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Backyard Talk

Incarcerated Workers Among Hardest Hit By Wildfires

By: Shaina Smith, Community Organizing Intern
Massive wildfires fuelled by climate change have damaged millions of acres across California, Oregon, and Washington over the past few weeks. Some parts of California have an AQI of over 700. Air Quality Index (AQI) measures air pollution on a scale of 0-500. Any level above 200 is “unhealthy” to “hazardous”.
As residents evacuate areas threatened by the fires, let’s consider those who stayed behind. You might be surprised to learn that California uses prison labor, disproportionately people of color, to battle their wildfires. In fact, incarcerated workers make up to 80% of California fire personnel, including juveniles. The state pays incarcerated workers only 1 dollar an hour (or less if they owe restitution) to fight wildfires. 
With this perspective, prison doesn’t appear to be about justice or rehabilitation, instead about exploiting labor for profit. As exemplified by a question asked by a former corrections officer at one California inmate fire camp: “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season?” 
Historically, once released from prison, California abandons their former inmate firefighters, preventing them from being hired as professionals. However, now that covid shutdowns have left no other option, California has passed a bill making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to become firefighters. 
Inmate firefighters work up to 48 hour shifts with 50 pound backpacks. The state does not provide goggles or respirators. It’s no wonder then that incarcerated workers are more than 4 times as likely to sustain an injury than a professional firefighter working on the same fire.
The smoke from these wildfires contains air pollution particles called PM 2.5. PM 2.5 exposure leads to worse coronavirus outcomes. These particles are so small that they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, and cannot be broken down by the immune system.
People residing in low income and minority communities are already disproportionately exposed to PM 2.5 from industry polluters, and are therefore more likely to have an underlying health condition. Underlying conditions exacerbate the dangerous health risks of smoke, specifically heart attacks
Immediate symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat, and eye irritation. Years following wildfire smoke exposure, lung capacity among residents decreased.
Wildfire smoke is linked to an increased rate of emergency doctors visits for respiratory and cardiovascular issues such as heart attack or stroke– specifically for adults over 65. Black people who live in areas where the poverty rate is above 15% were particularly affected
As this latest challenge demonstrates, climate change imposes the heaviest burdens on people of color. The evil of capitalism and racism in the United States is intrinsically linked even to crises in nature, such as wildfires and coronavirus.
Photo credit: Newsweek

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Backyard Talk

Please Stop Screaming – Let’s Listen To One Another

Recently, I’ve been discussing presidential politics, as all of us have. Even if you try to avoid the conversations and the different opinions, they are everywhere on the news, in the paper, among your colleagues and friends. Such conversations are important, and often even helpful, to educate people on issues.  Hands down educated voters are best.
Lately, I’ve really been listening to what is being said about various candidates.  Listening to how the message, words are conveyed. Clearly, our country is more polarized than I’ve ever seen in my decades of voting. Unfortunately, most of these conversations have become rude, insulting, and/or dismissive. We are screaming at each other, criticizing or dismissing entire segments of society, and not hearing one another’s views.
I was in a meeting and someone said out loud, with no hesitation, that the Christian Coalition is a huge problem and working against us. A visibly angry young mother from Texas explained that she belonged to the Christian Coalition and doesn’t believe the Coalition supports poisoning school children with toxic chemicals. “People like you are the problem, not people like me.”
In another meeting, someone accused the workers of being the barrier to moving an issue forward, saying therefore, we needed to organize around the workers instead including them in our fight.
I’ve heard people use the words stupid, ignorant or other nasty descriptions of a candidate or a person who supports a different candidate. This is not limited to a single political party and it’s turning off people on all sides.
It’s time to stop the fever pitched screams and begin talking and listening to each other. When we listen and we share, it is amazing what can happen. Let me share a story.
CHEJ was invited to help an organization stop an incinerator in New York. The group we were working with expressed disappointment about how apathetic people in their community are. One member of the core leadership told me, “In this community people are self-focused, lazy and not too bright. I can not understand why they want to allow all this pollution.” I suggested that everyone may not care about health and inquired if she had asked people what they care about? She answered, “No, because this is the most important and frightening thing that’s happen now.”
Yikes, another scream, and narrow focus to the problems of winning real, deep seeded justice. What if you stopped yelling and trying to prove your point, and listened instead?
We were in a bar and I decided that instead of explaining the importance of listening and having a conversation to connect with people, I’d demonstrate the importance.  I got up and moved to sit next to a worker who was having a beer. He was watching the football game on TV and when I caught his attention, I asked what he thought about the plan for the new incinerator.
He replied, “I don’t care.” Showing him the flyer the group published, I followed up with, “What about cancer and other diseases that this flyer says may increase because of pollution?”
“Lady I don’t care . . . I’m watching the game” he replied a bit annoyed.
Waiting for a commercial break, I ask, “What do you care about? What bothers you?” He thought for a moment and said, “potholes.” He explained, he’s an independent trucker and the potholes cause all sorts of damage to his truck which he must pay out-of-his own pocket to repair. Secondly, he added, that traffic signal from hell on the corner. “There is no left turn light and so it takes forever, sometimes two cycles, for me to turn that corner.”
When the next commercial came around I suggested that what he cares about and what the group cares about are the same – – disruption of a beautiful rural community. There will be over 200 trucks driving down that same road making more potholes and a longer line of vehicles that need to turn left at that corner. You may not care about the pollution but there will be plenty of other disruption to the community if this incinerator is built. He agreed and we had a much longer conversation about community power and corporate greed.
My message to the group, then and to us all now, is to stop screaming about how right you are and how wrong others are. Instead, try listening and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that you aren’t that far apart, and together you can create a better tomorrow.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Backyard Talk

Residential Segregation and Disproportionate Exposure to Airborne Carcinogens

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis published a paper late last year that found carcinogens present in the air of the St. Louis metropolitan area to be highly concentrated in Black and poor neighborhoods. They found that approximately 14% of the census tracks in the city had elevated cancer risk due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the air and that these air toxic hots spots were independently associated with neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and unemployment, and low levels of education. Census tracks with the highest levels of both racial isolation of Blacks and economic isolation of poverty were more likely to be located in air toxic hot spots than those with low combined racial and economic isolation.
This paper is important because the authors used an innovative geospatial approach developed by other researchers to identify spatial patterns of residential segregation in their study area. This approach captures the degree of segregation at the neighborhood level and identifies patterns of isolation of different metrics, which in this study was black isolation and poverty isolation. This approach differs from tradition methods that looked at the percentage of blacks or poverty in a neighborhood.
The authors used these two segregation measures – Black isolation and poverty isolation – to identify neighborhoods segregated by race and income in the St. Louis metropolitan area and evaluated the risks of exposure to carcinogens in the air in these areas. The cancer risk data came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment and the census track sociodemographic data came from the American Community Survey. All spatial analyses were conducted using Arc GIS software.
These researchers found that census track levels of poverty, undereducation and unemployment were associated with toxic hot spots, while factors such as per capita income and median household income were inversely associated with toxic hot spots. These findings support other studies that identified disparities in exposures to ambient air emissions of toxic chemicals and that raised questions about whether residential segregation leads to differential exposure to air pollutants.
While the authors discuss a number of possible pathways connecting segregation and health, the relationship between segregation and exposure to air toxics is unclear. They discuss various factors that result in segregation leading to the “cycle of segregation” that includes neighborhoods with low social capital, few community resources and low property values which tends to attract more low income and minority residents and exposures to unhealthy air toxics.
The authors concluded that this study provides strong evidence of the unequal distribution of carcinogenic air toxics in the St Louis metropolitan area and that residential segregation leads to differential exposure to chemicals in the air that cause cancer.

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Backyard Talk

Unequal Infant Mortality Rate Caused by Environmental Injustice

By Monica Lee, Communications & Development Intern
Children are oftentimes more vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental injustice. This is because their bodies have not been fully developed to face the harsh health impacts from their environment. Nonetheless, according to the National Vital Statistics Reports done by the CDC, in 2018, infants of a black mother were more than twice as likely to die compared to infants of a white, Asian, or Hispanic mother. This is an issue raised by inequality that has always been around, and yet does not receive enough attention.
kids
There are many reasons that lead to this infant mortality gap based on race. For example, access to health care, access to adequate food, and other socioeconomic factors create differences in children’s health. Most importantly, however, the environment in which the child grows up in plays the greatest role in affecting the child’s health. Environmental injustice is the most significant factor that affects this infant mortality rate gap.
The major causes of infant mortality in the US include asthma, birth defects, neurodevelopmental disorders, and preterm birth. These illnesses are all effects of the surrounding environment, either directly affecting the child or indirectly through the mother.
Families with lower socioeconomic status tend to be disproportionately exposed to areas with more serious air pollution. Thus, children growing up in these communities have a higher chance of getting asthma. Specifically, even among adults, asthma rates are higher in blacks than in whites. This is a clear case of environmental injustice that leads to the infant mortality rate gap.
Besides asthma, the other causes of infant mortality can also be attributed to environmental injustice. Communities with higher exposures to toxic chemicals lead to more infant mortality deaths. Mothers exposed to toxic chemicals may face health effects, thereby causing birth defects leading to infant mortality. At the same time, infants directly exposed to these toxic chemicals face a greater consequence as their immune system have not been fully developed. Families with lower socioeconomic status tend to reside in these communities with higher exposures to toxic chemicals, thereby causing the infant mortality rate gap.
Many of the causes of infant mortality are created by the environment, and environmental injustice plays a huge role in affecting specific communities with lower socioeconomic status. Thus, there is a large racial gap of infant mortality rates as children’s health are more likely to be affected by the negative effects, such as air pollution and toxic chemicals. This issue requires more attention in order for the inequality to be eliminated completely. As a result of environmental injustice, many infant lives are lost without the chance to enjoy their full life.

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Homepage News Archive

Environmental Justice Grassroots Groups Fight Back Against Pollution

Pollution is disproportionately killing Black Americans. Hazardous waste facilities are 75% more likely to be in close proximity to the homes of African-Americans than other racial groups. Grassroots environmental justice groups are taking a stand against these issues of pollution and environmental racism and are making a huge impact. Read More
Photo by: Matt Rourke—AP

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Backyard Talk

Studies Suggest Air Pollution Increases Threat of Coronavirus Airborne Transmission

By: Shaina Smith, Community Organizing Intern
The reality of environmental inequality is that industry polluters target low-wealth and minority communities disproportionately. A 2018 study found that Black and Latino people are typically exposed to 56% and 63% more air pollution than is caused by their consumption, but that white people are exposed to 17% less than they cause.
This exposure weakens the immune system over time, and people with preexisting respiratory or cardiovascular diseases are more likely to have a severe case of coronavirus.
A recent Harvard study found that higher levels of pollution particles known as PM 2.5 are linked to higher coronavirus death rates. An increase of just one microgram per cubic meter results in a 10% increase in coronavirus cases, and 15% increases in death.  A separate study of air quality found overlap between areas of high coronavirus mortality rate with high levels of air pollution. The EPA standard for PM 2.5 is 12 micrograms per cubic meter annual average, and the WHO standard is 10. However, some places in New York have annual PM levels above either standard, which may have contributed to the coronavirus hotspot earlier in the year. 
A preliminary study in Italy detected Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) on PM 10, which is the same thing as PM 2.5, but slightly larger. This means that air pollution is not only a direct pathway to transmission of coronavirus, but can even travel further in the air, increasing the risk for anyone living in areas of high contamination. 
CDC data shows Black and Latino people are three times as likely to become infected with coronavirus than white people, and twice as likely to die.
These communities on the frontlines of pollution were already facing a health crisis, the coronavirus pandemic makes it more deadly.
To control a second wave the government needs to seriously consider the findings of these recent studies and impose harsher penalties and regulations on industrial polluters. In doing so this means taking on the root cause of why Black and Brown people suffer the most from this pandemic: systemic racism embedded in environmental, economic, and political aspects of life. 
Photo by: Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
 

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Homepage News Archive

VA Power Plant Delayed Due to Environmental Justice Concerns

A $350 million gas project in Virginia has been delayed due to rising concerns that environmental justice groups have presented from the surrounding communities. Virginia’s State Corporation Commission recently deferred action on Southern Co.’s Virginia Natural Gas project due to the lack of details regarding environmental justice issues and financing. Read More.
Photo: NOVI Energy

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Stories of Local Leaders

Lou Zeller and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League: Six Years of Hard Work and A Massive Victory over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

By: Julie Silverman, Communications Intern
Since 2014, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) began campaigning to counteract the planning and construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. After six long years of dedicated work, BREDL and its partner organizations succeeded on July 5th, 2020 in cancelling the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline: a major victory that likely would not have been accomplished without the work of Lou Zeller, the executive director of BREDL as well as key BREDL leaders and supporting partners and coalition groups.BREDL
The Atlantic Coast Natural Gas Pipeline was a multi-billion project led by Duke and Dominion Energy companies and was planned to go through rural and low-income parts of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The construction of the pipeline would have not only damaged local ecosystems but jeopardize the health of many nearby residents through emissions from compressor stations and pollution in both waterways and drinking water systems. The pipeline targeted poor communities and would have had a tremendously detrimental impact on community members’ health and agricultural success. For example, a sweet potato farmer in Johnston County, North Carolina allowed an earlier branch pipeline to come through his farm and said that the land never produced again despite it being 20 years after the pipeline’s construction. Therefore, the opposition to the pipeline was centered around risks of public health and environmental degradation as well as economic and agricultural concerns.
The victory that we saw over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is “relatively rare. We don’t normally get the satisfaction of knowing that [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the fight] is really over,” said Lou Zeller.
One of the key tactics in leading to BREDL’s massive success was uniting community members against the pipeline from all across the political spectrum. By reaching out to people who are both conservative and liberal and everywhere in between, BREDL was able to create a cohesive and extremely powerful bipartisan movement, one that you don’t see often in today’s political climate. Regardless whether people cared about the environment, public health, or land rights and eminent domain issues, there was a welcoming spot at BREDL for people to get involved and fight against the pipeline. This strong base allowed BREDL to cast out to a larger audience and gain a diverse following that appealed to people who would not have normally joined an environmental organization. By allowing different groups of people to focus on what issues impassion them, BREDL was able to create an extremely strong movement that even the most powerful companies, such as Duke and Dominion Energy corporations could not face.
Another tactic that was used to create a successful movement and opposition to the pipeline was organizing in communities and creating coalitions with organizations that were directly in the path of the pipeline’s planned construction zones in both Virginia and North Carolina. Lou Zeller described this process as stringing beads on a necklace. By engaging those closest to the pipeline, BREDL was able to create opposition along its entire route. This was an extremely tough task since the pipeline’s planned construction spanned across 12,000 acres of land that would have been disturbed from West Virginia all the way down to Southern North Carolina.
The success of BREDL in defeating the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one that should be greatly celebrated. The idea of never giving up fighting for what you believe in and working together despite differences are important themes that led to BREDL’s victory. In the words of Janet Marsh, BREDL’s founder, “one person speaking alone may not be heard, but many people speaking with one voice cannot be ignored.”
Please visit http://www.bredl.org/index.htm if you are interested in BREDL’s work or would like to learn more or get involved with their campaigns.
If you are interested in hearing more about BREDL’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, click here to watch a Zoom recording of CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Event from July 15, 2020: a conversation with Lou Zeller and other key leaders in the organization.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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Homepage News Archive

Monsanto to Pay D.C. $52 million Toward Chemical Contamination Cleanup in Local Waterways

For over 50 years during the 20th century, Monsanto produced and sold products that contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which have been known to cause severe health problems in humans such as cancer and liver damage and kill wildlife. After many decades of polluting into local waterways and communities, Monsanto will be held accountable by paying the city of D.C. $52 million in order to help clean up chemical contamination that they caused. The majority of the money will go towards cleaning up polluted waterways with high PCB concentrations, specifically in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Read More
Photo by Desmond Hester on Unsplash

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Stories of Local Leaders

Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman: Just Moms STL

By: Jenna Clark, Communications Intern
Karen and Dawn will tell you that they are “just moms,” but you shouldn’t believe them. Just Moms STLIn their
community
 of West Lake, Missouri, these two moms have led the battle against nearby nuclear waste. For 8 years, they have diligently organized community members, educated
local officials, spearheaded investigations into toxic waste mere miles from their homes, called EPA administrators day in and day out, and ultimately achieved their goal: federal recognition of its responsibility for the nuclear waste that threatens their community’s health, and its impending removal. 
Rather than “just moms” it might be better to say that they are “moms, and…” Moms firstunequivocally and with pride, but just moms, never.
For Karen and Dawn, their kids are inextricable from their stories of the fights, challenges, and victories of their mission. Karen potty trained her youngest while calling the EPA: “When I first got involved in this, 2012, 2013, that was right when my youngest was potty training. And we’d be on a conference call with the EPA, and he’d be hollering for me from the bathroom. And I’d be quietly slipping him Cheerios and books and saying ‘you can’t get up until you go!’” Her kids are now 10, 12, and 14, and the oldest has an autoimmune disorder, likely caused by the toxic waste practically in their backyard.   
Karen not only raised her own children near to tons of nuclear waste, she grew up there herself. After learning in 2012 that the Army Corps of Engineers was cleaning up a site adjacent to her home in West Lake, she realized that both she and her children had been exposed: “After attending that meeting I learned that I was raising my own four kids now, miles from a burning radioactive landfill. The fire had been burning since 2010, and I had been raising my own kids here for the past 20+ years. So, I have 4 kids, 3 of them are grown, one just graduated from high school, and I have grandchildren. We’ve been working on educating, promoting, raising awareness about the West Lake Landfill.” 
The problems with the West Lake Landfill begin with the Manhattan Project in 1942. As the U.S. military sought to build the world’s first nuclear bomb, barrels of toxic waste from the uranium purification process were left outside of St. Louis. In the 1970s, efforts were made to clean up the site, without much success. Some was sent to be stored in Colorado, but much of the radioactive soil was dumped illegally into the West Lake Landfill.  
For decades the presence of nuclear waste wasn’t acknowledged. However, in 2010 a fire began in the nearby Bridgeton Landfill, which is adjacent to the West Lake Landfill. With the fire came an intense stench. Karen and Dawn started to notice. 
Dawn explained how she and Karen began working together: “Karen and I were neighbors and we didn’t even know. We had been living right around the corner from each other for years. I found out because I could smell the toxins from the fire that were coming out. And I put a call in to the local municipality, and they didn’t want to answer any questions. And I thought, oh God. And they sent me to the state regulator, which was the Department of Natural Resources…He was just pouring information out, and was really panicked. And I thought, this is a big deal.”  
Once Karen and Dawn learned about the waste, they began a long term effort for its removal, and founded their organization, Just Moms STL. Karen credits team-work and connectivity as a major reason for their success: “Most importantly we used the connections that we had, both Dawn and I being involved with PTA’s in school and what not. We literally started one family at a time, sitting down and showing them documents that we had read about the fire. We spent really the first 2.5 years just educating, 24 hours a day, sitting with documents, just learning what we could learn. And then taking that out into the community and building relationships with other community leaders…You have to make those connections because you have to start building your army. Because this is a fight, and we need an army.”  
Their best advice for activists just getting started? Find a team you trustAnd if you can’t find one, create one: “Find a Karen. Find a Karen Nickel. Don’t isolate yourself within this fight, find a group, find somebody that you can really trust and count on,” says Dawn.  
She adds, “Have a goal. What do you want to see happen at the end of this? And be prepared that should you achieve it, validation doesn’t feel like you think it is going to feel...Forget everything you knew about how change happens.”  
For Karen and Dawn, this means that even now, after they “won” their battle, they still have work to do. Many of the problems caused by the nuclear waste and other toxic materials in their community still exist. Many people in the area, including Karen, will be dealing with negative health effects from the pollution for their entire lives.  
 Acknowledging this, Karen and Dawn’s story illustrates the power of team-work and community activism. With enough determination and drive, it is possible to create change. The groups responsible for large scale pollution can be held accountable for their actions, and you don’t need professional training or to be a policy or legal expert to do it. Yes, you can even be “just” a mom. As a part of our new series, Living Room Leadership, we recently spoke with Dawn and Karen. Watch our conversation here.