Backyard Talk

Systemic Redlining & Utilizing The Three Dimensions of Environmental Justice

By: Isabel Maternowski, Community Organizing Intern
In the 1930s the federal government redlined black neighborhoods across the United States. A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America: NPR.  These neighborhoods were labeled as “hazardous” and “risky” investments.  People living in these areas were denied access to federally supported mortgages, bank loans, and other forms of credit.  This perpetuated a cycle of disinvestment and abuse has negatively impacted communities of color, to this day.  Richmond, Virginia is one example of the hundreds of American cities suffering from the legacy of Redlining.  How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering – The New York Times (
Almost one hundred years later, these Redlined districts now represent the “heat islands” within the city of Richmond, especially in the summer.  What are Heat Islands?  “Heat islands” have very few trees and an abundance of heat-absorbing concrete.  Redlined neighborhoods are an average of five degrees hotter than non-Redlined neighborhoods. Studies Find Redlining Linked To More Heat, Fewer Trees In Cities Nationwide : NPR .  These low-income residential areas generally contain the highest concentrations of Black and Brown residents. Red-lined districts turned “heat islands” are ubiquitous or found everywhere across the United States while the predominantly White neighborhoods have a bounty of trees and parks that keep the residents happy, healthy and much cooler in the summer.  Unfortunately, our country’s toxic environmental history of systemic abuse of people of color extends to all areas for individuals living in these “heat islands”. 
As we have seen and are currently seeing, the health impacts of high temperatures are very serious.  In Richmond, Virginia more than 2,000 Black residents are living in low-income public housing without air conditioning.  These ZIP codes have the highest rates of heat related ambulance calls in the city. Despite all of the resistance from cities to change, there is however, a slow push, that can be noted in Richmond’s environmental justice movement, to assist these residents.  We now can look at Richmond’s initiatives and how it has utilized the three dimensions of environmental justice to better understand how the legacy of Redlining can begin to be dismantled.  
The first dimension of Environmental Justice is Procedural Justice which relates to the idea of fairness, public inclusivity on decision making, and equal allocation of resources.  Procedural Justice is being facilitated by officials in Richmond’s Sustainability Office.  This office is currently engaged in an “intensive listening process” with neighbors. They want to hear the concerns of the people as they work to create a climate action and resilience plan with racial equity at its core.  It is critical to include the people most affected in the process of change. This strategy should be implemented at all levels of government across the nation. The study “Equity, environmental justice and sustainability: incomplete approaches in climate change politics” by Jekwu Ikeme describes the dimensions of environmental justice more thoroughly. 
 Distributive Justice aims to provide equal protection and equal access. In Richmond, a new mapping tool has been released that shows how the heat and flooding disproportionately impact communities of color. The City of Richmond also has announced a goal that ensures everyone within the city limits has only a ten-minute walking distance to a park from where they live. The city is also working with the Science Museum of Virginia and community partners to identify the most vulnerable areas that can be converted into green space.  
The city EJ movement concludes with Corrective Justice initiatives, which address previous harms and structures that are contributing factors to ongoing inequalities, with a long-term master plan which was drafted in June 2020.  The plan calls for an increase in tree canopies (parts of a city that are shaded by trees), redesigning buildings to improve airflow, reduction in the number of paved lots, and using a light color pavement, which would reflect back the sunlight that hits it. This is the city’s first large-scale “greening project” since the 1970s.  What we are learning is that cities across America can benefit from increased green spaces psychologically, restoratively and environmentally. Green spaces are transformative, as it helps cool down areas, lower electric bills, lower risk of death, filter air pollution, and reduce stress.
Redlining is a historic and toxic force that not only shaped some American cities but continues to put lives in danger.  The long-term impacts of Redlining are forms of institutionalized racism.  By looking at the example of Richmond, Virginia, we can begin to see how much of an impact procedural, distributive, and corrective justice can have to start to remediate the blatant inequities that these communities face. By embracing the three dimensions of Environmental Justice, political and social initiatives become powerful forces that can contribute to profound shifts in our society and disrupt the cycles of systemic Environmental Injustice. 
Photo Credit: Nelson, Winling, Marciano, Connolly, et al./Mapping Inequality

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Improved medical screening in PFAS-impacted communities to identify early disease

When people learn they are exposed to toxic chemicals, they wonder what it means for their health and often want to take protective action.
We’ve heard this in our conversations with residents of PFAS-affected communities, and in their public talks—calls for medical screening to learn about potential effects on their own and their families’ health. However, people exposed to PFAS often face significant hurdles in getting screened for health effects from the exposure. And that needs to change.
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Photo Credit: Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank at the IU Simon Cancer/flickr

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EPA Creates $50 Million Fund For Environmental Justice Initiatives

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new $50 million fund to identify and address low-income neighborhoods and communities of color who have been disproportionately affected by climate change, pollution, and the covid-19 pandemic.
The EPA said on Friday that the environmental justice initiatives will use allocated dollars from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Democrats in Congress earlier this year, for underserved communities through a range of local programs.
“We know how important it is to put funding to work in environmentally overburdened, economically underserved areas, and today we’re excited to let our communities know that thanks to the [American Rescue Plan], help is here,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “EPA is drawing on its many years of experience working with communities and organizations that strive for environmental justice to ensure these funds will deliver real-world results for those who need it most.”
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Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

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Superfund Tax Revival Renewing ‘Polluter Pays’ Debate

One of the bipartisan infrastructure deal’s pay-fors is reviving longstanding questions over who should pay to clean up some of the nation’s most contaminated land.
The White House released a framework on Thursday for its $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure deal. Included within the pay-fors of that plan is a line item to “reinstate Superfund fees for chemicals,” a potential restoration of excise taxes that expired in the mid-nineties.
Lawmakers in favor of bringing back the “polluters pay” tax model, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), applauded the provision. But industry representatives said that with few details to go on, questions remain on whether the revenue scheme should apply more broadly so that companies aren’t financially responsible for sites that they otherwise wouldn’t be liable for under the Superfund law.
Photo Credit: Stephen Hilger/Bloomberg News

Stories of Local Leaders

Perseverance and Gratitude: Living Room Leadership with Olinka Green

Olinka Green is a fighter who wakes up every day and chooses not to be defeated. A natural born activist raised in Dallas, Texas, Green got her first organizing experience in the third grade making signs to encourage her classmates’ families to boycott canned tuna. In her high school, Green joined a group of volunteers canvassing door to door in the West Dallas Housing Projects talking to residents about getting lead tested. One of the largest developments in the state of Texas, the projects were next to factory smoke stacks with known lead exposure, and families were being poisoned. Green hadn’t known how detrimental lead poisoning could be until she saw children born with limb disfigurement and parents dying of cancer, and she didn’t know that this experience would prepare her to spend her life fighting for communities under environmental and economic stress.
“I wasn’t scared of knocking on doors. I was scared of the effects that I saw.”
After taking time away from school to raise her two sons, Green was incarcerated for several months. She spent this time finishing her high school degree, and when she was reunited with her children the family moved into a housing development in North Dallas where she met mentors that helped her continue her education through college. One of these mentors, Reverend Carter, took her under his wing and taught her the tenets of social activism from his experience throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
Green overcame the difficult circumstances in her young adult life and turned her strength towards fighting for racial and environmental justice, which she has continued to do for the past 33 years. From being a Block Captain to organizing protests, she believes that she must be revolutionary about her standards for the way of life in her community and that she must be revolutionary in fighting for them.
In contrast to the West Dallas Housing Project she canvassed around in high school, Green grew up in a community with parks instead of smokestacks, so she was shocked when she found out about the toxic contamination at the Lane Plating Works site near her house. She started uncovering the history of the site and helped organize a community health survey that connected her neighbors’ health problems to the now Superfund site, but in a low-income Black community, she feels the company and the government are being apathetic towards their needs. She is seeing suffering caused by contamination now in her own community, and is fighting to reinstate the Polluters Pay Tax to hold companies accountable for cleaning up the messes that burden citizens like her neighbors.
“They’re killing whole communities. And what do they do with the money they make off what they do? They create empires, buy stocks, and send their children to college. And our kids are born without arms.”
Green acknowledged that in the daily fight to protect her family and her community from racial and climate injustice, it is easy to feel like the work she does is not enough. She is vocal about mental health struggles as a woman of color and an activist – another way in which she supports the people around her. She expressed abundant gratitude for her teachers, and we thank her for teaching us and inspiring us through her story, her openness, and her perseverance.
Her message to corporations poisoning communities like hers: “You’re going to have to deal with me. I know who you are and I know who buys stock in your corporation, you gotta see me.”
Photo Credit: Sarah Hoffman/File 2013 Photo/Dallas News

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Climate change threatens more than the environment; it’s a public health crisis | COMMENTARY

After a four-year pause related to executive branch inaction, and with the transition to the Biden-Harris administration, we finally have new data from the federal government on the severity of the climate crisis. And it offers a grim diagnosis.

Drawing from more than 50 contributors from various government agencies and academic institutions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Climate Indicators report confirms that climate change is making life harder for Americans in new and challenging ways.

Heat waves are occurring more often in the United States. Their frequency has increased from an average of two heat waves per year in the 1960s to six per year during the 2010s. Global temperatures are rising: 2016 was the hottest year on record, and the 2010-2020 was the hottest decade ever recorded. And sea levels are rising along most of the U.S. coastline, by as much as 8 inches in some locations.
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Photo Credit: Aude Guerrucci/Reuters

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Toxic beauty products contribute to health inequity

Toxic chemicals in beauty products commonly used by and marketed to Black people and other people of color could be contributing to racial health inequities.
So say researchers and community groups studying chemicals in consumer goods, arguing that the term “environmental justice,” which has gained prominence in recent years to describe how communities of color bear larger pollution burdens, should be expanded to include exposure from toxic beauty products.
Just as communities of color often are located in more polluted areas due to discriminatory zoning and housing policies, centuries of racist and sexist beauty standards favoring straight hair, for example, have pushed Black women and feminine people, in particular, to use products containing harsh chemicals that could harm their health.
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Photo Credit: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); Freepik (phtotos); American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology (text)

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‘We will not stop’: pipeline opponents ready for America’s biggest environmental fight

As the sun set, more than a dozen young people carried a wooden bridge toward a narrow section of the Mississippi River. The bridge allowed the group to cross more easily from their camp to where the immense oil pipeline was being built on the other side.

They were cited for trespassing – but they had symbolically laid claim to the marshy landscape.

That same day, Dawn Goodwin’s voice was soft but forceful as she spoke into the camera: “I’m calling on you, Joe Biden, to uphold our treaties, because they are the supreme law of the land.”

Goodwin, an Ojibwe woman and environmental activist, was recording a livestream from a picturesque camp site amid northern Minnesota’s natural beauty – where she and dozens of others had come together to protest the construction of the Line 3 pipeline.

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Photo Credit: Sheila Regan/The Guardian

Backyard Talk

Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and the Rhetoric of Jobs

By: Simone Lewis, Communications Intern
After years of activism from Indigenous, environmental, and community groups, TC Energy announced on June 9, 2021 that the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline project would finally be terminated. The announcement ends a more than decade-long battle over fossil fuel use and the right to protect land and water sources.
I was in high school when the pipeline first started making national news because of the sustained protests from residents, farmers, and business owners along the proposed route from Montana to the Gulf Coast. The protesters voiced that the pipeline would send a flood of toxic tar sands oil – one of the dirtiest fuels in the world – through their homes and homeland, and would contribute to advancing climate change.
Now, as I enter my senior year of college, those who have never stopped fighting for their freedom from environmental stress finally have some level of peace. This is an incredible reminder of the power of grassroots mass mobilization, as well as the perseverance and struggle that is often required of citizens to protect themselves from polluting industries.
Proponents of the pipeline are criticizing its termination for sacrificing the jobs it may have created.  In fact, the State Department reported in 2014 that less than two thousand jobs would be created during the construction phase of the pipeline and that the post-construction operational phase would only require about thirty-five people. The rhetoric surrounding job creation is often used by the oil and gas industry in contrast to clean energy policies and environmental protection. Economic goals and environmental goals, however, are not inherently at odds the way these industries would like us to believe. This false rhetoric around jobs often comes from corporations and not the people living in the areas affected by infrastructure projects, like those in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline. It is unacceptable that communities should be forced to choose between employment opportunities and their health and safety, though they consistently are when it comes to fossil fuel extraction and distribution. The fossil fuel industry leans on economic arguments to justify their operations, and even these arguments now are beginning to fail more and more.
I find it infuriating that our health and safety are weighed against profits, especially when environmentally safe investments can often be more profitable but are completely ignored. Solar energy, for example, has become not only the cheapest form of power but also the one with the highest potential for job creation. My generation realizes that there are alternatives to fossil fuels that create well paying, sustainable jobs and uplift communities rather than harming the environment.
If the argument is that investing in infrastructure creates jobs, then why not invest in positive infrastructure that communities can support?  Why not invest in new pipes, so that citizens can have cleaner drinking water?  Why not invest in forest waste clearing projects to lessen the environmental and economic severity of wildfires?  Why not bolster public transportation to minimize air pollution, why not strengthen landfill linings to prevent leaching, why not renovate buildings to withstand extreme weather events and why not build homes and schools to be more energy efficient. These efforts, and a properly trained workforce, can all create significant numbers of jobs and strengthen local communities’ economies, as well as face the challenges of climate change. We know job creation can be consistent with environmental justice, so it’s heartbreaking that people continue to have to put their lives on hold to protest projects that deepen injustice.
As we celebrate the victory of the activists against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, we at CHEJ are awaiting the final outcome of the infrastructure bill. It is our belief that it has the capability to provide more environmentally safe communities, strengthen our infrastructure, and provide needed job growth.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File; center, AP Photo/Evan Vucci; right; RICARDO TORRES / MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL VIA IMAGN CONTENT SERVICES LLC

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Biden must stop methane pipelines to deliver on climate change and environmental justice

Four years of President Donald Trump have cost America dearly. We lost our global leadership on addressing climate change and saw the struggle for environmental justice thwarted here at home. President Joe Biden has defined both of these objectives as cornerstones of his legacy, but a huge interstate methane gas pipeline now being rammed through the Appalachian Mountains threatens to undermine the progress his administration has promised.

The 42-inch diameter Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) would run 303 miles from West Virginia to Virginia, and it is one of the biggest U.S. gas pipelines in process. The pipeline’s climate impact is estimated to be equivalent to about 23 typical coal plants, or more than 19 million passenger vehicles. That does not include a proposed 74-mile extension of the pipeline into North Carolina.

Methane gas is a climate change double whammy. It’s a fossil fuel and, when burned for energy, releases the planet-warming greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But methane itself is a very potent greenhouse gas, and when some of it inevitably escapes into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing, we get further warming.

Photo Credit: Bob Brown/AP