Fifth Annual Symposium on Environmental Justice explores role of pollution in inequality

By Vanessa Reis

The university’s school of public health held its fifth annual Symposium on Environmental Justice and Health Disparities at Stamp Student Union Saturday. A number of panels discussed the usage of litigation as a tool for environmental and social change.

One panel in particular discussed the impacts of President Donald Trump’s environmental policies and how to combat these policies through litigation.

“What we’re doing is suing. We’ve sued them over 130 times. And we’ve won many of those lawsuits but there are more to come” said David Baron, managing attorney at Earthjustice in Washington, D.C.

Baron said that climate change is causing events such as severe hurricanes, wildfires and flooding, and often the people who are most affected by these events, are “people in communities of color and low-income communities and people who get the least help when these things happen.”

He added that the Trump administration’s response to these events was to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The outcome of this, according to Baron, is that “not only [are] we… doing less to attack climate change, but [Trump’s] encouraging other countries to do less.”

“The president himself doesn’t care about environmental protection; the only thing he cares about, with respect to the environment, is dismantling protection… Essentially they want to save money for power companies,” Baron said of Scott Pruitt, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump administration.

According to Baron, these power companies, particularly coal-fired power plants, are among the greatest sources of air pollution in the country. Many power plants are concentrated in urban centers of the Midwest, he added.

Another panel discussed how to use Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as a tool for environmental justice, citing a Presidential Memorandum under Executive Order 12898, which states that Title VI “should be used to ensure that federal programs related to the environment or health do not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.”

Marianne Engleman-Lado, a lecturer at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said we should consider whether or not the pollution levels of a community have a disproportionate impact on areas that are predominantly made up of certain races.

“Discriminatory patterns are baked in… we might have discriminatory zoning. That is a holdover from segregation,” she said.

Engleman-Lado said one tool for combating discrimination lies in filing Title VI Administrative Complaints. In doing so, she said, “you have to show that there is an action, policy, or practice, something the agency did like approving a permit, that caused harm or denial of a benefit, and that is disproportionately harmed people of one racial group or another.”

Anna Sewell, water project attorney for Earthjustice, spoke about how the company used Title VI in addressing functional wastewater access in Lowndes and Wilcox Counties in Alabama.

In Wilcox County, she said, 93 percent of residents had an unpermitted septic system, leading to a ton of raw sewage on the ground and causing all kinds of public health risks. One risk was hookworm, which was previously believed to be eradicated in the U.S.

A useful tool for Title VI complaints, Sewell said, is the Census Bureau’s “American FactFinder,” which compiles census and community survey data.

In combining Alabama’s county-by-county permit data for new septic tanks and the repairs of septic tanks with census data on the racial makeup of each county, Sewell said the data showed that as the proportion of white residents in a county in the Black Belt region of Alabama increased, so did the proportion of permits for septic tanks.

Conversely, she said, as the proportion of black residents increases in the county, the number of permits decreased. Sewell said their complaint is still pending a decision.

A third panel discussed the use of legal settlements to address environmental justice concerns in overburdened communities. A case study in Kemper County, Mississippi, for instance, served as a campaign for environmental justice in a community that was “staring down the barrel of a 45-square mile strip mine, and the industrialization and subsequent pollution of their pastoral community,” according to the Kemper “Clean Coal” Case Study.

Using a “four-pronged attack – Legal, Legislative, Administrative, and on-the-ground Organizing,” according to the study, their campaign proved to be successful and led to two settlements, which “provided a quantum leap for Mississippi toward a clean energy future.”

One of the biggest themes of the day was the notion of educating and equipping communities affected by environmental harm with the tools to advocate for themselves. Namati, one of the organizations that held a panel at the event, described their model as a “legal empowerment” approach to environmental justice at the community level.


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