Environmentalism must also be anti-racist.

Covid-19 impacts people of color more severely than white people.

The COVID-19 mortality rate for black New York City residents, for example, is twice that of white residents, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report has suggested that black Americans in general are hospitalized for COVID-19 at much higher rates. 

In that regard, Covid-19 is exactly like most other every other environment caused pathologies. The negative impacts of climate change, hazardous waste, particulate pollution, fall more heavily of communities of color throughout the world. That’s because, as Hop Hopkins tells us, communities of color, and the people who live in them have been treated as disposable for a long time.

Just think of Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Most of the towns there are majority Black, and nowadays they call it Death Alley, because so many Black folks have died from the poison that drives our extractive economy. Or think of the situation in the Navajo Nation, where uranium mines poisoned the wells and the groundwater and coal plants for decades poisoned the air. Or consider the South Side of Chicago, where I used to live, which for years was a dumping ground of petroleum coke (a fossil fuel byproduct) and where residents are still struggling against pollution-related diseases.

Robert Bullard told us how racism, whether intentional or not caused this problem in his 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality When communities are racially segregated, those with more power will mobilize to prevent highly polluting industries or toxic waste disposal from wrecking their neighborhoods. But neighborhoods with less money and less political clout (which describes most communities of color) are unable to mount the mobilization efforts needed to fight against the polluters,

One of the most egregious examples of a large corporation using a mostly black neighborhood as a dumping ground for toxic waste is Anniston, Alabama. From 1935 to 1976 the largest employer in Anniston was a Monsanto factory which produced PCBs. During that time, Monsanto intentionally hid the severity of the pollution produced by the plant, and was aided and encouraged in this effort by regulators. A 2002 Senate hearing described the situation

In 1966, Monsanto managers hired a Mississippi State biologist named Denzel Ferguson, who informed them then that fish submerged in Snow Creek turned belly up in 10 seconds, shedding skin as if dumped in boiling water. In 1969, 3 years later, Monsanto found fish in Choccolocco Creek that were deformed, and lethargic, and some contained 7,500 times the legal PCB level. Yes, 7,500 times the legal PCB level. Given the overwhelming evidence that PCBs were, indeed, harmful to the fish from surrounding waterways, Monsanto then informed the Alabama Water Improvement Commission, ADEM’s predecessor, that PCBs were entering Snow Creek again in 1969. The Alabama Water Improvement Commission took no action. In fact, they encouraged Monsanto to keep the pollution quiet, due to a reluctance to inform the public, which would require the issuance of a fish advisory.

For all those decades, Monsanto knew that the factory was belching out toxic waste at an alarming rate, were poisoning the land and water, and not only did they withhold this information, they were actively encouraged to do so by the regulators.

In 1983, the Federal Soil and Conservation Service found PCBs in Choccolocco Creek, but took no action again.

In 1985, State authorities found PCB contamination in Snow Creek, and reported their finding to the EPA; however, the EPA deferred cleanup of Snow Creek to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. For years, ADEM, as we call it, did nothing, and EPA did not follow-up on the initial reports, or the cleanup measures, as best as I can tell.

Why did the regulators, tasked with protecting the public, turn a blind eye? There are a lot of possible reasons. Regulators are often close to the companies they are regulating, and many prioritize economic development. But the likelihood is that if the “public” has been white and more affluent, they would have been better protected.

Stories of the devastation done to the residents of Anniston can be found in Harriet Washington’s book A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind.

Denise Chandler, 46, has also had a front-row seat to death caused by reckless pollution. She, too, regularly played with her brother in one of the neighborhood’s chemical-imbued ditches. “We floated our little boats in it and waded in it, but we didn’t know it was loaded with PCBs,” she recalled. Decades later, when they were finally tested, they discovered that they both had high blood PCB levels. She suffers from sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease characterized by widespread tissue inflammation. Her brother suffered myriad health problems before he died of kidney failure at age forty. But their problems are more than physical: two of Chandler’s three children were diagnosed with learning disorders. From 1935 until 1971, without warning its neighbors, Monsanto disposed of tens of thousands of pounds of PCBs by dumping them into creeks or burying them in and around Anniston. 

Communities of color also tend to have higher levels of particulate contamination than do white communities. According to a 2018 EPA report

… black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites. The study found that people in poverty had about 1.3 times more exposure than people above poverty.

According to the report, not only are more polluting facilities located in poor and minority neighborhoods, the ones located in poor and minority neighborhoods produce more pollution than facilities in white neighborhoods. The bottom line is that people in poor and minority neighborhoods end up breathing air and drinking water that is more polluted, and that leads to a range of adverse health impacts, including increased rates of asthma, COPD, low birth weights, and a range of other chronic conditions. That, in turn puts minority populations at greater risk for Covid-19.

Environmental justice means that we have to stop treating people as disposable.


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