Environmental Justice Stories Will Keep Proliferating in 2021

December 16, 2020
Marchers in New York on June 26, 2020, press for a response to climate change and racial injustice. Photo: Felton Davis, Flickr Creative Commons.

TipSheet: Environmental Justice Stories Will Keep Proliferating in 2021


EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2021 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

By Joseph A. Davis

The Flint, Mich., water crisis in 2014 helped bring the news spotlight around to environmental justice. Less attention, however, went to the fact that lead poisoning from tainted water (may require subscription) and other sources were a problem in thousands of cities throughout the United States.

But journalists can expect increasingly widespread environmental justice concerns to make more headlines in 2021. 

Yes, the stories are often decades-old and festering, like Flint, but the arrival of the Biden administration and 2020’s energetic racial justice protests will make the stories new.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actually used to have its own environmental justice program. Mustafa Santiago Ali was head of that program — but resigned at the very beginning of the Trump administration, when it was determined to dismantle the EPA office. 

Now, Ali is on Biden’s shortlist to head the Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees the environmental impacts of most federal agencies.


Injustice — by design

Of course, just what constitutes environmental justice is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. But people who are Black, brown, Indigenous, low-income or otherwise “other” often live in places where environmental problems are worse. 

The more we look, the more we realize that happens by design. The landfill or the chemical plant just “happens” to be next to the neighborhood where poor people live. Except it rarely just happens. The people who live there are often the most vulnerable and least able to mount a legal defense.

The police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 in Minneapolis, along with other police killings of unarmed Black people, led to a year of confrontation in streets all over the United States. The outrage lasted and powered a racial justice movement that may well have helped sweep Biden into power, but which also revealed how extensive and deeply ingrained racism is in this country.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic was making clearer the profound disparities in health outcomes that further underlined the ways in which systemic racism kills. One of the most immediate and obvious examples was the connection between the more severe particulate air pollution that plagues Black (and other disadvantaged) neighborhoods and their higher mortality from the coronavirus. 


Pollution was only the final insult — coming behind 

healthcare disparities, complicating co-morbidities, 

outright discrimination and chronic economic desperation.


But the pollution was only the final insult — coming behind healthcare disparities, complicating co-morbidities, outright discrimination and chronic economic desperation.

Not coincidentally, news organizations in 2020 deepened an examination of how social and racial inequities in their own industry often kept people from getting the whole story. As newsrooms come to understand how racism can hurt journalism itself, they find more and more environmental justice stories. That, too, suggests we’ll see more environmental justice stories in 2021.

Environmental injustice manifests in so many ways, often very local. One way to appreciate its scope and complexity is to look at some examples.


Beleaguered neighborhoods of many kinds

Books have been written about what makes urban slums. They didn’t just happen. Redlining by banks and realtors enforced housing segregation. Freeways were bulldozed through Black neighborhoods, isolating them. Lead paint crumbled and poisoned kids. Hospitals and clinics closed. Few jobs were available.

Those freeways, it turned out, were sources of air pollution that concentrated it where disadvantaged people lived. The aging housing stock exposed them not only to lead paint, but also to unhealthful water from lead pipes.

Similarly, many rural towns, especially in the South, have neighborhoods that are “across the tracks” in some way. Those neighborhoods may be unincorporated or only incorporated recently. The houses may be smaller or more ramshackle. They are often a legacy of the Jim Crow system. They may often lack municipal services like water and sewers.


The kinds of people harmed by the problems of 

rural poverty vary. While they may be Black in parts of 

the South, they may be white in Appalachia.


The kinds of people harmed by the problems of rural poverty vary. While they may be Black in parts of the South, they may be white in Appalachia. In agricultural areas, which are scattered all over, they may live in housing meant for transient agricultural or packing-plant workers. It is often crowded and unsanitary.

Inadequate sewage and drinking water may cause transmission of many diseases. Take a look at the work of MacArthur “genius” Catherine Flowers, whose work with rural sanitation issues has won acclaim. 

Also, along the Mexico-U.S. border, there are communities known as “colonias,” often unincorporated, lacking water and sewers, or even electricity, subject to flooding (and thus mosquito-borne disease).

Poverty, cultural barriers and oppressive immigration laws often make the environmental injustice worse in these areas, although efforts to help have made some progress in recent years.

And for Native Americans, who often live on reservations around the United States that are a legacy of colonial violence, poverty is often long-term and endemic for many. Not all, however — laws that allow Natives to make money from gaming have helped.

But take the Navajo Nation, which sprawls across three states. The aridity and vast distances between people make amenities like drinking water and sanitation a huge challenge, much less things like health care. The Navajo Nation is currently experiencing some of the worst devastation in the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic.


Industrial zones, Superfund sites

Poor people in the industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., have suffered seriously from chemical pollution during the decades since petrochemical plants started replacing the settlements of freed African American landholders. 

The region, known as “Cancer Alley,” may be one of the biggest, but similar concentrations of polluting industries are found around the country.


Organizing for pollution control in Louisiana’s 

Cancer Alley was one of the foundations 

of the environmental justice movement.


Organizing for pollution control in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley was one of the foundations of the environmental justice movement. Most recently, the focus has been the proposed construction of a Formosa Plastics plant there.

At the same time, hazardous waste sites are often the scene of the crime when it comes to environmental injustice. Illegal dumping from the years before the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was passed in 1976, or the Superfund law in 1980, remains long after many polluters have gone out of business and left town. In many places, poor people are the most vulnerable to this pollution.

Cleanup can take many years because it requires a lot of study and engineering once soil and groundwater are contaminated. Superfund was designed to find responsible parties and make them pay for cleanup, but EPA can step in to limit harm on an urgent basis when needed. EPA’s “National Priorities List” contains more than a thousand such sites.

Under the Trump administration, EPA administrators made a big deal of cleanup actions like the one in East Chicago, Indiana. EPA also made a big deal about how many sites it was removing from the National Priorities List. But whether these visible efforts amounted to legerdemain or substantive progress was arguable. 


Story ideas

  • Find out what facilities in your area receive normal municipal garbage or hazardous waste. Now go there and find out who lives nearby, and what their experiences have been.
  • What are some major stationary sources of air pollution in your area? Who lives nearby? Are there pollution monitoring stations in this area?
  • Does your region contain any Superfund sites? What community groups have been active in calling for cleanup?
  • Does your area have small drinking water systems? Who runs them? How pure is the water they serve to their customers?
  • Do any people in your area have septic systems? Are these adequately maintained and inspected? Do any residents pipe sanitary waste directly to streams or water bodies?


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 46. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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