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09/09/2011

Environmental Justice: Promises Made ...

Environmental Justice: Promises Made ...

I had the great opportunity to join Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships (EJCP)team in Detroit before Labor Day for the 2011 Conference on Environmental Justice: One Community–One Environment, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. And the Sierra Club — we were a co-sponsor.

EJCP Director Leslie Fields and staff members Rhonda Anderson and Spillman Truhart worked closely with EPA staff to plan the conference and Sierra Club contributed significantly to the presentations. These included technical trainings — by Beyond Coal Campaign volunteer leader Verena Owen on air permitting, and by EJCP staff member Rita Harris on using the toxics release inventory to chart local pollution. Melissa Damaschke provided a training about the People's Water Board Coalition and strategies for reducing water waste in support of the coalition's overall drive to avert the privatization of Detroit's water service. And both Melissa and Rita provided one-on-one coaching to attendees of the Eco-Cafe exhibition session.

Picture 59

The national gathering featured a luncheon that honored University of Michigan Professor and author Bunyan Bryant, left, leaning out, and lifelong Detroit activist and author Grace Lee Boggs, center, both central thinkers in the development of the environmental justice movement. Faciltator Donell Wilkins is at right.
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Michelle Martinez, a local organizer with the Beyond Coal Campaign, addressed the linkage of workforce development and transitioning to clean energy.

I appreciated the opportunity to join Sierra Club EJCP  organizer Rhonda Anderson's tour of the "48217" area in southwest Detroit, a case study of a community ravaged by  environmental injustice. Rhonda very compellingly presented an established, culturally rich and diverse community, now largely converted to an industrial zone, threatening the health and economic viability of its remaining residents. 

Marathon Oil has already placed its bets on dirty tar sands oil, expanding its refining facility a few years ago in southwest Detroit, where the legacy of environmental racism in the poisoning of the land, the air and the water should have made additions to Marathon's toxic releases inconceivable. Sierra Club and the 48217 community fought against it but were unsuccessful in blocking the expansion. The coalition did manage to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement, to provide among other things for an emergency response plan for the refinery's neighbors. Yet even with our tour in progress, Marathon had a huge flare and release and sent its workers home, but failed to honor its agreement and inform the neighbors.

A longtime community leader, Rhonda has been in the forefront of the effort to give voice to the disempowered, stop the assault on Detroit's poorer communities and turn them around. Rhonda has also mentored and encouraged others to step up to community activism, including Vincent Martinez, who joined her in leading the tour.

A major blow to the cause of environmental justice was dealt right in the midst of the conference. The EPA announced its settlement with the State of California in the civil rights case Angelita C. v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act VI is a potentially powerful lever for promoting environmental justice, authorizing federal agencies to withdraw funds from any recipient of federal funding, including state agencies, whose activities have a discriminatory impact based on race, natural origin or color. As detailed at the conference, despite concerted pressure over the years from EJ activists, EPA has allowed a flawed complaint investigation system to let cases languish and deny relief to communities disproportionately harmed by pollution. In the Angelita C. settlement, EPA found that California's Department of Pesticide Regulation violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by allowing unhealthy levels of the highly toxic fumigant methyl bromide near schools with predominantly Latino children, while children in majority white schools were not put at risk. Nevertheless, EPA failed to refer the case to the Justice Department and instead concluded a backroom deal that provides no relief to the families and requires little more than monitoring. Conference attendees deplored the settlement and resolved to demand that EPA redress the further injustice in this case, and more generally fulfill its obligation under the Civil Rights Act to effectively process and prosecute similar complaints.

I came away from the conference with my understanding deepened of the disproportionate toll — in sickness, lost lives and lost communities — being paid for our addiction to dirty energy of all kinds. It was gratifying to see the recognition of the Club's active role in the environmental justice movement and to be associated with the Club's dedicated EJCP volunteers and staff, whose persistent efforts over many years have established the Club's as a credible voice for justice and community empowerment. As the stories and presentations of the EJ Conference made so very clear, the ravaging of low income- and people-of-color communities is all about power. Power in the wrong hands. Power in right hands supports and creates sustainable communities. The EPA One Community–One Environment conference illustrated both realities.  

In the intervening days our attention has been considerably focused on the demonstrations and rally in Washington, D.C. against the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Obama administration's decision to shelve the ozone rule. Clearly the President needs to hear in the most-certain terms that embracing the dirtiest oil on the planet and betraying his commitment to clean up the air and water pollution harming the least responsible people the most is the wrong path. For background and what you can do, go here.

Fortunately, we also had some good news last week, with the announcement that three coal plants in Virginia, including two of the nation's most polluting, will be shut down in the next five years.

Picture 60

Club activists rally in Alexandria, Virginia, with the Sierra Club's traveling giant inhaler, to move beyond coal.

Two upcoming events I urge you to participate in:

September 24: The Moving Planet Day of Action to Move Beyond Fossil Fuels is immediate opportunity we must maximize to demonstrate the broad public support for choosing the right, clean energy path. Find an event in your community here.

October 3: Join me for an Open House Conference Call. I'll be reporting on the Club's Annual Meeting September 22-24. (And yes, the board will be participating in a Moving Planet event in San Francisco.) RSVP here.

Robin Mann

 

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