The following is a guest essay by Lauren Trevisan, environmental justice program assistant for the Sierra Club.


Appropriately, the theme of this year’s 37th annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., was "Unleashing Our Power." For the first time in history, the U.S. House of Representatives has four African-Americans serving as chairpersons of major committees. In addition, 17 African-Americans lead major subcommittees, and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina is the House Majority Whip. Activists and health experts hope that this change in leadership will help enact serious environmental justice legislation to promote safe and healthy communities.

Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama drew a large crowd for his session on global warming. More than 1,000 people crowded in to hear Sen. Obama call for a comprehensive study of climate change impacts on low-income communities. He highlighted the job opportunities for young Americans that would stem from investment in retrofitting and renewable energy. Increased investment in public transit, Obama added, would help reduce carbon emissions and help low-income communities.

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But the best discussion of the day came from an annual panel called the Environmental Justice Braintrust. Clyburn convened this panel discussion for the ninth consecutive year. Panelists ranged from policy makers to medical professionals to civil rights attorneys, all of whom have been working to fight environmental injustice for decades.

For South Carolina State Rep. Harold Mitchell, environmental justice is deeply personal. Mitchell grew up near two EPA Superfund sites, including dump sites for everything from hazardous waste to human fetuses. Despite widespread community awareness about problems in the area, the government refused to acknowledge that it was a landfill at all. Mitchell blames the nearby fertilizer plant for the death of his father and sister from lung cancer.

Mitchell’s leadership skills enabled him to found the environmental justice organization ReGenesis. Through the efforts of Mitchell, ReGenesis, and the public-private partnerships they have formed, the Spartanburg, S.C., area has received several grants for revitalization and redevelopment. These include a $20,000 Environmental Justice Grant, a $100,000 EPA Superfund Redevelopment Initiative Grant, and a $200,000 EPA Brownfields Pilot Grant. The state of South Carolina was also awarded a $1,350,000 Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund Grant, which will benefit four counties (including Spartanburg) and four cities. Mitchell has taken the fight to the South Carolina legislature, where he just passed an environmental justice bill that could serve as a model for other communities.

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Through a lot of grit, determination, and hard (volunteer) work, community groups such as ReGenesis can succeed in sustainably rebuilding their communities. But it’s unfair that such communities must bear the burden of proving that  contamination is directly affecting their lives, livelihoods, and the environment. Although ReGenesis now partners with federal and state agencies, it took many years for these partnerships to form. The federal and state governments clearly must do more enforcement and compliance for communities fighting for environmental justice.

The godfather of environmental justice, Dr. Robert Bullard, also weighed in at the Braintrust event. As director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, Bullard is well respected and conveyed some perspective on the fight for environmental justice.

Environmental justice is a marathon, not a sprint, Bullard told the audience, which his decades in the race clearly demonstrate. With all the statistics out there about environmental justice, Bullard cautioned against focusing too much on more data. Just as with global warming, he said, we have enough studies, data, and scientific information to show that the time to act is now.

That didn’t stop Bullard from rattling off some information from this year’s "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007" report, which he coauthored with Dr. Paul Mohai, Dr. Robin Saha, Dr. Beverly Wright, and the United Church of Christ. The overall message of the report is that our communities are worse off than they were in 1987 because there are more people of color and low-income communities at risk from toxic facilities.

Legislatively, Bullard stressed that meaningful policy is the key to ensuring environmental justice for all. There should be a threshold, he suggested, for the number of industrial and waste facilities that can be located within one community so that we do not continue targeting communities of color. An unenforceable executive order is not enough to get this done, he insisted. Executive Order 12898 — the environmental justice executive order signed by President Clinton in 1994 — has not been fully implemented by the EPA. In addition, the GAO in 2005 found that EPA failed to consider the impact of its air regulations on minority and low-income communities. Even if HR 1103 — the Environmental Justice Act of 2007 — is enacted, more enforcement by the EPA and the Department of Justice must be implemented in order for communities to see relief from disproportionate and cumulative pollution burdens.

Real legislation is currently on the table in Congress. On October 4, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Community Right to Know, examining both changes to the Toxics Release Inventory Program under the Bush Administration, and legislation introduced by Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) and others to codify the executive order on environmental justice.

But where do the dirty facilities go when they leave? Bullard looked at the big picture and advised that we need to live cleaner, greener, and healthier lives, and stop building more dirty energy facilities. Solutions include HR 2847, the Green Jobs Act, which will create sustainable public programs that provide quality workforce training, linked to good jobs created by federally funded energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives.

Activist in the House

The real fireworks at the Braintrust discussion began when the audience got involved. Panelists Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Ted Shaw (NAACP Legal Defense Fund) recognized environmental justice activist Sheila Holt-Orsted in the audience and invited her to speak. As Shaw put it, Holt-Orsted is an environmental advocate not because she chose it, but because it chose her.

Holt-Orsted grew up 57 yards from a landfill dump site for trichloroethylene (TCE), a highly toxic chemical. The carcinogen leaked from the county landfill and contaminated the Holts’ well water. For years, the family drank, bathed in, and cooked with the water from their well without any reason to believe it would harm them.

Sheila Holt was the picture of health: a personal trainer and fitness champion with an extremely healthy lifestyle. After finding out her father had been diagnosed with cancer, she decided to go in and get tested, only to find that she had breast cancer. Her sister and cousins also have cancer.

When she began investigating, she found letters and state documents that indicated Tennessee environmental and water officials had concerns about the possibility of TCE appearing in the Holts’ well water as early as 1988. For nine years, the Holts’ well went untested, while authorities addressed TCE problems in the wells of white families within 48 hours.

In the early 1990s, EPA tests showed that the Holts’ well had levels of TCE ranging from 5 to 168 times the levels considered safe for humans, yet EPA officials sent the Holts a letter saying their water was safe to drink. Later, the state said they didn’t warn the family because they didn’t want to confuse them by sending information that would conflict with what EPA had previously sent.

Holt-Orsted filed lawsuits against Dickson County and the state of Tennessee in 2003 and 2004. Her father died of cancer in January of this year. Recounting her story at this point, she broke down, and so did most of the audience. "My father didn’t live to see the end of this fight," she said. "I have to make sure that my family did not die in vain." 

When Holt-Orsted had approached the microphone to introduce herself, Rep. Clyburn said, "Oh yes, we’ve heard from you before," to which she responded, "Yes you did, Congressman. Three years ago you told me that you were going to pack your bags and come down to Tennessee, so I’m here to pack them for you!"

Now she was at the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference again, but this time with more sympathetic officials in power. "We all must fight for environmental justice," she said, "and I have learned that all roads lead to Capitol Hill!" As activists, experts, and policy makers unleash their power, environmental injustices will surely feel the brunt of their strength.


Rep. Keith Ellison with Irv Sheffey, Sierra Club environmental justice organizer. (Photo: Sierra Club)

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