Chicago’s Southeast Side is a working-class area in a period of transition, moving from an industrial past with strong roots in steel to a revitalized present. Along the way, the community is facing a considerable problem: what to do with the remnants of industry, including polluted and closed sites.
This precise situation emerged in a vicious debate in the last few months over petroleum coke—known as petcoke—piles controlled by KCBX Terminals, a firm owned by the Koch brothers. Petcoke is chemically inert, according to the Congressional Research Service, but that doesn’t make it attractive. More importantly, it’s dusty, and that dust ends up everywhere, choking not just homes and gardens but the lungs of nearby residents, which can cause respiratory problems like asthma in addition to complicating infections such as pneumonia. Chicagoans living near petcoke storage facilities have reported being forced to close their windows even on hot summer days to keep the dust out.
Although the company originally proposed extending its storage space and receiving more petcoke shipments, it folded that plan earlier this year. Even so, the massive piles remain in some locations, and KCBX has not announced what it will do with them. With no new material arriving onsite, residents are still suffering from the polluting byproducts of industrial waste. The issue could potentially continue for years.
This community, like so many others across the United States, has been a victim of “environmental racism,” a term developed by environmental justice advocates to describe the disproportionate exposure to pollution faced by people in low-income areas, particularly people of color. It’s increasing the risk of acquired and congenital disabilities in those communities, a problem which is then compounded by poor access to health care—yet few are fighting to address it on a policy level.
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Over time, the problem perpetuates itself. Companies often selectively seek such areas when establishing facilities in the hopes of obtaining permits without a struggle, and the people there have few resources to fight back. Those with the means to move do so, leaving the remaining community even more poor and even less able to fight back on pollution issues. Those remaining behind have nowhere to go, becoming neglected and forgotten—and frequently developing increasing health issues.
As early as 1983, the General Accounting Office noticed that there was a strong correlation between race, income, and pollution levels: Overall, low-income people were more prone to living in environmentally compromised areas. White low-income communities were and are still more likely to experience environmental pollution than their middle- and high-income counterparts, but the problem is more acute for low-income people of color—particularly women, who earn less than their male counterparts and have a significant wealth gap.
For many of these communities, years of industrial dumping and poor environmental practices have contaminated the air, soil, and water table. To name just a few instances: the people of Kettleman City, California, who believe they were poisoned by a landfill; the Dixon, Tennessee, cancer cluster who also traced their symptoms to a landfill infiltrating the water table; the Bronx residents with unusually high rates of asthma and lung disease from high air pollution; the large number of Marines at Camp Lejune, North Carolina, with breast cancer as a suspected result of hazardous substances used at the base; and the residents of Richmond, California, where a Chevron refinery has been belching out pollutants for decades.
Environmental racism appears to directly contribute to the growth of acute and chronic conditions like these in low-income communities, along with congential disabilities such as heart defects, spina bifida, developmental delays, and musculoskeletal conditions. Moreover, epigentic changes—DNA alterations caused by environmental exposure—can be passed on to future generations, so even if people move out of contaminated regions, they carry that legacy with them.
That creates a compounding series of problems, as low-income people develop chronic conditions and don’t have the resources to deal with the aftermath. The health-care system can be a nightmare to navigate in these cases for myriad reasons, including medical discrimination; poor health services in low-income communities; concerns about deportation from any immigrants living there; and fears about affordability. Victims of environmental racism thus miss out on treatment like prenatal care to identify and treat congenital disabilities or the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
Unfortunately, these issues often go overlooked on a media and policy level. In general, disability isn’t a popular subject; mainstream outlets rarely report on it, and many nondisabled individuals are reluctant to engage with disability issues. Meanwhile, these communities’ limited finances make it difficult to persuade governmental environmental agencies to test, identify, and clean up toxins in their area, even when evidence like cancer clusters indicates there’s a problem.
Corporations and the military also tend to rigorously fight back when accused of pollution, rejecting claims that a pattern of medical conditions is emerging in association with existing potentially contaminated sites. And when faced with new proposals to open landfills, toxic waste handling facilities, polluting factories, and other potential sources of contamination, it’s also difficult for people in these areas to self-advocate—they may not have the funding, the time, or the connections that wealthier communities can bring to bear.
Many also don’t benefit from the support of mainstream environmental advocates, largely because of the “test case” approach, in which organizations select cases with extremely solid legal grounds and a perfect storm of circumstances to take to court. Environmental groups frequently can’t afford to offer litigation support to every single community struggling with pollution, so they often pick those with the best PR appeal that might also stand to set legal precedent—and that leaves many victims of environmental racism in the dust. Such organizations are faced with too many communities in need of assistance, and too few resources to support them.
Socioeconomic diversity is also a significant problem in combating this inequity. Even as institutions like the EPA are tasked with enforcing tougher regulations, with fewer inspectors thanks to budget cuts, they still remain heavily represented by white, middle-class Americans. In 2009, EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson noted that government agencies need to, and do not currently, “look like the people we serve”—often low-income people, disproportionately disabled people, and/or people of color. At the same time, when people affected by these issues are active in environmental organizing, activism, and policy advocacy, they frequently say they feel isolated, and at times actively excluded, especially in terms of funding. All this, in practical terms, means that white, middle-class, nondisabled people with the resources to potentially fight this problem frequently overlook it instead.
Agencies need to be considering the issue from a bottom-up approach, starting with preventing environmental racism in the first place. That entails enacting aggressive policies in terms of where potentially polluting facilities and activities may be located, with particular attention to the fact that low-income communities of color become frequent targets for this kind of development, along with rigorous inspection of such sites reinforced with real fines and other consequences for violations.
Additionally, discussions about how to prevent pollution and manage existing contamination need to include diverse voices from the start, including those of community leaders and representatives who have direct experience. For existing contaminated sites, companies need to be held accountable—they should not be allowed to evade responsibility through declaring bankruptcy, striking deals with government agencies, or selling land off while not fully disclosing the extent of known or suspected pollution. In Chicago, for instance, KCBX should be made to clean up the petcoke piles quickly and entirely, not just enclose them in a few years’ time.
Meanwhile, it’s also critical for both policymakers and activists to work to address shortcomings in health care so people can get support and treatment for conditions, while also recognizing that many people have good reason to be suspicious of the medical system after years of health-care disparities and slipshod ethics. Likewise, addressing housing equity is another aspect of environmental justice—if low-income and disabled people (two communities that often overlap, along with people of color) are pushed to polluted communities, they are at higher risk of medical conditions related to poor environmental health.
Environmentalism shouldn’t just be about meeting environmental targets. It also requires facing up to the reality that there is a strong connection between disability, race, class, and environmental contamination—and those lying at this intersection need policy action to break the cycle, paired with institutional support for community-based activists who are already doing much of this work, often thankless and alone.