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Waste and Race Matter: Current Issues In Environmental Justice

As residents of the wealthiest country on the planet, having clean air, water, access to food and living free of harmful toxins shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a right. Unfortunately, communities of color continue to bear the burden of environmental racism and neglect. Like our last post on How Transportation Shaped Black Communities, I am listing articles that feature communities suffering at the hands of environmental injustice. While administrations and policies change, it is important to remember that there are humans caught in the cross hairs of politics and willful neglect. It is up to each of us to share their stories, advocate with them, and work to combat environmental racism.

These select articles do not do justice to an issue that pervades marginalized communities; however, they do provide some context to issues that too many communities face.  Unfortunately, race matters when it comes to waste. We must advocate for regulations, more stringent policies, enforcement and cleaner technologies until environmental racism is eradicated.

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.

 

People sit in a park surrounded by large trees

How to Connect with Nature while Living in a City

I have always being a strong supporter of protecting and adding more vegetation and green space in urban areas. I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, where the  “Ávila” mountain  was so big you could see it from everywhere in the city. Below is a picture of the Avila to give you a sense of the size . Even though I was surrounded by buses and cars, large buildings, and crowds, looking at the Ávila made me feel somehow connected to nature. When I moved to the Washington, DC metro area it became more difficult for me to find those spaces where I feel the same type of connection with the natural environment. I have found some parks and green areas in DC, but they are not in my way to work or home. I am only able to enjoy those pockets of nature during my free time.

Distant photo of a city with a large mountain in the horizon.

View of Caracas with the Avila National Park in the background (Photo by Daniel)

There are many benefits of connecting with nature in our daily lives, including mental health, stress reduction, and emotional wellbeing. The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH) website provides many articles and posts that discuss the benefits of to bringing nature to our cities for our mental and emotional well-being.

Until we are able to build and live in Biophilic Cities, we have to make a conscious effort to find ways to connect with nature while living in the city. Here are some ideas on how you can do that:

  • Find pockets of nature on your way home or work: Just taking a few minutes to admire a tree in front of your home or work place can help to connect with nature. Everyday, I walk near Franklin Square on my way to work. Observing the park while I walk makes me feel better, especially during the fall when the leaves are changing.
Historic sculpture and people walking at a vegetated square. Buildings in the background.

Franklin Square, Washington, DC

  • Keep a living plant at work: There are a variety of plants that require little care that you can put on your desk or in the office. One of those are succulents, such as the ones we created on our team building few months ago.
Photo of a succulent plant in a circular bowl in a work desk near a computer keyboard and display

Plant in a work station

  • Visit vegetated parks on weekend: In DC, there are various national parks and green areas within and around the city. Taking a time to see the leaves of the trees moving, breath fresh air, or look at the running water from a creek can make you feel refreshed and energized.
Picture of a stone bridge over a rivers surrounded by large trees.

Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC

  • Take leisure walks along streets with old, shadow tree-lines: I love walking in Old Town Alexandria because it is full of large trees that make me feel connected to nature even though I’m in an urban place. Identify streets like that near your work or home, and take leisure walks during the day.
Picture of a sidewalk with buildings on the left and tree-lines on the right

Old Town Alexandria, VA

 

 

Fabiana I. Paez is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in urban planning projects, as well as social and environmental causes.

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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.

 





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