The Importance of Environmental Justice

You rarely hear the idea of environmental justice brought up as a matter of public policy, but it’s a very important issue and a new EPA report shows why. Racial minorities are significantly more likely to feel the effects of pollution because their air and water supplies are more likely to be near the plants that produce it.

A study conducted by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists found that minority and poorer communities are disproportionately affected by air pollution relative to the overall population.

The findings by five EPA scientists, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, found that when looking at areas most affected by particulate air emissions, like soot, there were large disparities between communities differentiated by color and social strata.

African-Americans faced the highest impact, with the community facing a 54 percent higher health burden compared to the overall population, the study found. Non-white communities overall had a 28 percent higher health burden and those living under the poverty line had a 35 percent higher burden.

The report cited historical racism and economic inequality as major factors for the disparity due to the locations of facilities emitting particulate pollution, and used that knowledge as the basis for the study.

We’ve known this for a long time, but no one with any real power ever says or does anything about it. The same is true, and probably to much greater negative impact, with things like lead paint on houses and lead water pipes (poor, minority communities tend to live in older houses and neighborhoods that have this problem, which causes serious degradation of mental faculties and brain development). The tragedy in Flint, Michigan was just the tip of the iceberg. Many inner cities around the country actually have higher lead levels than Flint did.

No one will even propose the obvious “kill two birds with one stone” solution: Make this a key part of an infrastructure bill. Trump wants to spur economic growth by spending on infrastructure projects, here’s a great start. There should not be a single house with lead paint or a single drinking water system that still uses lead pipes. While we’re at it, we could modernize our sewage treatment systems to eliminate the problem of storm runoff forcing wastewater into rivers and lakes. It would create a lot of jobs and solve a serious problem at the same time.

But no one even suggests such a thing in the halls of power. Why? Because they don’t care about minority communities. Systemic racism combined with basic electoral math makes those people expendable. And that should make us all feel ashamed.

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