission: Andrea Amico

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Andrea Amico is an occupational therapist who moved to New Hampshire in 2007 with her husband after he was offered a job at the Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, NH. Amico described it as a beautiful place to raise a family and a dream place to live. Though she had no idea this dream came with environmental baggage. 
The Pease International Tradeport was formerly an Air Force Base. It was the first to become a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) site which meant the base was repurposed into something else, in this case, as a Tradeport. Looking at the Tradeport and 250 business there today you would never know it was a former Air Force base. 
In May 2014, Amico was devastated after reading in the newspaper that there was a high level of PFAS contamination in a well which supplied drinking water to the Pease International Tradeport. Because her children attended daycare and her husband worked at the Tradeport, they were among those who were drinking contaminated water every day. The source of contamination was from the Airforce using fire fighting foam which was laced with these chemicals. The chemicals then seeped into the ground, creating high levels in drinking water. Amico felt extremely guilty as a mother about putting her kids in a daycare where they were faced with an environmental threat. 
After reading the newspaper, she began doing research on her own to find out more about PFAS, though there was not much information available in 2014. What information she could find concerned her. Amico learned that these contaminants can accumulate, cause cancer, and impact different systems in the body. After the May 2014 article came out, the local and state government held a community meeting and essentially downplayed the severity of the situation. Because Amico knew about the dangers, she had to do something. She said her family was “poisoned without permission.”
When the movement started, the threats that Amico’s community was facing were being called contaminants of emergent concern. No one could tell her much about what their effects were or what she should do. The lack of answers propelled her because as a determined person she could not accept “we don’t know.” Amico did not have any previous experience in advocacy. It was uncomfortable, at first, for her, but she refused to give up the fight. She began engaging with the health department about blood testing. The department was initially responsive, but then completely stopped responding to her questions. In January of 2015, in a last ditch effort, she went to the media. The local paper published her story on the front page where she urged for blood testing. The article led to a chain reaction and jump started the movement. The media has been critical in raising awareness and holding people accountable for not doing what they should be doing.
“I didn’t have a choice…I could not sleep at night letting this go”…“I couldn’t live with myself not trying to find answers.”
At the time, Amico was connected to Stephen Lester, CHEJ’s Science Director. He helped her as a mentor, and encouraged her to always listen to her intuition and instincts. His valuable advice guides her to this day, and she said being told that was very empowering. 
“I think people who are most affected by environmental contamination have the solutions…they don’t need to be scientists, they don’t need to be experts, we know what we need.”
Testing for Pease, where Amico is Co-Founder, came about after the story was published and pushed elected officials to respond to the request of blood testing. Around 2015/2016, 2,000 people were tested for PFAS and the results showed that resident’s levels were elevated, compared to the national average. Amico then asked what the next steps were now that they knew about their elevated levels, but still no one had an answer. She was told that there are not enough health studies to know the effects on humans. This led to the community connecting with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) for a health study.
An issue was who was going to pay for the study. The Air Force was to blame for the contamination, so residents believed they should pay. The Air Force did not have a mechanism to pay for any studies which led to Senator Jeanne Shaheen to create an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act that would give the Department of Defense the authority to fund the health study. This was unprecedented and never done before. Pease is now the pilot for multisite PFAS studies through ATSDR.
There are currently two active studies, the ATSDR and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Pease Study and an immune function study on children by the Silent Spring Institute to learn about PFAS levels and the effectiveness of vaccines. A concerning effect of PFAS exposure is its potential to make vaccines less effective and suppressing the immune system. This is extremely important research, especially during COVID-19 times.
Blood testing led to studies, which led to filtration of water, which led to clean up of contamination. It was all a domino effect from Amico’s article. Amico is looking forward to the completion of the health studies and hopes to see medical monitoring for people exposed to PFAS since there is no current path or plan for doctors about how to treat people who have been contaminated. 

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Research finds EPA underestimates methane emissions from oil and gas production

March 26, 2021 – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is underestimating methane emissions from oil and gas production in its annual Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, according to new research from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The research team found 90 percent higher emissions from oil production and 50 percent higher emissions for natural gas production than EPA estimated in its latest inventory.
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Photo Credit: SEAS

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Michigan approves Great Lakes oil pipeline tunnel permits

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Michigan’s environmental agency said Friday it has approved construction of an underground tunnel to house a replacement for a controversial oil pipeline in a channel linking two of the Great Lakes.

The decision, a victory for Enbridge Inc., comes as the Canadian company resists Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s demand to shut down its 68-year-old line in the Straits of Mackinac.

Enbridge disputes her claim — echoed by environmentalists and native tribes — that the pipeline segment crossing the 4-mile-wide (6.4-kilometer-wide) waterway is unsafe. But Enbridge had earlier sought to ease public concern by striking a deal with Whitmer’s predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder, in 2018 to run a new pipe through a tunnel to be drilled beneath the straits connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

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Photo Credit: Carlos Os0rio/AP Photo

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Biden climate plan: Environmental justice ‘writ large’

With the stroke of a pen, President Biden brought nearly half a century of environmental justice activism to its culmination yesterday.
Biden signed an executive order that promises a governmentwide approach to the disproportionate pollution burdens faced by many communities of color. But many advocates say Biden’s success on confronting environmental justice will be judged on how the order is implemented.
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Photo Credit: Anna Moneymaker/picture alliance/Consolidated News Photos/Newscom