Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Environmental health, explosives, & dicamba

Over two decades ago, predominantly black communities in Afton, North Carolina protested a landfill that was supposed to serve as a dumping ground for toxic soil laced with PCB, a chemical that the EPA knew was hazardous. The landfill was still built, but government studies released a few years later revealed that landfills were disproportionately put in poor, black communities that didn’t have the resources to advocate for themselves.

In an attempt to research and help solve that problem, President George H.W. Bush created the Office of Environmental Equity in the early 1990s. Now called the Office of Environmental Justice, it’s a tiny department within the Environmental Protection Agency. As Talia Buford reported in this ProPublica story, the years since its creation have been filled numerous failings by Republicans and Democrats to address how environmental policies and projects affected low-income people of color.

Which brings us to today: Trump’s budget proposal would essentially eliminate the department and its meager $2 million budget. Now, Democrats are quickly trying to make up for all the missed opportunities to help the office succeed during the Obama years and before.

Throughout the South, environmental racism has always been a relevant and crucial issue. According to 2010 census data, 55 percent of the black population in the U.S. lives in the South, and 105 Southern counties have a black population of 50 percent or higher. Hispanic populations in the South are also rapidly growing, according to 2016 Pew research. The instances of environmental injustice against these populations are seemingly endless: In North Carolina, the landfill from the 1980s expanded and is still making people sick. Children in cities from New Orleans to Atlanta have been exposed to lead poisoning. In Louisiana, communities of all races have for decades been harmed by the oil and gas industry (as well as other industries like the military, as one of the stories this week shows). In South Carolina, people living near industrial sites were dying of illnesses until an Office of Environmental Justice grant helped them clean it up. Hispanic communities in Florida are more likely to have their health suffer from vehicle pollution, and more likely to reside near Superfund sites. In Louisville, predominantly black communities have been struggling with high asthma rates for generations because of poor air quality and pollution.

Although the term “environmental justice” is usually used in relation to communities of color, it also includes poor, white communities: Appalachian counties in West Virginia and Kentucky have the highest poverty rates and lowest rates of healthcare access in the country; waterways and soil across the region are contaminated from decades of mining.

The environmental justice movement has always been inextricably tied to the healthcare movement. So it struck me this week that the potential shuttering of the low-budget environmental justice office may coincide with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). Since there is currently no replacement bill, it’s unclear how this will shake out or how it will impact states. But it’s sure to impact this region, which has some of poorest, most crowded, and most diverse areas in the country.

healthcare journalist friend of mine said recently that Medicaid expansion was a missed opportunity in the South: Only four states expanded Medicaid: Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and West Virginia (and politicians in the latter two have been working for years to get rid of it, even though it’s been successful). Lawmakers in Mississippi refused to participate in Medicaid expansion three years ago, leaving nearly 140,000 residents — the majority of whom are black — without insurance. In West Virginia, nearly 180,000 people could be left without insurance if the ACA is repealed. In South Carolina, 660,000 children are enrolled in Medicaid; one of them recently traveled to D.C. to tell Congress her story. In addition to these insurance barriers, access to healthcare clinics is low in rural communities across the Black Belt and in Appalachia, and hospitals are closing in the South more than any other region of the country.

Despite the fact many of the people suffering from environmental injustices — whether in a holler in Kentucky or near a hog farm in North Carolina — are the ones who stand to benefit the most from government-funded healthcare and better access, environment and health are often talked about in silos. Local activist groups draw these connections in legal battles and protests, but they’re studied in separate academic worlds, regulated in different policy meetings, written by journalists on separate beats. And the political landscape helps keep it that way. Of course, all of this is nuanced, and none of it is simple. But failing to illustrate the intersection between the two is yet another missed opportunity.

Stories worth your time 

Rural, conservative areas aren’t well-known for their environmental advocacy, but they’re especially vulnerable to pollution, contamination, and climate change effects. This well-reported Governing story traces how difficult it is for environmental activists in small-town North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and throughout the South.

This ProPublica investigation digs into a plant in Colfax, Louisiana that is the “only commercial facility in the nation allowed to burn explosives and munitions waste with no environmental emissions controls,” which it has been doing so for decades for the military. In 2015, 700,000 pounds of military-related munitions and explosives were sent to Colfax. When the explosives are burned, it turns the community into a war zone and releases clouds of toxins into the air.

NPR interviewed David Joy about his Bitter Southerner essay I linked to several weeks ago, and it’s worth a listen.

News flying under the radar

Last week the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that farmers can take as much water as they want from the Edisto River. An environmental group had sued over the state allowing the withdrawal of 800 million gallons per month.

Arkansas banned a weed-killer called dicamba, made for soybean and cotton plants, that destroys other crops when high temperatures turn it into gas.

Much like the Dakota Access Pipeline did in North Dakota, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will disproportionately affect Native American communities in North Carolina. Also in pipeline news: the West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has halted construction of the Rover Pipeline.

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