Environmental Injustices Hit Home Hard

By ROWAN SHARP/ecoRI News college intern

WORCESTER, Mass. — Omega Wilson sat in a Clark University classroom, face to face with the Environmental Protection Agency official who has yet to process his civil rights complaint from 1994.

“Do you have it for me in your briefcase?” Wilson joked.

Rafael DeLeon, the EPA’s civil rights director, smiled affably and played along. The two men were cordial, even friendly — they’ve known each other, after all, for years. Wilson is a North Carolinian who first filed his Title VI civil rights complaint 18 years ago, after discovering that his historic African-American community — and two others — had been systematically denied basic infrastructure because, unbeknownst to residents, they were marked for demolition.

The Mebane, N.C., communities would have long ago been bulldozed to make way for a highway bypass built to serve the Ford Motor Co. and other corporations at a nearby industrial park, if Wilson hadn’t started fighting.

And after 18 years of re-drafting, re-filing, intimidation, harassment and death threats, Wilson is still fighting.

DeLeon, a mild-mannered man, shifted from foot to foot and explained carefully that the EPA has a backlog of unresolved civil rights complaints from the 1990s, even though complaints are supposed to be processed in 180 days. He noted that the EPA has the power to curtail federal funding to North Carolina if a disproportionate environmental impact has been found in a minority community. He said there was no decision in his briefcase.

This tense exchange took place before an audience of about 15, in a June 9 workshop at the New England Environmental Justice Summit. Roughly 150 people gathered at Clark University for the summit, the first of its kind in New England. The event was two years in the planning and organized by people active in environmental justice in six states: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont. Steve Fischbach, an environmental lawyer with Rhode Island Legal Services, was a core organizer.

Registration was free, and, perhaps because of this, the crowd was refreshingly varied. EPA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials rubbed elbows with lifelong environmental justice activists, attorneys, up-and-coming teenage organizers and the occasional curmudgeon. Young Mcs — including Providence’s own Jesus Holguin of ECOYouth — kept the day lively, clowning around at the mic, breaking out impromptu dance moves or leading otherwise staid conference-goers in an echoing chant of, “The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

Conversations sprang up as the crowd reconvened between workshops on topics such as toxics and women’s health and energy justice. Where are you from? What issues are you working on? How can we support each other? But the palpable excitement in the air at times gave way to a sense of heaviness.

It’s hard enough to bear witness to men like Wilson pitted against the entrenched environmental racism of the former slave states. But here, in the North? How bad can it get? EPA officials urged the crowd to see how far we’ve come, to look toward a bright future. Many identified the 1999 appointment of current EPA director Lisa Jackson as a turning point for environmental justice.

Not just a southern problem
Others told a different story. Daniel Faber, Ph.D., sociology professor and director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University, shared some recent statistical findings. Faber said he conducted a study in 2005, because he was curious how the Northeast compared to regions better known for their racially charged environmental woes, especially the South. How, he wondered, did Massachusetts measure up?

After painstaking research that catalogued race alongside factors such as air pollution and hazardous waste sites per square mile, Faber concluded that the environmental burden for people of color in Massachusetts is 20 times greater than it is for whites. He also cited studies by the Harvard School of Public Health, which indicated that minorities in the Northeast are tracked into areas with high environmental burden through the pattern of home loan mortgages.

“Environmental injustices are just as profound as they were 20 years ago,” Faber said.

Less complete data is available for nearby states, but Faber doubts Massachusetts is unique. Rhode Island, he said, may well be equally troubled. So too Connecticut — a Bridgeport man challenged government officials, during a question-and-answer panel, to “name three concrete things you’ve done” for his city.

Summit organizer Fischbach facilitated the civil rights workshop with Wilson and DeLeon. Fischbach detailed the history of Title VI, a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that no entity receiving federal funding may discriminate by race or nationality. All federal agencies are supposed to enforce Title VI, but the EPA has found only one violation in the history of the law — a case of pesticides sprayed near majority-Hispanic schools in California, which was filed in 1995 but not processed until last year.

Inevitably, though, the sense of possibility bubbled back. Warwick activist Michael Roles gave a presentation called “Environmental Justice and Prosperity” with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island’s Greg Gerritt.

“It was more than I had expected, to be honest,” Roles said, of his experience in Worcester. “Frankly, I was impressed with the excitement, the motivation and the hunger.”

Need to make connections
Bostonian Whitney Ogbesoyen, a member of the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, enthused about making connections with other New England activists. Her organization advocates community gardens and healthy, affordable food in Boston neighborhoods, and fights to reduce asthma-causing diesel emissions. She noted that Rhode Island already has some of the emissions laws her group hopes for, which inspires her.

“There’s ties that we all have — we just have to figure out how to connect,” Ogbesoyen said.

Onstage, MC Jesus encouraged everyone to “shake hands with two people you’ve never met before,” and the room suddenly buzzed with congeniality — strangers reaching over the backs of their chairs to greet each other like a roomful of congregants after a sermon.

As for Wilson, he recounted the story of Mebane, N.C., to rapt listeners long after the workshop on Title VI was over, then went back to his hotel for a good night’s sleep before heading home.

“We have to forge alliances with other communities,” Faber told the crowd. “That’s why this forum is so important. It represents the birth of a broader, more powerful, more transformative environmental justice politics.”