Environmental Racism in the United States

Guest Post By Amber Skinner

Environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, and income” in all environmental decisions and policies (EPA, 2020). Unfortunately, environmental justice is rarely achieved. Instead, many communities of color are subjected to environmental racism.

According to a 2007 study, it’s five times more likely for a Black child to have lead poisoning from proximity to a waste site than a white child. Even wealthy Black families are more likely to live next to a waste site than low income white families. Black Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than they produce. Latinx Americans are exposed to 63% more pollution than they produce, and white Americans are exposed to 17% less pollution than they produce. Native Americans are also suffering constant environmental injustices.

People of Color are significantly more likely to be exposed to health risks due to increased pollution and other environmental justice issues. As a result, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have elevated rates of cancer, asthma, and other ailments. During the coronavirus pandemic, BIPOC were also more likely to become infected with COVID-19, thanks to environmental racism. The dirtier the air, the more likely a coronavirus infection, and the dirtiest air is found in BIPOC communities.

Like the rest of the country, environmental racism plagues the Southeast United States. Here are a few of the most prominent cases of environmental racism in the Southeast.

Environmental Racism in Water

Dickson, Tennessee, just West of Nashville, has a population that is 95.5% white and only 4.5% Black. However, the waste management facility is located next to a mainly Black community – Eno Road. Members of the Holt family, a Black family living on Eno Road in Dickson, drank contaminated water for at least 12 years. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was aware of the presence of trichloroethylene (TCE), a carcinogen, in the family’s well water as early as 1988, but they did not tell the family about the contamination until 2000. Several members of the family became extremely ill, and one, Harry Holt, died from cancer shortly after the family learned about the TCE.

Burlington Industries, a clothing organization, released PCBs, a dangerous toxin, into the environment in Cheraw, South Carolina (Southeast of Charlotte, NC) up until 1970. The town, 58% Black and made up of roughly 5,500 residents, was not informed of the contamination until 2016, almost 50 years later. The industry’s waste made its way into the Pee Dee River and nearby creeks, which Cheraw children frequently play in. This may have caused severe health problems in the town. In 2018, Hurricane Florence hit, and the river and creeks flooded, spreading the chemicals farther throughout the environment. Residents then began to really put pressure on the government to explain the silence.

When the BP Oil Plant had its massive spill in 2010, communities all along the Gulf Coast suffered severe impacts. This included the local Indigenous communities, who the federal government has long ignored. The BP oil spill destroyed the Gulf Coast environment, and because much of Indigenous culture includes a deep connection to the land, Indigenous communities suffered disproportionately. Hurricanes and other natural disasters frequently hit the Gulf Coast, but Indigenous neighborhoods rarely receive enough federal aid. In general, Indigenous residents also face racism within their communities: their water and food are often contaminated, and their children are segregated in schools.

polluted water contributes to environmental racism

Cancer-Causing Agents As An Environmental Racism Issue

In the space between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana lies Cancer Alley, an area named for its high number of petroleum factories. The air quality in Cancer Alley has been a problem for decades, and it’s only getting worse, even as air quality around the country improves. The residents, who are mostly under-resourced and Black, are exposed to significantly more carcinogens than other locations. In order to persuade residents to allow the construction of the plants, petroleum corporations promised jobs to the people in Cancer Alley. However, the corporations only employ a small percentage of those residents because they bring in their own workers from other locations.

In 2008, over a billion gallons of coal ash (a very dangerous pollutant that coal-burning factories produce) contaminated the Emory River in Kingston, Tennessee. The population of Kingston is over 90% white. In order to avoid poisoning residents in Kingston, the Tennessee Valley Authority received approval from the EPA to transport the coal ash waste to Uniontown, Alabama, a small, rural community West of Montgomery. 90% of Uniontown’s residents are Black. Once they moved the coal ash to Uniontown, the EPA labeled it as non-hazardous, even though it was classified as hazardous in Kingston. In addition to being subjected to the numerous health problems that are associated with coal ash (cancer, leukemia, etc.), residents are also forced to watch as the landfill creeps closer and closer to their only cemetery. Like the other locations with environmental justice issues, Uniontown citizens protested the landfill, but their cries have been dismissed. The waste is still in Uniontown today.

Asthma As An Environmental Justice Issue

In predominantly BIPOC communities in the Everglades, like Pahokee, “black snow” plagues the area. Burning nearby sugar fields creates the black snow. Sugar companies burn their fields before each harvest to reduce transportation costs. It’s a legal practice, but ash and other debris from the fires fill the air in nearby communities, making it difficult to breathe. This sort of “respiratory distress” can lead to respiratory illnesses, like asthma and lung cancer. Black snow also makes residents more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Houston, Texas is yet another example of environmental exploitation of BIPOC communities. The Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, just Southeast of Houston city center, is overwhelmingly BIPOC (90% Latinx, 8% Black), and it’s located near 21 industrial waste facilities. This doesn’t even include industrial plants that emit toxic chemicals into the air. The health consequences are horrendous. Harrisburg/Manchester residents are 22% more likely to have cancer, and Black children are two times more likely than their white counterparts to have asthma. In addition, there are frequent chemical accidents in Houston (every six weeks), endangering residents even more.

Environmental Justice Begins With Action


However, despite these many incidents, BIPOC communities are fighting back. In the 1980’s, environmental racism protests kicked off in Warren County, North Carolina, just northeast of Raleigh. Warren County is a rural, small, and mostly Black county, and in the early 80s, North Carolina chose it to host a hazardous waste site for PCB, a toxic chemical. The state selected Warren County because they thought the county would be easily exploitable because its residents were Black and under-resourced. Instead of sitting back and simply taking in the dangerous waste, residents fought back and protested, making waves across the country. The protests may not have ultimately changed the location of the waste site, but they did pave the way for other environmental justice communities to follow suit.

So, what can we do to combat environmental racism?

The first and most important task is to listen to and prioritize those living in environmental justice communities. The country has ignored the voices of BIPOC communities for far too often, when those voices are the ones we should be listening to the most. It’s also imperative that we educate others about the dangers of environmental racism. Not enough people are aware of this problem, and you can’t fight against an issue you don’t know exists. And finally, for those who can, donate, protest, and reach out to local government officials. Do whatever you can, physically, mentally, and otherwise, but do not stay silent. Use your voice to be a part of the change this world needs, until there is truly liberty and justice for all.

Amber Skinner is a rising junior at Duke University and an intern at Dogwood Alliance for the summer. She is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Science and Policy with a special focus in environmental justice and education. Amber loves the outdoors, particularly hiking, and can be frequently found playing outside her home with her two kittens.

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