Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Distress, toxic powder, & oyster reefs

One in six Americans live in a zip code that is considered economically distressed, according to a new analysis by the Economic Innovation Group. The report says these places are where half of adults are trying to find gainful employment with only a high school education; where people die five years earlier; where there have been zero net gains, and many losses, in employment and business establishment since 2000.

The majority of those zip codes are in the South.

One of the primary focuses of Southerly is the glaring disparity between this region and the rest of the U.S. — whether that is economic, environmental, political, or racial — so poking through data like this detailed interactive map can help further that conversation and provide a better understanding about why communities vote the way they do or believe what they believe.

This study looked at factors including housing vacancy rates, the percentage of people from ages 25 to 64 who are not working, poverty rates, and the change in the number of businesses to determine which congressional districts, cities, counties, and states are economically strained. Of the top 10 major cities that rank as the least prosperous, Memphis is number six, the only major Southern city to make the list. Another recent report put Memphis as the country’s poorest metro area of more than a million people; as overall poverty in the U.S. is dropping, it’s increasing there. Many Southern states also have some of the highest poverty rates in the country: Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Arkansas top the list.

When measuring by congressional district, the statistics are just as staggering: for instance, in Mississippi’s second district, 21 percent of people have no high school diploma and there’s a 14 percent housing vacancy rate. The number of businesses in the district has decreased by 3 percent since, compared to a 4 percent increase in the U.S. as a whole.

The most economically strained counties are typically in rural areas, and this data suggests the problems span the Republican/Democrat divide. Though that may be the case, it’s easy to see how quickly these stats could be twisted to fit a narrative: lawmakers could use certain numbers to show that the coal industry’s decline in Kentucky is the sole reason for high rates of unemployment; a company that wants to build a chemical plant could cite a high poverty rate as a reason to build in a poor community of color in Louisiana. This type of misinformation, or information with no context, spreads like wildfire. We’ve seen it within the last week: one tweetby the president twisted the story of a protest against injustice to make it about him and the American flag. One prominent Kentucky senator is still trying to convince the country that being insured is a terrible trick.

For voters on both sides of the aisle — especially in places like the rural South where these statistics are nothing new, where they play out in everyday life — the economy is all that matters. Its context, or its relationship to other forms of injustice, is irrelevant. But there is an economic case for affordable healthcare: Congress’ most recently proposed (and failed) healthcare bill replacement for the Affordable Care Act could have led to $240 billion in lost economic activity by 2027 and would have impacted 580,000 jobs, according to one report. There is an economic case for taking climate action: a recent study suggests the costs from climate change are projected to reach at least $360 billion within the next decade, and many Southern states have already seen a dramatic increase in the number of billion-dollar disasters like floods and droughts (recent hurricanes not included). There’s a strong economic case for racial and gender equality: according to a 2014 study, the racial income gap is costing the U.S. billions in economic productivity; if the gap was eliminated, GDP would rise by 14 percent.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, all of these factors contribute to distress in communities across the country. It’s heightened in the poorest and unhealthiest places, of which the South has many. While President Trump’s administration allows the state of tax reform, health insurance, and environmental policy to hang in the balance, that stress continues to grow, and those glaring disparities become clearer.

Stories worth your time 

For West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Glynis Board reports on how communities in Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky are grappling with how to prepare for — and pay for — more frequent extreme weather events that cause flash flooding.

The Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana that is the center for the U.S. military’s air combat operations generates thousands of pounds of hazardous materials like toxic powder from cleaning, painting and maintaining airplanes. ProPublica found that the Air Force and other branches of the military were awarding millions of dollars in contracts to an Ohio-based company called U.S. Technology, which repurposed the toxic powder into cinderblocks used to build schools and health centers. The partnership relieved the military of any liability.

In Hamlet, North Carolina, a company called Enviva has started construction of a wood pellet facility. The pellets will be shipped to a power company in the United Kingdom, which will burn them instead of burning coal. Environmentalists say the plant will harm the health of a predominantly black community nearby and threaten wetlands and forests. Southeast Energy News dives into the growing controversy over biomass projects in the region.

News flying under the radar

According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control, up to three-quarters of the contiguous U.S. may have suitable conditions for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Dengue, Chikungunya and Zika all present a growing health threat, and the risks are concentrated in the South.

Environmental group Earthjustice said it was going to sue Duke Energy in Kentucky over the fact it refused to publish information about safety planning for coal ash storage facilities. Now, the utility says it will provide the information to the public.

Two organizations in Norfolk, Virginia received grants to construct oyster reefs, which provide structures for oysters and habitat for fish, crabs, shrimp, and other marine life.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says it’s “inappropriate” for the agency to try to figure out the climate change impact of Florida’s Sabal Trail Pipeline. Read more about the Sabal Trail controversy here.