Environmental Justice Delayed Has Been Justice Denied

Environmental Justice Delayed Has Been Justice Denied

It has taken a very long time, but environmental justice has moved to the center of the environmental policy agenda. Here in New York City, the environmental justice movement spent decades fighting the siting of the North River sewage treatment plant in West Harlem. Having lost the sitting battle, pushed to improve the treatment plant and reduce its environmental impact. They worked to design Riverbank State Park, a wonderful facility that sits on top of the plant. Percy Sutton and David Dinkins and most of Harlem’s political establishment fought the plant’s sitting in Harlem. West Harlem Environmental Action, the predecessor of WEACT, and its visionary head Peggy Shepard partnered with NRDC and successfully sued New York City to minimize the negative impact of the plant on the Harlem community. The history of the plant and its sitting is thoroughly analyzed in a terrific 1994 case study published in the Fordham Law Review and authored by environmental justice pioneer Vernice D. Miller (now Miller-Travis). Miller’s case study details the terms of New York City’s settlement with the Harlem community:

“In April 1992, the City and the DEP committed $55 million in capital funds to correct the design and odor problems at North River. In lieu of a fine to the State Department of Environmental Conservation, the City DEP also created a $1.1 million West Harlem Environmental Benefits Fund to be administered by a steering committee of community representatives. Through this fund, the community hopes to conduct a health risk assessment, a cumulative environmental impact assessment, independent monitoring of plant operations, development of urban gardens and safe play spaces, development of local green industries, and environmental science internships for neighborhood youth and students .”

The history of the plant’s sitting is a case study in environmental racism as the site moved north from the middle of Manhattan’s west side to the northern part of the island as if by magic. But times are changing, and we now have a president committed to environmental justice, and the wheels of the mammoth federal bureaucracy are slowly moving to implement his vision. It began with a sweeping environmental policy Executive Order issued by President Biden on his seventh full day in office. Among other provisions, Biden’s order created an interagency environmental justice council and established a government-wide approach to environmental justice. According to the president’s order:

“Agencies shall make achieving environmental justice part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities, as well as the accompanying economic challenges of such impacts. It is therefore the policy of my Administration to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and healthcare.”

Last week, as part of an effort to implement the Executive Order, the Justice Department and EPA announced a joint effort to file charges against polluters who are impacting low-income communities. There is a great deal of evidence that communities of color and low-income communities are more exposed to pollution than wealthier communities. That is coupled with inadequate access to health care. Wealthy people are better able to avoid pollution and, when exposed, are better able to treat health impacts. Childhood asthma is a common example of this. A child living in poverty may not be able to access the inhaler and other medications that prevent and minimize asthma attacks, and the condition may well worsen as the child ages. For a child with better access to health care, asthma may be a childhood ailment that they are able to leave behind as they grow older. Writing in the Washington Post last week David Nakamura and Darryl Fears observed that:

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