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We need garbage equity and improve regulation of toxins

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By Gavin Kearney, Director, Environmental Justice, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

The 40 th anniversary of the first Earth Day is upon us and I have to admit to some ambivalence.  On the positive side, Earth Day can provide a useful platform for educating and engaging the public around critical environmental issues.  At the same time, Earth Day reminds me in some ways of MLK day.  Each can provide a brief and painless way for people to express their commitment to a vague ideal without engaging its deep and difficult societal implications.

On MLK Day, one can celebrate Dr. King’s life and work in ways that affirm the view that we live in a basically fair society and that suggest that the only thing standing between us and racial harmony is our inability to put aside petty interpersonal biases.  Its not necessary to engage issues of racial justice and hard realities like pervasive inequalities of opportunity.

Earth Day is similar.  It allows people to profess a commitment to an abstraction, in this case “the environment,” through discrete, individual actions that implicitly affirm the basic order of the world.  In addition, though it’s not often recognized, Earth Day, like MLK Day, ought to prompt us to engage profound issues of race and class.   One can organize a recycling drive without thinking about the communities that deal with the landfills and incinerators that exist to support consumption.  And one can pledge to turn off unused lights without thinking about the places burdened by the coal mines and power plants that provide cheap and reliable electricity.

But Earth Day can be much more than this.  Earth Day can be an opportunity to seriously engage tough questions of environmental justice and issues of complicity and privilege wrapped up in the world’s environmental inequalities.  In so doing, Earth Day celebrants can seek out meaningful, sustained ways to engage in the struggle for environmentally sound and just policies and practices.  Below are a couple of examples, one local and one national, of the kinds of actions that Earth Day can and should catalyze and celebrate.

Garbage Equity in New York City

A number of studies document that communities of color and low-income communities throughout the U.S. are disproportionately burdened by waste facilities.  In New York City, between two-thirds and three-fourths of the tens of thousands of tons of waste generated every day is trucked to facilities in three low-income communities and communities of color: Williamsburg-Greenpoint Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Jamaica, Queens.  And as is often the case, these communities deal with a multitude of other environmental health threats like toxic contamination due to current and former industrial uses and sludge treatment plants that process the City’s organic (i.e. human) waste.

In response to this discriminatory waste system, organizations from communities of color and low-income communities joined together in a coalition called the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN).  OWN recognized early on that, in addition to concentrating environmental burdens in a few communities, NYC’s waste management system has negative, and avoidable, impacts for the City as a whole.  Most notably, the system depends heavily on trucking waste, which worsens overall air quality and clogs streets throughout the City.  This recognition paved the way for building strategic alliances with mainstream environmental groups and for articulating an alternative vision that would address overburdening and move the City to a waste management system that would benefit the City as a whole.

Due in no small part to OWN’s work, New York City adopted a landmark Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) in 2006 that, when fully implemented, will site state-of-the-art waste handling facilities throughout the City and replace long-haul trucks with barge and rail cars.  It paves the way for making every community handle its fair share of the garbage that New Yorkers create.

In addition it will eliminate tens of millions of truck miles traveled in and around New York City every year by siting facilities throughout the City (which will reduce the distances collection trucks travel from pick-up to drop-off) and moving waste out of the City by barge and rail with positive impacts on human respiratory health and quality of life.

I believe that the benefits of this plan will reach farther because of the fundamentally transformative nature of communities’ engaging their environmental impacts out of necessity rather than altruism.  The greatest flashpoint in the struggle to pass NYC’s plan was around a facility proposed for the wealthy, white, and politically powerful Upper East Side of Manhattan.  While the plan was being debated, I attended several public hearings on the Upper East Side.  I heard a number of exasperated locals declare that no one should have to live near a waste facility.

Instead, they urged that the City’s waste be taken to an isolated - and, to be blunt, imaginary - location.  OWN members used this as an opportunity to inform that that they lived in these locations - the places that bear the environmental impacts of the privileged and powerful.  Although many Upper East Siders continued (and continue) to fight against the plan, its passage greatly broadened the number of communities with a strong self-interest in waste.    Over time, I believe that this shared interest will lead to effective (and unusual) alliances.  And it would be a great thing for the Earth if cities and states throughout the country embraced fair siting mandates so that similar coalitions evolved around other critical environmental issues like energy policy.  I can’t help but think, for example, that more people on Cape Cod would enthusiastically embrace a wind farm if they were staring down the smokestack of a coal-fired power plant.

Reforming the Regulation of Toxins

At the federal level, reforming the regulation of chemicals through the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) provides a similar opportunity to build a broad alliance that addresses the disproportionate impacts of toxins on communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities while also advancing the environmental health of society at large.  TSCA was passed in 1976 and is the main vehicle through which the federal government tests and restricts the use of chemicals.

TSCA suffers from a number of major flaws that render it weak.  As a result, only 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been developed in the U.S. since its passage have undergone testing for their impact on human health and the environment.  In addition, more than 60,000 manufactured chemicals in existence prior to the passage of TSCA were “grandfathered” in by the law, meaning that their continued use would be permitted without testing.

It is of particular concern that TSCA requires a chemical to be proven harmful before its use can be restricted rather than requiring that a chemical be proven safe before its use is allowed.  Recent scientific research is just beginning to document the harms of exposure to chemicals that have long been in wide use.  For example, the negative effects of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in plastics and can lining for over 50 years, have only recently come to light.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor meaning that, among other things, it can affect the development of organs and the immune system and impair the functioning of the brain.  And as any parent of a young child can tell you, BPA, which was until recently prevalent in baby bottles, is particularly harmful to babies whose bodily systems are still under development.

Even more troubling than what we know about the harms of chemical exposure is the tremendous amount that we don’t know.  We are seeing significant increases in the prevalence of diseases and disorders like childhood cancer, autism, and reproductive problems and are only just beginning their link to chemicals.  And there is a clear race and class dynamic to this as people of color, indigenous people and poor people are more likely to be exposed to toxins for reasons such as an increased likelihood of living in substandard housing, increased proximity to toxic industrial sites, and an increased reliance on subsistence fishing from waters that have been contaminated by toxic emissions.

TSCA reform bill have recently been introduced in the House and Senate and my organization is part of a broad national coalition called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families that includes environmental justice, mainstream environmental, and other stakeholder groups pushing together for effective reform.  The proposed bills would substantially improve health protections through measures such as requiring that companies develop and publish health information for all chemicals and developing a program to identify communities that are toxic “hot spots” and focusing exposure reduction efforts on them.

At the same time, the bills do not go far enough.  Among other things, they do not require that the safety of new chemicals be demonstrated before they can be put in to use, and they do not give the Environmental Protection Agency the clear authority to take immediate action to restrict the use of those chemicals already known to be the most dangerous.  TSCA reform, and the Safer Chemicals coalition, provide a great opportunity for folks to celebrate Earth Day by contributing to a broad, inclusive effort that gets at the policies and practices that shape our environment.

These are just a couple of examples of ways in which we can deeply engage the implications of our relationship to the environment.  And in that spirit, I wish everyone an Earth Day filled with difficult questions and important breakthroughs that lead to transformative action.

Crossposted from Race-Talk's Earth Day Special EditionGavin Kearney is the Director of the Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). NYLPI is a nonprofit civil rights law firm formed in 1976 to address the unmet legal needs of New Yorkers. Our Access to Health Care Project was created in 1978 and is focused on ensuring access to high-quality health care for New York City’s low-income communities of color. Over the recent past, we have worked with several community coalitions in New York City fighting to preserve and enhance critical health care resources in their underserved communities.