Tag Archives: Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice, part 2 of 2.

16 Aug

Public Witness Rally

Or…Connecting the dots.

In the first part of this series, I shared some of the stories from the Energy for Change: Interfaith March and Rally for Clean Energy & Healthy Communities.  In this part, I would like to share my own story as to how I became involved in the rally, and why I was on a mission make sure that a particular experience/point-of-view was represented.

First, let me give you my social location.  I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-educated 42 year old mother of two kids.  I drive a hybrid car and have replaced all our incandescent bulbs with either compact fluorescents or LEDs. We only buy energy star appliances, and our energy consumption is substantially less than average.  I compost.  My family is a part of the professional class – both my spouse and I have white-collar jobs.  We live in a neighborhood that is somewhat socioeconomically diverse, though heavily skewed toward the higher income end.  Other than the lack of racial diversity, I love where we live.  I am sometimes, frankly, embarrassed by our affluence.  Some of it is a product of hard work and the choices we have made, but I am quite aware that I benefit daily from generations of white privilege.

At the core of my theology is my understanding that we are all connected, that no one can be truly free while others are oppressed, and that we have a responsibility to treat one another and our planet with love and respect.  I believe that in the beloved community, all people would have access to the privileges I have – and more. We are not there yet. These core understandings were strongly shaped in seminary, as I became exposed to anti-racist, anti-oppression and multicultural teachings.  I learned about interlocking systems of oppression (now called intersectionality) and how the disenfranchised and vulnerable are exposed to oppression at multiple levels.

When we moved to Louisville four years ago, I knew I wanted to get to know our adopted home-town.  When I saw an article soliciting applicants from all over the area for a new program about the racial and social justice history of Louisville, called the Healing History Academy, I applied and was accepted. I am so grateful for this transformative experience.  I learned that Louisville is an extremely segregated town, with the largest number of African Americans in the “West End” – a segment of land that is bordered by the Ohio River.  In the West End, the life expectancy is a substantially lower than in other parts of the city (some estimates put it at a full ten years less!).  From the Center for Healthy Equity, I learned that there is something wrong when you can categorize someone’s future prospects based on their race or their zip code.  From the Metropolitan Housing Coalition I learned that subsidized housing continues to be focused in particular areas of town, and that public transportation keeps getting cut between these areas of town and where the jobs are, perpetuating inequity and disenfranchisement.

I also learned about the history of sit-ins and protests downtown that led to the passage of an accommodations law in 1963 – the first Southern city to pass such a law.  I learned about how generations of wealth inequity play out when people try to pull themselves up from poverty to middle class.  And so much more.   As a part of my final project, I preached a sermon series on my experiences with HHA:

Perhaps it was because I felt directly connected to what I learned.  Perhaps it was because I was finally getting both a big picture view and a view of the distinct trees in the forest of racial injustice.  For whatever reasons, for the first time in my life I became deeply interested in the real life stories of people who had lived through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and early 70s. And I was eager to learn more about my faith tradition’s role during this time period.  And so I signed up for the Living Legacy Pilgrimage.

Even with all the mind and heart opening I had already begun to engage in, I was not prepared for the personal transformation I experienced on this pilgrimage.  I was moved and my heart ached at the role that children played, and encouraged by how there was a role for everyone in the movement. I documented much of it in these blog posts:

The dots connected even more once I returned. The Rev. Gerald Durley made the connection for me  between environmental justice and civil rights at a Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light event a few weeks later.  I blogged about it as more connections were made between civil rights issues, human rights issues, and racial injustice.

During the course of planning for the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly it became apparent that the WV/KY Ministers would have the opportunity to help shape the social justice focus at General Assembly.  We knew that we wanted to highlight the damage that the fossil-fuel industry does at every level of the process: from extraction to transportation to burning/consumption.  We suspected that General Assembly would never be so close to Appalachia again, so we wanted to make sure to seize the opportunity to introduce people to the rich culture of Appalachia, to make people aware of their own connection to mountain top removal, and of the damage done by the broad form deed (which, incidentally, needs a wikipedia page).

But Louisville, though close to Appalachia, is not a part of it. Even on a clear day, I cannot see the mountains in the distance.  And we have our own troubles with coal that I felt needed to be highlighted, particularly after hearing Kathy Little’s story and Eboni Cochran’s story.  I became more and more curious about how racism and the environment are linked oppressions.

When the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for the Earth had their board meeting in Louisville, we arranged for an environmental justice tour with the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center.  I was amazed at how the EJ tour had so much overlap with the Civil Rights Driving Tour that I had gone on with the Healing History Academy (and subsequently have led twice for my church).   I should not have been surprised.  As Robert Bullard points out in POVERTY, POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM:

It has been difficult for millions of Americans in segregated neighborhoods to say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) if they do not have a backyard. Nationally, 46.3 percent of African Americans and 36.2 percent of Latinos own their homes compared to over two-thirds of the nation as a whole. Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the NIMBY positions taken against locally unwanted land uses or LULUs such as the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewer treatment plants, recycling centers, prisons, drug treatment units, and public housing projects. Generally, white communities have greater access than people of color communities when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making.

And so it ends up that chemical factories, toxic power plants, and other major polluters end up in black and/or poor communities.  Indeed, they know they will meet with less resistance and so these communities are now targeted for such installations.

For many of us who benefit from privileges we have done nothing to earn, it is easy to not pay attention to these dots.  It can be difficult to realize that not only does my energy consumption contribute to mountain top removal, it also contributes to a lower quality of life and younger life expectancy for my neighbors up the road.  I was compelled to make sure that the connection between the environment, racism, and oppression of the poor (with Louisville as an example) was brought out during the public witness at General Assembly.

Since June, I have found that the dots are still being connected.  I realize that I cannot advocate for the environment without advocating against the racism inherent in so many of our policies.  These factors influence decisions around healthcare and food access,  around urban development, around city budgeting, around factors such as how and where air quality is measured.  And much more.

These factors also influence decisions around education.  Did you know that, looking at only 5 states, more than 600,000 students attend public schools that are located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state-identified contaminated sites? Kentucky was not listed but on the EJ tour, I saw at least 2 schools located within such distances of chemical plants.  What about the other states?  How does this exposure effect a child’s mental and physical health?  Also, did you know that 8.8% of Louisville/Jefferson County public school students are homeless?  This connects with the lack of affordable housing, which also has a connection to environmental factors (and much more!)  And so a picture begins to emerge with all these dots being connected.

This year, I plan to grow and develop my understanding of these various dots.  I know that I can not be truly free while my neighbors are oppressed and so will work against oppression at every level.  I have a responsibility to treat others and our planet with love and respect – because we are all connected, like the dots in this picture that is emerging.

Environmental Justice, part 1 of 2

9 Aug

One of the largest environmental rallies in Kentucky state history was held at the Belvedere Plaza on Thursday, June 20, 2013. People from around the state joined with Unitarian Universalists from around the country. Together, we went down to the river knowing that it is time for us to build a new way; time to strengthen our demand for clean energy – energy that doesn’t harm our communities through its mining, through its transportation, through its burning or through its waste.

A short video was made of highlights of the event, but the entire rally can be viewed here.

As a part of this rally, several people shared their own stories about how the extraction industry has affected their lives. In addition, one couple was prepared to tell their story but were not able to due in part to time constraints. Here are their stories.  In part 2 of this series, coming soon, I will share what led me to participate in the rally and to begin to advocate for environmental justice.

David Miller, from Appalachian West Virginia
Jeff and Sharman Chapman Crane, from Appalachian Kentucky
Kathy Little, from Louisville, KY
Eboni Cochran, from Louisville, KY

David Miller from Appalachian West Virginia
My name is David Miller, and my family has been in WV a long time. In fact, we don’t really know how long. As far back as anyone can remember, the mountains have been our home. Here generations of my family have lived and worked, died and been buried. And some of those mountains aren’t there anymore. They’ve been blown apart. Decapitated. Ripped open to get at the coal inside that powers America’s electric gluttony.

I said we were buried in those mountains. Were. Many of the old graveyards are gone. Blown away. Where are my ancestors now? How can this happen and no one say anything? But it’s not just the dead we are destroying.

All that mountain goes somewhere. Much of the rubble is bulldozed into nearby valleys and creek beds, destroying them. Some of it is shoveled down into old abandoned mine shafts, where it leaks into the aquifers and into the wells that many families have relied on for generations.

Marie shows me pictures of the red liquid that pours from her faucets these days. It stains the sink brown. She says when she first saw the filth come out of her faucet, she thought of the verse from Revelation: “And the rivers turned to blood.” And it’s not a metaphor, when you think about it. In that blood-red cancer-causing brack is all that’s left of my ancestors. Their bones and ashes now mixed with this foulness that passes for water.

My grandfather, my PaPa, told me when I was very small, “Boy, never never NEVER believe anything the boss tells you. The company is NEVER your friend!” He used to tell stories of the many races and ethnic groups in the camps. Immigrants from all over Europe. Ireland, Italy, Hungary. African-Americans. Poor whites. Under the ground, he’d say, “We’re all black,” but above ground all the groups were in separate parts of the camp. They didn’t speak to each other. Papa said it was the company that spread the stories and rumors that kept everyone afraid of each other.

And they still do. They still pit us against each other. MTR (mountain top removal) means companies can make more profit with less labor. The lay-offs have been devastating. But the company convinces these communities that all the layoffs are the fault of environmentalists blocking mining permits, and so fear pits neighbor against neighbor, and as we fight each other the profits keep going up for the bosses.

There is a very popular bumper sticker where I live: “If you hate coal, then live in the dark.” There’s a truth and a lie here. The truth is that literally every time you flip a light switch or charge your smart phone you benefit from what happens in my mountains. You are bound up with the results of MTR just like I am. The company is banking on you not paying attention. Because the lie of the bumper sticker is that without the coal companies, everything would stay in the dark. There are other ways to get power – ways that don’t pit us against each other, don’t pit us against the mountains. Today, here and now, we are turning the light.

Jeff & Sharman Chapman Crane from Appalachian Kentucky
The first sounds you hear are the machines…the dozers, the end loaders, the massive dump trucks…Black Mountain being ravaged…The first shift change at the mine begins.

You take your asthma medicine, maybe your inhaler if the stress triggers an attack. You wake your son, who gets up coughing from the dust, or the smell of the water, or who knows what. You try not to think about long-term consequences.

You dress, start your routine…breakfast, vitamins, exercise. You wash the dishes, then brush your teeth, trying not to think about why the water is so cloudy and smells so bad.

You sit down to plan the day…a trip to town, work in the studio, mowing the grass. A college group to tour the gallery later…

You’re startled by the first explosion, which you feel before you hear it. The house shakes, the windows rattle…then the roar of the explosives and the cloud of dust. You remember the four-year old in Virginia, killed by a boulder crashing through his bedroom, or the people injured in Hazard when fly rock came through the roof of the Wal-Mart. You try not to think about it.

You work in the studio, and later you and your son begin the mowing. This time you hear the explosion before you feel it. You run toward the house as the valley fills with dust. Your eyes sting and your mouth and nose fill with grit. You make it inside, close all the doors and windows and wait for the dust to settle. The second shift change begins.

You start to town, passing your best friend’s house, and try not to think of how strained that friendship has become. You start across Pine Mountain, dreading the encounter with trucks loaded with 200,000 pounds of coal, and you hope the driver is not high on oxycontin, or driving too fast, or both. By grace you arrive safely and stop at the courthouse to get car tags. “Would you like a Friends of Coal tag, or maybe a Friends of Coal tee-shirt?” No thanks. Next stop, the bank, where the tellers all wear Coal Mining Our Future tee-shirts. You muse about the irony but keep it to yourself. As you head to Food City you read the sticker on the truck in front of you…”Save a Nation, Kill a President”. In the parking lot a dozen cars with Friends of Coal, Coal Keeps the Lights On, Coal Mining Our Future tags and stickers…then the pick-up with the fully equipped gun rack, and you hope the owner is not crazy enough to enact the message on his bumper “Save a Coal Miner, Shoot a Tree Hugger”.

You cook supper, eat, take a bath, trying not to think about the water. You go to the gallery. Dave Cooper brings a group of 20 students from Ohio and Harvard. You give a tour and tell your story. The students are inspired and think you’re courageous and heroic, but you know better. You do what you can. It’s not enough.

You settle in for the evening, a good book or maybe a video, nothing too serious, because you’re up to your neck in serious.

The night descends. You brush your teeth, trying not to think about why the water is so cloudy and smells so bad. You get into bed. The third shift change begins, miners going to and from work, one way in, one way out. They know who you are, they know where you stand, they know where you live.

You try not to think about it. But you do. You think about the veiled threats, the poisoned water and the contaminated air, your family’s health.

You think about friends…estranged, injured, sick or dead. You think about Black Mountain, the highest in Kentucky, its beauty and vibrancy lost forever. Forever.

When the traffic diminishes a quietness settles over the valley. You begin to drift to sleep, and the last sounds you hear are the machines…the dozers, the end loaders, the massive dump trucks.

Kathy Little from Louisville, KY
I am Kathy Little, a mom and grandmother, and a volunteer Cane Run community organizer with the Sierra Club. Louisville Residents for Power Plant justice encompasses both the Mill Creek and Cane Run communities in southwest Jefferson County. Our land and our water has been and continues to be poisoned by burning coal.

I wanted to briefly talk about impacted communities in Western Kentucky. The strip mines in Utica and Owensboro to name a few. The stories are eerily similar. Everything is compromised. The explosions, the dust, and then the second round of dust dodging the coal trucks down a path of destruction, of the air, water and the health of people in these communities. Much of this coal finds its way up the river to the power plants here in Jefferson County to be mixed in with coal that has been mined through mountaintop removal.

Both the Cane Run and Mill Creek power plants have high hazard ash dams on their campuses. They are 40 years old and according to LG&E it is undetermined whether or not an engineer was involved during construction. They are approximately 36 ft. deep and hold fly and bottom ash. They are close to schools, daycares and local communities. If they breach, our babies die. In the meantime, both spew toxic sludge into the Ohio River.

Clean Air is a basic right, except when you live within 100 yards of one of the oldest and filthiest power plants in the United States. At Cane Run we smell sulfur most days and it literally makes you sick. Fly ash from sludge plant malfunctions, and ash blowing off of a huge dry ash landfill crosses LG&E’s property line and finds its way into our communities. We see it floating in the air, it’s in the inside and outside of our homes it’ss the consistency of talc, and it tastes of sulfur. We clean with ammonia based product to get it off of our furniture. What we worry about most though, is the heavy metal particles that find their way into our children’s lungs.

What is this doing to their bodies in the long and short term – will they die young? Many in our communities suffer from asthma, immune system disorders, and rare cancers. Our local Air Pollution Control District cites and fines the power plant but nothing changes. Our communities are not protected from this environmental injustice. We are human witnesses to the devastation that burning coal brings to nearby communities. I have been fighting this fight for 5 years. Though Cane Run recently announced that they will be transitioning to natural gas 2016, I know that this just moves the problem elsewhere, and someone else’s children and grandchildren will be poisoned. It is not fair.

Eboni Cochran from Louisville, KY
I am Eboni Cochran and I am a member of the faith community here in Louisville. I am also a member of REACT, a group of residents who live near or at the fence line of a cluster of chemical facilities commonly referred to as Rubbertown. There are numerous neighborhoods in West and Southwest Louisville that are adjacent to Rubbertown. I live in one of those. The Chickasaw neighborhood is one with tons of green space, a tree-lined parkway that connects to other parkways, beautiful homes and residents who like most people, care about where they live. There is only one thing that keeps my neighborhood from being top notch. It has nothing to do with crime, it has nothing to do with litter, it has nothing to do with lack of sidewalks. It has EVERYTHING to do with Rubbertown. It has EVERYTHING to do with Rubbertown. A place that SHOULD be one of exploration for my son is one of restriction based on how bad the air is on any given day. A place where my son SHOULD be able to fish is one tainted with dioxin, commonly referred to as one of the most hazardous substances on Earth. The recent hydrochloric acid spill speaks volume as to how communities surrounding Rubbertown have no clue as to what will happen from day to day.

The chemical facilities that make up Rubbertown bombard our communities with toxic chemicals associated with many diseases and a lowered quality of life. These chemical facilities are some of the top fossil fuel users, many being responsible for some of the worst fossil fuel atrocities. We are being poisoned by chemical companies that demand cheap and dirty energy that in turn is making a huge impact on climate change.

So we cannot look at the issues we all face as separate. We cannot pit the environmentalists against the environmental justice folks. We cannot pit the workers against residents. We MUST come together as one if we are going to protect the land, the animals AND the people. We MUST begin to connect the dots so that our movements can gain more momentum in changing public policy and personal habits. Let’s make a commitment here today that we will do better at connecting the dots by going beyond our comfort zones and reaching out to others who are fighting for what is right.

the journey continues.

26 Oct

The Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage officially ended almost two weeks ago, on October 13. I still have one or two blog entries I want to write about the journey and my experience/reflections. But something happened that I just can’t help but connect as another step in this journey.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day talking about Mountain Top Removal and the Coal Cycle with Unitarian Universalist ministers, dignitaries, and representatives from Louisville and KY organizations that tie into the cycle. All this in an effort to prepare for our General Assembly, which will bring 4000 or so Unitarian Universalists to Lousiville in June 2013. It was a day full of stimulating conversation and ideas and connections.

And then, as luck would have it, I ended up at an event that I had not even known about one week ago: Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light brought the Rev. Gerald Durley to come and speak about “Race, Faith and Climate Change: Why Global Warming is a Civil Rights Issue.”

Rev. Durley is Baptist Minister from Atlanta, Georgia. He shared his story about he converted to environmentalism less than a decade ago and he connected it directly to his work and experience as a young man in the Civil Rights movement.

As Rev. Durley spoke about names and places and events that helped to form his worldview during his young adult years, I realized that a month ago, most of the names and places would have meant almost nothing to me. I would have not understood his story the way I do now, after having been there and listened to the stories of other people who lived through that important time in history.

He continued to speak about how he had not been concerned with the environment through most of his adulthood and ministry, because the people in his congregation had other worries on their minds: home forclosures, getting food stamps, raising children in an increasingly violent world, and so much more.

The pivotal point for him was when he realized that he will not be around to minister to his people if he dies from cancer caused by environmental factors, and his people will not be alive  if they die earlier than the majority of the population (because enviornmental crises hits the poor, first and hardest).

He realized at the hospital, at the side of one of his congregants who struggle with asthma caused by environmental factors, that he can work for access to medical care all day long but until he addresses the root causes of the medical issues, he is applying a bandaid to a gaping wound and it is simply not sufficient.

He talked about the importance of putting a human face on the climate change issue: that it cannot be just about polar bears and honey bees, because human beings are being adversely affected right now by our poor relationship with the environment. And he talked about how important it is that there be legislation that addresses the issues, much like there needed to be legislation to address accomodations and voting rights.

The connection was so powerful to me. I had been wondering what “the” Civil Rights issue of this time might be, among so many unjust, oppressive wrongs that need to be righted. Durley connected the dots for me.

And, if I needed any further convincing, a friend came up to me afterwards and talked about when he was arrested in Washington, DC, protesting the Tar Sands Pipeline. He shared that as he was being handcuffed and placed in the paddy wagon, he felt more powerful than he ever had in his life.  Because they had spent time learning how to protest, immersing themselves in the cause and in the action.  And I would imagine (though I don’t know for sure) probably singing and building community. He felt powerful because he knew he was a part of a just cause. Because he knew he was part of something bigger than himself.

Thank you, mysterious universe, for connecting the dots for me and for helping me understand how the journey continues.

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