2 - 2010

Race and Environment – Not Mutually Exclusive


power plant East Oakland

The following is a guest post from The Adventures of Pei. Note from Cheap: It’s a thought-provoking topic I asked her to address – I hope it give you food for thought.

The other day I read an article about a very sad situation in a small town—an elevated percentage of babies being born with severe birth defects, including cleft palates and brain deformities. Several of the babies eventually died from their birth defects.

Is this a city in India? A remote town in China? A village in the bush of Africa? No, it’s Kettleman City in California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a little off Interstate 5.

This “town of about 1,500 mostly low-income Latino residents” are concerned that the birth defects are linked to contamination from the Kettleman Hills waste disposal facility, which accepts hazardous waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state environmental and public health agencies are currently investigating by interviewing the parents of the babies, collecting air and soil samples, and evaluating other relevant data.

This is not the first time health issues have been thought (or even demonstrated) to be linked to environmental contamination. Remember Love Canal? Remember Times Beach? Or Hinckley, California, of Erin Brockovich fame? What makes the Kettleman City story different is the predominant race of the residents—Latino.

Yes, race is the factor in Kettleman City, in Perry County, Alabama, on Navajo lands, in Warren County, and in other communities populated by people of color and affected by environmental contamination. This is known as environmental racism. According to the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice’s 1987 Report on Race and Toxic Wastes in the United States, “race, more than class, was shown to be a determining factor in where hazardous, toxic sites would be built and maintained.” (Environmental Racism: An Eumenical Study Guide, NCC Eco-Justice Working Group).

The US federal government addressed environmental racism through the issuance of Executive Order Number 12898 in February 1994 by then-President Clinton. Titled Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, the Order intended to make environmental justice a consideration in all work undertaken by federal agencies. It also established a working group comprised of representatives from multiple agencies to, among other things, “provide guidance to Federal agencies on criteria for identifying disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations.”

And this is where we find ourselves today. “Disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations” continue to occur, and Kettleman City may yet be another example of environmental racism. In the end, let’s hope that the parents of the babies find out what has caused the birth defects, and the community learns what actions to take to prevent this from happening again.

What you can do:

  1. Learn more about environmental racism and environmental justice.
  2. Host a film showing at your home and invite your friends and neighbors to increase awareness of these issues. Click here for a listing of films.
  3. When you read about or see a potential environmental racism/justice issue, take action. Write a letter to the editor, bring up the issue with your local government representatives at a public meeting, volunteer with a environmental justice group, and/or blog about it.
  4. Refuse to patronize businesses, or purchase products from companies that are known to be involved with environmental racism, and tell them why.
  5. Live in such a way that more electricity generation, more disposables, and more planned obsolence items are not necessary to our lives so that there is less need for those industries that are known for environmental contamination.

Guest blogger The Adventures of Pei attempts to live lightly on the Earth, and blogs about her successes and foibles along the way.

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