Fighting for Environmental Justice

by Diana Drake

Residents of Detroit, Michigan in the U.S. recently won an important victory. It had nothing to do with World Cup soccer, politics or even a lottery jackpot – and everything to do with how they live.

After a fight that lasted decades, the largest municipal trash incinerator in the U.S., known as Detroit Renewable Power, was shut down. The incinerator, which burned one million tons of solid waste from 13 counties in Southeastern Michigan to create steam and electricity, polluted the air and caused health problems like asthma in local residents, according to research and reports.

“We won, after 33 years!” resident and activist Kathy Rashid told the Energy News Network, after the plant was shut down in late March. “Everything we ever said about this poisonous monstrosity was borne out. What environmental destruction and money wasted.”

‘Zip Code Is the Most Potent Predictor’

This case in Detroit – pinning big business against grassroots activists like Rashid – is an example of environmental justice, a field that has grown up around the idea that low-income and minority communities should not face a higher share of pollution, and if they do, it constitutes a form of discrimination.

Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who is thought to be the father of the environmental justice movement, describes it like this: “Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations….Today, zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual’s health and well-being. Individuals who physically live on the “wrong side of the tracks” are subjected to elevated environmental health threats and more than their fair share of preventable diseases.”

Brian Berkey, a Wharton assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics, notes that the environmental justice movement operates in a highly decentralized way, often involving relatively small groups focusing their attention on issues in their respective local communities. These groups, while separate, have unifying values. “One of the core values is that no one should be subjected to significantly greater risks from environmentally harmful activity, especially business activity, just because they’re, for example, poor or African-American,” says Berkey. “It’s worth noting that even for people at the same income level, African-Americans are more likely to live near facilities that expose them to environmental risks. In other words, these facilities are more likely to be located near predominantly African-American neighborhoods with a particular income profile than near predominantly white neighborhoods with the same income profile. So, the justice issues aren’t limited to those having to do with poverty, though that is a central issue.”

Through the years, the environmental justice movement has empowered urban residents to speak out about their right for clean air, clean water and the same quality of life as people living in less economically depressed areas. The movement has also given rise to statistics like this: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Sierra Club, poor communities have a 35% higher burden from particulate-matter emissions. Studies have also shown that race is the biggest indicator in the U.S. of whether you live near toxic waste. In other words, most landfill or waste facilities are disproportionately placed near people of color and economically disadvantaged populations.

High School Students Investigate EJ

This last fact is all too familiar to twin brothers Erin and Evan Addison and Andrew Arevalo, classmates at Steel City Academy charter school in Gary, Indiana. The three friends, who are all 15 and rising high school sophomores, are founders of the award-winning Steel City Academy podcast. They were featured last week in a radio segment on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (see Related Links).

Last year, the stuff of great storytelling literally landed in their laps. Their podcast reporting led them to delve deeply into an environmental justice case involving their high school and their community, where more than a third of the people in Gary live in poverty. A company known as Maya Energy was proposing to build a waste-to-energy facility across the street from Steel City Academy, where, according to filed permits, the business would receive waste from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with processing continuing until 11 p.m. As the teen hosts pointed out in their podcast — “What’s a waste-processing facility? Just a fancy word for a dump.”

The proposal, which the school learned about from a newspaper article, spurred Steel City Academy into action. The Steel City podcasters, along with their classmates in the Year Zero environmental justice club, joined their teachers, parents and principal Katie Kirley to speak out against Maya Energy operating next to their school. They worried that the new facility would create noise, odors, constant truck traffic, diesel air pollution from trucks and air emissions from the plant, and possible water contamination during heavy rains and floods. For months, they waged a campaign against Maya Energy, organizing rallies, attending hearings and recording interviews. While Maya’s proposal was pulled late last year, it was reinstated this February. The students continue their fight.

“This shows our school’s might and our grit, our purpose too, and our power,” Erin Addison told Energy News Network.

And their chops as reporters. During one of the meetings, the Steel City podcasters relentlessly asked Maya Energy founder Jimmy Ventura, the man behind this proposal, if the new plant would “release fumes.” Ventura urged them to stop taping, and he never actually answered their question. Erin Addison said during the NPR interview: “If you’re going to build a facility like that next to our school, I’m not nervous at all. I’m going to come to you. You’re going to know I’m going to be a podcaster. I’m going to have a bag. I’m going to have an audio recorder in my hand. You’re going to know that I’m here for answers.”

Cheap Land, Low Taxes and Available Labor

Erin’s interaction with Ventura brings up an essential aspect of the environmental justice movement: every story has two sides. Ventura, who grew up and still lives in an East Chicago, Indiana, neighborhood, describes Maya Energy, as an ecologically sound way to recycle and turn garbage into “refuse-derived fuel,” while providing economic development and jobs to Gary. He sees his business proposal very differently than the Steel City Academy community, which is often true of environmental justice cases.

Many businesses claim that they do consider how their facilities will impact low-income and minority communities, and that they try to keep an open dialogue with their neighbors through ongoing communication and a transparent process that invites residents inside their operations. They are not always the evil-doers that many environmental justice cases characterize them to be.

Eric Orts, A Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics who runs Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, says, “In general, I’d say it’s unfair to cast business in these situations as “bad guys.” Environmental justice issues are usually more complicated, involving distributions in what Ulrich Beck called our “risk society.” What is needed are good laws, including zoning policies as well as environmental regulation.  A standard problem is that business may often make decisions that impose external risks and harms — hence “externalities” — on others if there is no legal structure to encourage or mandate them to “internalize” these risks and harms.” He adds: “The optimal solutions are legal: better liability regimes [such as specifying the responsible party and how they must compensate others for their actions], perhaps more contemporary disclosure requirements, and scientifically grounded pollution/waste control regulations.”

“At least sometimes the needs and interests of others have to take priority over the pursuit of profits.” — Brian Berkey

Wharton’s Berkey suggests, however, that companies are driven by their bottom lines, which indicate profits or losses. Berkey specializes in moral and political philosophy, including business ethics and environmental ethics. “Businesses locate their facilities where they do primarily because it’s cost-effective. That is, all else equal, the land is cheapest, and/or the taxes are lowest, and/or there’s a large supply of available labor nearby, which keeps wages low,” Berkey says. “Representatives of businesses that do this are likely to argue that they are simply making standard business decisions using standard cost-benefit analyses in service of making profits for shareholders. They might claim that it’s the role of government to structure their incentives so that the disparities that we observe [in environmental justice cases] don’t occur, but in the current state of things they’re not doing anything wrong by doing what they’re most incentivized to do, even if this has disproportionate harmful effects on poor and minority communities.”

Berkey’s not buying it. “I’m unpersuaded by this line of argument,” he adds. “I don’t think that, generally, businesses can appeal to what the government perhaps should be doing, but isn’t, in order to justify adopting practices that risk significant harm to people who are already unjustly disadvantaged. At least sometimes the needs and interests of others have to take priority over the pursuit of profits.”

Berkey also points out that environmental justice cases don’t just target low-income residents, but also those who appear less equipped to fight back. “In the case of facilities that expose those nearby to environmental risks, one of the considerations is likely to be that the surrounding community will be less able than others to effectively resist the imposition of risks on them by, for example, appealing to lawmakers or regulators. So, companies take advantage of the vulnerability of poor, often minority communities, in order to be able to operate in a way that’s cheaper, even though it exposes the members of those communities to (often avoidable) risks. They typically wouldn’t be able to get away with doing this near wealthier communities, since the members of those communities would be able to successfully appeal to lawmakers or regulators to protect them from the risks.”

That is why the voices and actions of resident advocates in cities like Detroit, Gary and countless others form the backbone of environmental justice cases — and can lead to real change for residents who feel at a disadvantage. For the students at Steel City Academy, the Maya Energy proposal has helped them see their world and their worth in a new way. “I really felt empowered, I felt like we should do this more often,” Steel City student Danielle Sipp, 15, told Energy News Network. “If we stood up for ourselves like we stood up at the community meeting, we could actually change Gary for the better.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What is environmental justice? Have you experienced any personal EJ-related issues, either as a resident suffering from pollution or any other personal connections? Please share your story in the Comment section of this article.

The Wharton professors quoted in this article provide very different perspectives on the role of business in the environmental justice movement. Where do you land on the business ethics question? Do you think companies should just avoid locating in low-income, urban areas entirely because they can’t do so ethically? Or is it the responsibility of laws and regulations to guide more just decisions?

How would you fight for environmental justice? Using the related links and other resources with this article, take sides in the Steel City Academy case. Some students represent the school community while others identify with Jimmy Ventura. Debate the key issues that define each side.

9 comments on “Fighting for Environmental Justice

  1. My fascination with EJ began when I wrote an article about the topic for the magazine New Jersey Monthly in 2002. As a young reporter, I drove to the heart of Camden, NJ and visited families impacted by the air pollution emitted from a local cement factory. People were angry at the company, at the circumstances and at me for sticking my nose into the situation. I had always had a special curiosity for the urban landscape and gritty cities as manufacturing hubs, but never had I thought about the human impact of those business operations. It was one of many times in my early career that I grew personally from my professional pursuits, largely because I felt really uncomfortable and outside my zone. Those are the transformational moments. As a business journalist, I also remember feeling conflicted by this business vs. humanity issue. This company was following regulatory guidelines, which allowed it to emit 60 tons of dust into the air annually. It was following state rules, if not those of society. My job, of course, was to remain impartial and report all sides of the story. EJ provides a backdrop for discussing business ethics and how it fits into the lives of future corporate leaders. Is it profit at any cost? If you owned a company, what moral principles would guide the decisions you make? How important is it for ethics to guide your business decisions? Is business governed by the same rules of right and wrong?

    • Diana, that sounds like a transformative & fascinating experience! Sometimes, it seems, it takes full immersion to become truly aware of the gravity of a situation. From what I have read, it appears that environmental justice involves quite a bit of morally gray territory. The larger corporations operate on an economic standpoint. Residents, naturally, have a much more proximal perspective.

      Theoretically, it’s crucial for businesses to consider the ethical implications of their actions. Inevitably, many companies will favor profit over pathos. Ideally, an earnest, “open dialogue” between a business and a community, combined with the aforementioned proper regulation & liabilities, can serve as a starting point for a deeper understanding.

    • In my opinion, what is valuable about Diana’s commment is that the comment focuses on one specific case. Environmental justice, like other ethical dilemmas, requires studies on individual cases. The article has provided several interesting insights to the overall topic. Yet most of ethical rules and patterns are vague and arguable, and cases differ from one another.

      In general, cases concerning ethical economics and business can be analyzed in 3 ways, focusing on 3 different factors: outcome, character, and action. Environmental justice mainly focuses on the action part of the subject, the execution process. Indeed, the execution process has been increasingly essential as technology has more or less garaunteed the availability of the activity. However, should action be the only measurement? In cases like these, the most difficult part is to quantify different factors. Can people easily compare the actual outcome of an economic activity with the damage it deals to the environment? Enviromental justice’s unquantifiable nature has made it a highly arguable topic. Environmentalists may concentrate on minimizing the damage on environment, while businessmen argue preservation on the environment requires a strong economic basis.

      How should we view such cases mentioned in the article and in the comment? In my opinion, analysis should include as many details as possible. As mentioned above, ethical issues must be viewed relatively seperately, and the details create distinguishments in between cases. Asymmetric information may be the greatest obstacle to achieve environmental justice. Consider this case: a company is emitting chemicals into the air and the local residents are having complaints on that issue. It seems that it is agianst ethics to pollute the environment in change of benefits. However, the case can be that the local government has a contrast with another company that is willing to provide some benefit. A problem in this case is that one can never know if a group is arguing for environmental justice, or simply using this as a cover for personal interest.

      What I like most about Diana’s comment is that she is willing to ask questions and is open to any answer. Critical thinking plays an important role in cases such as these. Environmental justice can be achieved under a circumstance that the investigator has a neutral and objective view on the issue, rather than blindly appealing for banning companies to do harm to the environment. If one has a subjective and biased eye, it is highly likely that he is deceived.

      Environmental justice is a topic worth reflecting on. In fact, as the technology is providing more and more possibilities, we are now able to achieve economic growth without too great harm to the environment. Nevertheless, when investigating the subject, it is very dangerous to carry a preconception that environment is on the very opposite of economic activities. With an critical eye, I believe that environmental justice will be benefitial to our planet earth.

    • Dear Diana,
      I strongly believe that where there is business there’s no place for ethics and where there are ethics there is no place for business and this true for 99% of the businesses. Let me give you an example of this. Let’s take a look at the medicine industry. It’s one of the biggest and one of the fastest growing industries in the world, especially in the United States. Companies keep saying that they hire the best people to make the best medicines and that they use cutting edge technology and what not. Take for instance Merck’s vision statement:
      “To make a difference in the lives of people globally through our innovative medicines, vaccines, and animal health products. We are committed to being the premier, research-intensive biopharmaceutical company and are dedicated to providing leading innovations and solutions for today and the future.”

      If this company and other pharmaceutical companies would actually care about people and their well being then why is it that their profits keep increasing? And why does the industry keep growing? And why do shareholders keep getting more money from these corporations?

      If medical universities and companies were actually doing any good then their profits would decrease; don’t you agree? Because if their profits are increasing it means that they are selling more medicines which means that people are buying more medicines. If people are buying more it means they are consuming more medicines and if they are consuming more it means that they are getting sicker by the day. Don’t you think so? And it’s the same for all businesses. They keep selling things to people which are bad for them, make them look extremely attractive and also give the government a share so that they can operate smoothly.

      Now, getting to environmental justice I’d like to point out that the two biggest threats to the environment are overpopulation and consuming non-veg. It’s quite obvious how the former is a threat to the environment so I’d like to talk about the latter.

      Consuming animal based products contributes to more than 50% of the world’s global warming. The forks, knives and spoons that we use to consume the bodies of animals and birds are the real weapons of mass destruction and we use them to not only devour animals, but also our future. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who needs no introduction has said that that when people are encouraged to eat meat they will not gain any actual benefit; it’s just marketing. Companies like Burger King and McDonalds disguise the worst thing on the planet as something that should crave and have more often than not. Are those business ethics? Is that environmental justice? Destroying people’s bodies and their planet to make money is not ethical and it is a terrible business. And why do doctors and pharmaceutical companies not have a problem with this? It’s because they get a lot of money when people are sick.

  2. I think that this issue of Environmental Justice is a very interesting issue. This issue is not something that I had every taken notice of previously. Environmental problems had always seemed like a worldwide issue, such as stopping global warming or conserving water. However, reading this article has shown another issue we need to think about when addressing environmental issues. Now that I really think about it, poorer communities really have some problems with Environmental Justice, and this is probably the main contributor to many health problems we see in low-income communities.

  3. Hey,
    Environmental justice very reflects the elemental reality that vulnerable communities ar only too usually subject to the disproportionate burden of pollution and contamination.

    At the top of the day, once we’re talking concerning environmental impacts, at the guts of it ar real people’s lives.

    Thanks & Regards
    Namita Singh
    Polytechnic Colleges In Jharkhand

  4. “We won, after 33 years!” 33 years is a long time to wait for something to be done right. Environmental justice is a huge issue because America has a president that don’t care about our Earth and only cares about the money and support he gets from those big companies. EJ is a topic that is greatly overlooked because it doesn’t affect every single one of us, but it affects more people than we think. This also projects to climate change, which is a huge issue Trump doesn’t want to face until it’s too too late (an extra too because we are already too late). Climate change is getting more attention, but not enough action.

  5. In the article “Fighting for Environmental Justice”, it quotes from Brian Berkey the following statement: “At least sometimes the needs and interests of others have to take priority over the pursuit of profits.” This sentence has become the rationale of any environmental justice case, mainly due to the selfishness of some, the neglect of many, and the actions of the few. The first and third populations can be very clearly read. The first comes from the notion that success comes from profit. They decide that their own happiness is more important than their fellow human beings, leading them to focus upon their own singular souls. The actions of the few are those who not only realize what is happening to the Earth, but decide to act upon the crisis. However, it is not the first group that is the true antagonist, but the second, since they not only remain silent against the profit-centered corporations, they fuel them. The people who neglect are the consumers of these businesses, whether they admit it or not, and their wish for things to remain the same hinders them from seeing reality. They look down upon those who have the strength to put their hands in the mud, without looking at the greater product. Without this second party, the first loses all control whatsoever.

    Berkey is right. The pursuit of profits will eventually be our downfall. We are driving in a car, our foot on the accelerator, but through the exhilaration of the speed we refuse to realize that we are hurtling towards a cliff. Berkey’s words serve as a word of inspiration, summarizing our conflict in a few words. The motivation that these activists have carried for nearly thirty years is something we should seek for ourselves as well.

    Although my contributions may not be to the magnitude as Berkey and activists in the recent victory against Detroit Renewable Power, in their endeavors to stop pollution and waste from factories, I am still inspired by their efforts to discover solutions for problems in my local community. I myself might not be able to create such a huge difference, but there is nothing stopping me, or anyone else, from helping to the best of their ability. An opportunity manifested through the issue of water pollution. I had long believed that water pollution was a problem present in our oceans, but not in our water drinking supply. It never came to my mind that basin water could also be contaminated. Nonetheless, I was intrigued when a notice in our local newspaper hinted at the presence of contamination in our water. Thus, in my free time, I began researching through the EWG and EPA database about any signs for contamination in my city’s groundwater basin. Eventually, I found that our water supply had more than forty present contaminants, a third being carcinogens, capable of increasing the risk of cancer. The pollutants included uranium, nitrate, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, and dioxane. What I thought was safe to drink couldn’t even be cleaned by boiled water.

    Thus, while Berkey fights to protect the 36% of Americans, nearly 120 million people, from ozone and particle pollution, as according to the American Lung Association, I am striving to protect my own small community from contaminated water. This problem has occurred due to the egoistic pursuit of profit once again. As the EPA provides on its database, several unknown factories were working in the area of the Orange County Groundwater Basin, which now provides more than half of my city’s water supply. Having been accused of dumping waste and pollutants into the nearby soil, which has now been proven to be true, they eventually closed down after the 1990s. If this water is drunk chronically, kidney, lung, and pancreas cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal illnesses, and effects against the nervous system can all morph from something of the news to a horrifying reality.

    I have lived in this community for more than a decade, and it has given me so much more than I could return. I feel it is only right to help the people that have nurtured me. I have created online petitions and sent letters to senators and water boards. However, my purpose was not to try to change the minds of the businesses. My purpose was to create awareness of the people of my city. If the blind could finally see, they would be able to take away the fuel the greedy feasted upon. This is only the beginning however, since words alone can’t solve a crisis.

    Thanks to Berkey, I have been able to spark my passion once again. By conducting research on filtering, I found several solutions through the EWG database, including permeable reactive barriers, chemical reduction, and biodegradation. My interest in environmental justice only increases as I research development after development, looking for the solution that could help fortify not only my own neighbors, but to the hundreds of contaminated basins across the country. Though this passion is only recent, I know that I will continue this journey until it is complete, and I hope that I can find the success the activists against Detroit Renewable Power found in their endeavors. We must not only find our wrongs in the past, we must bring justice to them, for the sake of the victims both in the past and the future.

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