Communities of color bear the brunt of environmental hazards

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June will announce a new “carbon rule.” The “common-sense” rule involves updating toxic air pollution standards, including new monitoring requirements for petroleum refineries of benzene, which can cause respiratory problems and other health concerns, and requiring updating of emissions from storage tanks, how gases are destroyed.

EPA officials say if implemented the proposal could reduce toxic air emissions by 5,600 tons per year. Karen Monahan, a local environmental justice advocate, says the public comment period opens June 2. She helped organize the May 15 environmental forum at Kwanzaa Community Church, and told the packed room that everyone must let both the EPA and Washington lawmakers know that this rule is very important and should be fully supported.

“We want to make sure it is a just carbon rule,” she explained, “because we know that communities of color bear a disapportionate burden when it comes to climate pollution. We want to make sure that our communities are representative in the carbon rules.”

Green For All Executive Director Nikki Silverstri added that the critics of the proposed EPA rules will call it a job killer. She participated in a climate justice panel discussion at the event, moderated by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).

(l-r) Nikki Silverstri, Keith Ellison, Jacqui Patterson, Marty Cobenais Photos by Charles Hallman
(l-r) Nikki Silverstri, Keith Ellison, Jacqui Patterson, Marty Cobenais
Photos by Charles Hallman

“We got to confront ‘Big Oil’ and ‘Big Coal,’” suggested Ellison.

Such companies have been poisoning residents living nearby for years, added NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Director Jacqui Patterson. These large firms also created “false friendships” with community organizations, citing as an example that one corporation stopped giving $10,000 annually to a NAACP branch after members of that said branch “spoke bad about them at the carbon pollution hearings at the EPA so you [are] no longer our friends,” she recalled.

Marty Cobenais of Bagley, MN says oil companies often practice “economic blackmail” to those living on reservations by offering them “little jobs” but not the higher-paying positions.

Climate justice also includes weather, continued the congressman. “Extreme weather affects us all.” He pointed out that storms such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods “affects some more than others: people of color, children, the elderly, the poor [and] the people less able to cope. People of color are more vulnerable to heat-related deaths.”

“You need to know every single resource available to you so that if there is a heat wave, if there is a flood, if there is a case of extreme weather, you’ll know how to get food, how to get your family water,” added Silvestri.

A founding member of the Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM), “The things that motivated me was seeing all the [inhalers] — it’s not natural or normal,” said Ellison. “If I show you a chart of this neighborhood, it would be clear that African Americans experiences significant elevated asthma.”

“I grew up as a kid in L.A. and I had asthma,” said Silvestri. “I couldn’t play with the other kids in Double Dutch or any of that without having my inhaler. Asthma deaths for us [Blacks] are very, very serious.”

Connecting health and climate change “should be common sense,” said Silvestri, as she also noted that a recent White House report on climate change also discussed mental health. “If you have mental illness, and you get caught in a heat wave, if you are on certain medication and it acts poorly with your own body temperature, you will die,” she learned. “If you struggle with obesity and you are in a poor community, you may not be able to respond when floods and high heat happens. There are so many interrelated issues when it comes to people of color and low-income people.”

Patterson told the diverse audience that a new NAACP health impact report focuses on the coal industry. “They are the number-one contributor to carbon dioxide,” she noted. The report also states that nearly 80 percent of Blacks in the U.S. live “within 30 miles” of a coal-powered plant: “You begin to see a pattern of exposure and an impact on these communities,” she said.

Patterson later told the MSR that the NAACP report “is part of a nationwide analysis of energy policies around clean energy and energy efficiency” as well as economic equity and justice as part of these policies.

After the event, Ellison told the MSR, “We [Blacks] carry the environmental burden even though we don’t create it. I don’t know any African Americans that own coal plants but we suck in all the lead and mercury. We bear a disapportionate environmental burden but we don’t contribute nearly as much to the problem.

“We got to confront these environmental hazards” such as lead and other harmful substances.


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