On Environmental Injustice

by Joe Thomas

For a long time, our response to harmful or potentially harmful industrial activity has not been to question whether it should take place, but rather to move it to places where, we believe, the community is powerless to object. We see that now in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but consider also today’s Colonial Pipeline explosion in Monroe County, Alabama, 49th of 67 Alabama counties in per capita income. Consider the 2014 Duke Energy coal ash spill in Eden, NC, where the average per capita income is barely over $15K a year. Time after time, whether it is coal mine collapses in West Virginia, or contaminated water near fracking locations in Pennsylvania and New York, it is our low-income, marginalized communities that bear the full weight of our environmental carelessness.

Often these communities are told that these industrial projects will bring jobs and economic development, but the jobs are often temporary – once the pipeline or dump site or well is built, they take little to maintain, especially in the deregulatory environment advocated by laissez-faire capitalists. The tragedy then becomes that the father who built the fracking well loses his job and watches from home as it poisons his daughter with cancer. Or the mother who worked on the pipeline is killed when it explodes. Or the uncle in West Virginia who is injured in the mine spirals into addiction to the opioid painkiller prescribed to him because it was the only job he can get.

We are not only killing our earth with our environmental recklessness, we are killing our most vulnerable citizens, communities left increasingly voiceless by gerrymandering, barriers to voting, and false promises made by demagogues who leave them at the altar the day after election day. It is no accident that dangerous chemicals are routed through low-income, marginalized communities often with large populations of people of color – it is an intentional action, the result of the worst kind of NIMBYism.

As we continue (hopefully) to search for ways to be better environmental stewards, we absolutely MUST stop pushing the effects of our industry onto those least equipped to object.