Low-income, minority communities more likely to be polluted
Jeanene Dunn, OHM Staff
For the last few years, residents of Flint, Michigan have been dealing with lead-contaminated water.
For the last 11 years, residents in neighborhoods on Kansas City, Missouri’s east side have been trying to get answers about a strong gasoline odor that permeates the air, their homes and businesses.
Navajo Nation residents in the southwestern United States have suffered health problems associated with contamination from now-closed uranium mines. For more than 40 years — 1944 to 1986 — nearly 300 million tons of uranium ore was extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. The uranium extracted from these mines was primarily used to power nuclear submarines and nuclear weapons.
The residents living in these communities share these commonalities: 1) they have health problems and challenges resulting from long-term exposure to the contamination, and 2) they are primarily low-income communities of color.
According to studies published last year in Environmental Letters, “low-income, non-white areas are more likely to have been the victims of industrial pollution for decades.”
Of 15,758 industrial sites across many industries, 809 sites were found to be responsible for 90% of the pollution. Researchers also discovered that the communities most affected by industrial pollution and contamination tended to be poor and non-white.” The question is “Why?”
Do race and class play a role?
That is a hard question to answer, as each situation is different. To be sure, white communities have been impacted by contamination and pollution, too. The question that lingers in communities of color, however, is the perception by residents that agencies and entities seem to respond slowly to identify the issue, develop a resolution plan, deal with the potential health impacts — and solve the problem.
In Kansas City, Missouri State Representative Brandon Ellington, along with other elected officials, has sought to get information to affected residents who wonder who to contact about the strong gas odor — and how to resolve the problem. “Most people call first responders or a utility company, not realizing that neither of those entities can address the root of the problem. This is an environmental issue, because the soil has been contaminated by petroleum and some residents have suffered health issues resulting from continuous exposure to benzene, a natural byproduct of crude oil and gasoline,” explains Rep. Ellington. Benzene is a cancer-causing agent. Information is key — so is persistence.
It can take years to uncover contamination, and even more years to study the impact on those affected and develop a plan to resolve the issue and protect the public in the future. The best ammunition is information. In Kansas City, Rep. Ellington will continue to hold community forums to discuss the process, answer questions, gather information, and direct residents to the correct agency to report problems.
As for Flint, officials continue to monitor lead levels in the water and keep residents in the know about everything that is being done to restore clean drinking water to the community. In Navajo Nation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a host of stakeholders have been working for more than 10 years on the massive clean-up effort. According to an EPA press release from Jan. 17, 2017, “The United States and the Navajo Nation have entered into a settlement agreement with two affiliated subsidiaries of Freeport-McMoRan, Inc., for the cleanup of 94 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. The work to be conducted is subject to oversight of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and in collaboration with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.” •