How Industrial Companies Responsible for Pollution Among Disenfranchised Communities Can Fight Environmental Racism
Some ways industries and people can fight environmental racism include changing practices and educating themselves.
- By Chandler Blythe Duncan
- Sep 30, 2022
A toxic landfill is heavily polluting Uniontown, a small town in Alabama where 90 percent of the population is black. In Louisiana, the industrialization of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, known as the "Cancer Alley," significantly contributes to a high disease burden among the nearby black community. The disenfranchised communities of Pahokee, Florida, are regularly exposed to "black snow," thick soot resulting from sugar burning responsible for a wide range of respiratory illnesses.
These instances are contemporary examples of environmental racism, a form of systemic prejudice whereby people of color are disproportionately impacted by diseases caused by toxic exposure near their homes. As a concept, environmental racism grew out of grassroots activism, a movement using people in underprivileged communities to bring about political or economic change. Both race and economic status are key factors in environmental racism. However, it is undeniable that race is the most reliable and accurate indicator of proximity to pollution.
The proximity between polluters and communities of color can be explained by the unavailability of affordable land, historical discrimination and lack of political power to fight large corporations.
Consequently, black, indigenous and people of color have to live near industrial sites, landfills, truck routes, shipping ports, railroads and contaminated military bases. Prolonged exposure to multiple environmental hazards can lead to dangerous, life-threatening health illnesses, such as lung cancer, renal toxicity, female infertility, kidney cancer and leukemia.
Camp Lejeune, a Major Source of Toxic Exposure in North Carolina
For 34 years, Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was contaminated with perchloroethylene, benzene, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride to a tremendous extent. A recent study revealed that perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances–PFAS–are still polluting at least 14 military base sites. As a group of nearly 5,000 different toxic agents, PFAS are often dubbed "forever chemicals," as some take up to a thousand years to break down in the environment. The highest PFAS level measured at Camp Lejeune exceeded the safe exposure limit by over 2,450 times.
ABC One-Hour Cleaners was responsible for improperly disposing of industrial solvents such as perchloroethylene, which inevitably led to severe water contamination at the military base. The military would also use chemicals to clean weapons and equipment, thereby increasing the extent of toxic contamination. At the water distribution plant Hadnot Point, the greatest perchloroethylene level was 43 times over the safe exposure limit. In contrast, the trichloroethylene level at the Tarawa Terrace water distribution plant eclipsed the safe exposure limit by 280 times.
Between 1953 and 1987, when contamination at Camp Lejeune was the most severe, one million people lived at the military base. Everyone came in direct contact with harmful agents, which is why today, numerous veterans struggle with many health effects. The nearby communities were also impacted by water contamination. In 1989, the EPA deemed Camp Lejeune a Superfund site and requested intense cleanup activities at the installation. Still, while the drinking water is safe now, it will take decades for the agency to complete the cleanup.
Communities of Color Living Near Military Bases and Waste Incinerators Face Environmental Racism
According to EPA, people of color have a 28 percent greater health burden than white people. While the black population inhales 56 percent more polluted air than it generates, Latinos breathe in 63 percent more pollution. In contrast, white people are exposed to 17 percent less polluted air than they produce. Of the 74,313 people who inhabit Jacksonville, 13,734 are black and 12,700 are Latino. In addition to service members in training, half of the city's population lives at Camp Lejeune. Those residing at the military base and the surrounding communities have a higher risk of developing serious illnesses.
Over 20 million pounds of AFFF waste was secretly burnt by the military from 2016 to 2020. In Cohoes, New York, 7.78 million pounds of toxic waste was incinerated, endangering the health of Albany County residents. In East Liverpool, Ohio, roughly five million pounds of AFFF waste was burnt, increasing the health burden of the Columbiana County population. There is no scientific evidence that burning the remains of this fire suppressant can destroy PFAS.
The Industries Responsible for Pollution are Key to Achieving Environmental Justice for Communities of Color
One of the primary sources of environmental pollution is the chemical industry. The production of sulfuric acid, nitrate fertilizers, soda and caustics, pharmaceuticals and organic chemicals wreak havoc on the environment in the long run and pose a major health danger to disadvantaged communities living near chemical plants. During the last century, oil, coal, minerals and wood were extracted at unimaginably high rates, affecting the ecological balance in nature and damaging the landscape.
The primary effect of the chemical industry on human health is due to the pollution arising from activities that result in wastewater, gas emissions and slurry waste.
Fortunately, the chemical industry can adopt numerous practices to minimize the severe pollution it generates, such as
- Using environmentally benign fuel sources.
- Increasing efficiency in energy use.
- Reusing drums and pallets instead of disposing of these materials as waste.
- Lowering the amount of water it uses.
The chemical industry is crucial in tackling societal challenges such as climate change and environmental racism. Another effective practice it can implement is employing biotechnologies or chemolysis for recycling the raw materials it uses in production. Most of the chemical industry's carbon dioxide emissions stem from burning fossil fuels, so this is perhaps the first issue it should tackle.
The Energy Industry Can Decrease the Use of Fresh Water
The energy industry is another culprit of pollution among disenfranchised communities, as it relies heavily on fossil fuels. In 2021, carbon dioxide emissions from energy combustion and industrial process accounted for nearly 89 percent of the energy sector greenhouse gas emissions. At best, coal and nuclear power plants run at 50 percent efficiency, so even a conservative estimate suggests that wastage from the energy sector contributes to 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide annually. One way this industry can become more sustainable is by decreasing freshwater usage. Water is vital in many oil production processes, from fracking to separating oil from other substances in oil sands.
The Transportation Industry Can Adopt Greener Technologies
Transport contributes to over 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet another industry responsible for environmental racism, as many people of color live close to truck routes or rail yards. The two largest freight railroads in the country operate mainly in the western United States. In California, these railroad companies operate 18 major rail yards. Only these 18 rail yards are responsible for 210 tons of diesel pollution emissions annually, increasing cancer risk for over three million people. Nevertheless, rail companies can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by deploying cleaner alternative-drive technologies for locomotives, maximizing the utilization of current assets and improving energy efficiency in operations.
Finally, since over 600 military bases across the United States have a history of contamination, the military can also devise strategies to minimize toxic exposure among nearby communities of color. Because PFAS are some of the most hazardous chemicals lurking on these installations, the military can find a non-toxic fire suppressant to use instead of AFFF. A very promising fire suppressant is GFFF, which is non-toxic and non-carcinogenic, as it does not contain PFAS. Every time a firefighter uses AFFF on a military base, PFAS end up in the soil and water, poisoning the neighboring communities. People can be exposed to "forever chemicals" by eating contaminated fish, drinking toxic water and breathing air that contains PFAS.
Raising Awareness and Taking Part in the Conversation to Combat Environmental Racism
Everyone can raise awareness of environmental racism and get involved in combating it, despite the uphill battle ahead. Some of the most powerful ways that can oppose environmental racism include self-education concerning the inequity communities of color face and raising the voices of the impacted communities to propose their own solutions to end injustice. Also, holding businesses responsible for their unethical and negligent practices can stifle the toxic and unsafe environment they create.
The enforcement of stricter laws for industries that cause pollution is typically met with strong opposition from corporations whose main priority is financial gain at any cost. Consequently, a more effective way to end environmental racism and injustice would be by supporting grassroots endeavors and collaboration with legal groups and private firms. Private law can efficiently help vulnerable communities through toxic tort and class action lawsuits filed against the very companies that contribute to a hazardous living environment.
Chandler Blythe Duncan is a toxic exposure attorney at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. (https://www.elglaw.com/). She offers legal assistance to injured veterans and military families. The attorney has a Master of Public Health degree, which she earned from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Chandler Blythe Duncan is a member of the Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program, the American Bar Association, and the Birmingham Bar Association.