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Earth Day is Everyday: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Alabama’s Black Belt

Earth Day is celebrated annually to spread awareness of environmental issues and to show support for

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

environmental protection. On this Earth day, I want to bring awareness to vulnerable populations who often find themselves battling Goliath to preserve their quality of life. Man made hazards create environmental injustices that impact people who often don’t have the political clout or financial capital to fight back. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet Esther Calhoun, who finds herself thrust into battle with little to no financial resources and few supporters. The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice operates on a budget of $500 a year; yet, they are determined not to give up the fight.

Her voice began to tremble as she told her story but she was determined to let us know about the environmental injustices her community faced. In spite of great opposition, Esther Calhoun, President of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, continues to lead the fight in what seems like a never ending battle. No, she isn’t from Flint, Michigan, the town that has thrust Environmental Justice into the national spotlight. In fact, her community is far from it. Uniontown, Alabama is a small town in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt (an area known for its rich black topsoil) where nearly 48% of residents live below the poverty level and the population is 88% African American. The town is about a thirty minute drive from my hometown, historic Selma, Alabama on US Highway 80 West. It is also not far from Emelle, Alabama home of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill. It’s certainly not a battle that anyone wants but the dumping of coal ash on her community and sewage spray fields that now contaminate a local creek compelled her to act. She describes how the coal ash and smell of sewage are causing health issues in the community and ruining their way of life.

In 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority had a coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. The TVA agreed to pay the Alabama Department of Environmental Management $1.00 per ton to send coal ash to Uniontown, Alabama by rail. Coal ash typically contains metals such as mercury, lead, chromium and cadmium; however, the Environmental Protection Agency has not deemed it a hazardous waste. Such a designation which would have not allowed the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown to accept the waste. Residents can see the coal ash from their door steps and Ms. Calhoun passionately talks about what it’s doing to their quality of life. Residents claim that it’s causing paint to peel off of their cars and dare not eat food from gardens that have now been contaminated with coal ash. It’s certainly not what people who live in rural Alabama would or should expect. Ms. Calhoun discussed the neuropathy that she now has and new illnesses such as cancer that are plaguing many residents in Uniontown.

Besides coal ash, sewage spray fields were installed, for $4.8 million, as a way to treat sewage. Residents who know the area well were against the idea and just as they suspected the sewage spray fields are not working. The soil in this part of the state is mostly clay therefore impermeable. This has caused the sewage to not percolate in the ground and instead it has created run off into a local creek with possible contamination of the local water supply. The dust from coal ash and now the smell of sewage permeates the air in Uniontown.

These issues are hard for Ms. Calhoun to discuss but I imagine they are even harder for her and her neighbors to live through. To add insult to injury, the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice are now being sued for $30 Million  by Arrowhead Landfill (the recipient of the coal ash) for libel and slander.

As we’ve witnessed time and time again environmental issues disproportionately impact minority communities. As we commemorate Earth Day, let’s remember to support communities like Uniontown, Alabama, who may not have the political clout or national media attention, but still deserve access to clean air and water. Earth Day is about people who dwell on earth too.

To stay up to date with Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice – join their Facebook page and you can donate via their website.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.

 

Transportation Safety- When It Means More Than Crashes

Public transportation is a way of life for many people around the globe. Both men and women use it to get to their destinations; however, the sexes do not face the same challenges on their daily commutes. In this realm of transportation, women lack a sense of safety and right to personal space. Women both in the US and internationally face sexual harassment, stalking, and assaults while riding public transportation. Personal safety on public transportation must be taken seriously and considered as part of the planning phase in order to reach the ridership goals of transportation plans.

I have faced this harsh reality time and time again as I walk the sidewalks or ride public transportation in Washington, DC. For example, while 7 months pregnant and riding a bus a man sitting next to me rattled off threats and insults, tried to show me a picture on his phone, and, at one point, threatened my life. There were people all around me, male and female, all within earshot and no one did anything. I remember thinking, “Am I the only one who hears this? Am I imagining this? Why won’t anyone help me?” For a split second, I wondered what I might have done to provoke such an action, but quickly pushed it out of my mind. I hadn’t done anything wrong. All I did was take a seat on the bus. This incident shook me to my core and made me rethink public transportation. A brave friend of mine loudly called out her harasser on a train full of commuters after she was groped on the New York City Subway. Public transportation is for all and no one should have to deal with harassment when commuting.

Unfortunately, these types of instances play out regularly for women on transit. Millions of women around the world have experienced some form of harassment or sexual assault while riding public transportation or merely existing in public space. This is also not a new problem. In a 2000 study, it was estimated that 87% of women have experienced some sort of street harassment, with over half reporting extreme harassment such as being groped, touched, rubbed, or other unwanted contact including being followed. For women that have experienced harassment, 84% internalized the harassment and reported having changed their actions to avoid these situations in the future. In other western societies like London, 43% of young women (ages 18-34) reported having experienced sexual harassment in public spaces over the past year alone.

Women in large international cities also report experiencing harassment or assaults in their daily commutes. Bogota, the long-heralded model for effective public transit, is reported as one of the most dangerous for women. Beijing, Dehli, and Kathmandu all have high rates of harassment and assaults on public transit. Each have attempted to implement gender-segregated train cars or vehicles as a solution, however, all of these alleged transportation solutions put the burden of safety solely on women.

In the already-crowded transit systems in such large cities, enforcement can be difficult and the limited availability of these modes and cars can extend commutes for women or worse, make them targets in general boarding areas. Furthermore, gender segregation on transit does not address the deep-seated, but painfully apparent societal issues that allow this harassment and assault to persist. Even after implementation of these solutions, many of these cities still experience the highest rates of sexual harassment on public transportation. A continued lack of safety causes some women to reconsider or avoid public transportation altogether seeking other, more protective, options. Solutions to these issues are also nuanced- no intersection redesign or traffic calming principles will solve these issues. It is this very aspect of the problem that makes them challenging but critical for transportation agencies to address.

See part 2 of this blog here discussing the beginning steps to address these issues.

Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users. 

Lessons Learned from Building the District’s Vision Zero Plan

0728151919It may be cliché, but hindsight is 20/20.  At the end of every project, you know so much more than you did when you started the project. Nspiregreen had the privilege of leading the efforts to deliver Mayor Muriel Bower’s Vision Zero Action Plan

Here are five things we learned from the project:

  1. Meetings can happen over the summer; they just need to be different. Unlike some other Vision Zero plans, the District included public and stakeholder engagement as part of developing the plan. Throughout the summer months we visited all eight wards and hosted a youth summit. The public awareness events were outside of heavy pedestrian areas and included free promotional events. The sunglasses, water bottles, and fans were popular. For the youth summit, we used the interns from the Summer Youth Employment Program. We were able to use the insights of the summer interns to help build and shape our vision zero program.
  2. Public Engagement should be earlier in the process. The feedback from almost 3,000 survey responses was used to shape the strategies for the plan. If this was earlier in the process, the feedback from residents would have provided a framework for the agency partners to build upon when developing strategies.
  3. Involve other agencies in public engagement. The public awareness events were staffed by District Department of Transportation (DDOT) staff and the consultant team. Looking back, it might have been better to include staff and relevant promotional materials from other agencies. Some staff from other agencies did attend the youth summit with their interns from the Summer Youth Employment Program.
  4. Brainstorming does not work. While safety should be an all hands on deck approach, it was challenging for some agency representatives to understand the purpose of Vision Zero and why their agency should be involved. Too many agencies saw Vision Zero as a DDOT program that they would help publicize. Once there were draft strategies, agency representatives were more engaged, because they had something for reading and reacting. A different approach would be to categorize agencies as lead, support, and information sharing. Lead and support agencies would be involved in the brainstorm. The information sharing agencies could be engaged after there are draft strategies.
  5. Continuing the process. After the momentum of the plan, there should be continued events. Since the release of the Vision Zero, there has been a safety data hackathon, which allowed people to “play” with the data. DDOT is still engaging people on social media. In addition, Vision Zero bus shelter PSAs, Capital Bikeshare station PSAs, and Vision Zero Capital Bikeshare bikes are still in circulation.

 

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.





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