Ending of Transfer of Environmental Problems to Poorer communities

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Eye from Albany
March 2002

Ending of Transfer of Environmental Problems to Poorer communities
By Paul M. Bray

When I first heard the term “environmental justice” I thought of a news piece about a retired CEO of a large chemical company whose retirement home on the Carolina coast would be downwind of a proposed chemical plant. He was not too happy. This sounded like environmental justice to me.

To be more serious, the transfer of environmental problems from the haves to the have-nots or less powerful whether in this country or transnationally is a serious issue that has gotten too little attention.

Recent developments in federal and state courts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and at the grassroots suggest that environmental justice is emerging as a significant political issue on many fronts.

A Federal District Court Judge temporarily halted the opening of a New Jersey cement plant because he found that toxic emissions threatened the health of nearby residents and violated the civil rights of a minority community. Here was an application of the environmental justice principle that polluting industries should not be overly represented in a minority or poor community.

That principle is also in play in New York over the installation last summer of mini-power power plants in six sites in New York City and one in Long Island City. As reported in the New York Times, opponents point out “all were installed in low income, mostly minority neighborhoods that already had air pollution problems caused by heavy concentrations of industrial plants.” The State Court of Appeals found that the State failed to fully satisfy its responsibilities under the State Environmental Quality Review Law (SEQRA) before installing these power plants.

Environmental journalist Margie Kriz reported that, “Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Whitman has ranked environmental justice as a top priority, although she left a mixed legacy on the subject in New Jersey.” At Whitman’s confirmation hearing, she declared that no community should be “singled out” to be “dumped on”. Information on the U.S. EPA environmental justice position and activities is available at http://www.epa.gov/ocr.

Beginning in 1998 when then-Commissioner John Cahill was confronted with environmental justice concerns from minority and low income communities, the DEC has been seeking ways to incorporate environmental justice into its permit review, SEQRA procedures and some components of its enforcement, public participation and grants programs. Not only has there been concern about inequitable siting and enforcement, but also about reputed inequitable distribution of green benefits to minority and low income communities.

DEC used a grant from the U.S. EPA to establish an advisory committee that included non-governmental organizations, business representatives and Native American representatives to develop recommendations for an environmental justice program. These recommendations including supplemental letters from some of the advisory committee members were completed for review in January.

Driving much of this judicial and administrative activity is the increased attention to environmental justice issues from advocacy groups for minority and low income communities and Native Americans. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced plans to sue the lead paint industry at the Association’s July annual meeting.

Closer to home both statewide and in Albany, environmental justice is becoming a hot issue. At last year’s conference of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus the link was made between suburban sprawl and environmental justice. Consequences of sprawl to low income city dwellers including urban disinvestment, physical decay in our cities and inequitable allocation of resources for infrastructure like transportation, water and sewage systems are drawing the minority community to engage with the anti-sprawl smart growth or quality community effort.

Aaron Mair, Executive Director of the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Center and the first African-American to head the 40,000 Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, views the environmental justice movement as a great opportunity “to educate the poorer communities about their right to a healthy, good quality environment”. He sees “civil rights concerns bleeding into the main stream environmental movement” with “the inner city getting an environmental voice”.

This has manifest itself in Albany where Mair led a successful court effort to block the Albany Mayor Jenning’s actions to develop additional low income housing in a poor section (Arbor Hill) of the City without a Master Plan to improve the overall community. Mair has also been successful in directing some of the attention on the Hudson River PCB issue to focus on its impact on poorer people in the Hudson River Valley who have health related impacts from the contamination of the River.

In the courts, halls of the legislatures and public agencies and in the voting booth, minority and low-income communities are finding their environmental voice. Not only are they unwilling to continue to be an environmental dumping ground, they are increasing expecting to have their just share of environmental and health benefits. If minority communities become a swing vote as they were in the recent election for the Mayor of New York City, their newly acquired environmental voice will be heard.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an Albany based environmental and planning law firm, and his e-mail address is PMBRAY@aol.com.