Remember the time when George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton competed to win public favor by trying to be the most pro-environmental choice for President of the United States? It’s sort of comical to imagine such a green-hued pissing match between a Republican and a Democrat these days, but that’s how the Office of Environmental Justice was born.
The Office of Environmental Justice evolved from the Office of Environmental Equity which was created by George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. At the time, the environmental justice movement was gaining momentum and government was feeling the heat.
A decade earlier, in 1982, dump trucks filled with PCB-laced dirt rolled into the poor, rural, and mostly African-American community of Afton, NC, which had been selected as a toxic landfill site. Local residents knew what was up and why the trucks were coming, but this time, they decided they’d had enough. Afton residents laid down in the street in front of the incoming trucks, marched, and protested nonviolently for weeks, becoming the first people ever arrested in the United States over landfill placement. Although the residents of Afton and surrounding Warren County eventually lost the battle, these protests marked the birth of the modern environmental justice movement.
As Reverend Luther G. Brown, pastor of the Coley Springs Baptist Church, the largest Black congregation in the Afton area, said in 1982, “We know why they picked us. It’s because it’s a poor county – poor politically, poor in health, poor in education and because it’s mostly black. Nobody thought people like us would make a fuss.”
Environmental justice, explained. Posted by Grist.
Money is power. When people have one of these, they tend to accumulate more of the other, in a positive feedback loop. Unfortunately, this reality goes both ways, and those who lack money or power find it much harder to gain either. Nobody wants a landfill in their community, but NIMBYs who wield money and power are much likelier to be able to stick it to someone else. Disproportionately, that “someone else” is a disadvantaged neighborhood, where residents who lack power and money are not nearly as capable of fending off whatever rolls downhill to their back yards.
The Office of Environmental Justice was charged with a mission. Their purpose was to try to level the playing field by providing grant money and useful connections to exactly the kinds of rural, poor, minority, and disadvantaged neighborhoods that needed help avoiding environmental contamination that more wealthy areas shrugged off. There were success stories, such as the South Carolina community that turned a $20,000 grant into a multitude of public/private partnerships and local funding that solved problems and brought opportunities to their area. The goal of environmental justice was never completely reached, but that’s a sign that this advocate for the underserved needed more, not fewer, resources.
Unfortunately, this small part of the EPA is currently about to be landfilled itself, courtesy of our President’s deregulatory and “business friendly” agenda. Although I’m certain the air and water at Trump Tower is always pleasant and safe, the relatively tiny $2 million/year budget of the Office of Environmental Justice is on the chopping block in a bid to Make America Great Again.
So many of the people who carried Trump into office are from tiny, proud, poor places. Rural areas where people can expect to die 20 years sooner than those in more wealthy neighborhoods. Cities where air quality can vary by block, depending upon your income level. Small towns where hospitals are closing, where opportunity has gone missing. Exactly the kinds of powerless communities that could use an advocate in the EPA working to keep their water free of PCBs and their air free of carcinogenic particulates. Oh well.