April 2, 2023

By Clarence Hightower
The Anti-poverty Soldier

Clarence Hightower, Ph.D., Director, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties.

Environmental justice is the movement to ensure that no community suffers disproportionate environmental burdens or goes without enjoying fair environmental benefits. — Van Jones

Race is still the potent factor for predicting where Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) go. A lot of people say its class, but race and class are intertwined. Because the society is so racist and because racism touches every institution – employment, housing, education, facility siting, land use decisions – you really can’t extract race out of decisions that are being made by persons who are in power when the power arrangements are unequal.

On an occasion or two I have used this platform to discuss a particular topic that is often relegated to the margins of the larger discussion on environmentalism. That topic is environmental racism/classism and in a column from early 2015 I first highlighted the case of Altgeld Gardens on Chicago’s far South Side. Completed in 1945 for African American veterans of World War II, this housing development was built on an abandoned landfill adjacent to other landfills, industrial plants, steel mills, and toxic waste facilities.

Needless to say the residents of Altgeld Gardens, which still houses around 3,400 residents today, suffer from higher than normal rates of cancer, asthma, fungal infections, and other serious illnesses. Among the pollutants and toxic chemicals that affect residents in this development – where the water has been called “unfit for human consumption” – include xylene, mercury, lead, ammonia, biphenyls, and hydrocarbons.

Then there is the more recent case of Flint, Michigan. It is in this town of approximately 100,000 residents, where the decision of local officials to re-source their water supply from the Detroit Water Department to the Flint River while failing to take any precautionary measures, potentially exposing the entire city (including nearly 30,000 people under the age of 18) to dangerously high levels of lead.

Although the city’s decision was described as a cost-saving measure, it should not be lost on anyone that nearly two-thirds of Flint’s population are people of color and more than one-quarter live below the federal poverty threshold (including nearly 40 percent of its children). There is also the matter of the Dakota Access Pipeline project being muscled through the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. While these are three extreme examples – including two brand new ones and one 70 years in the making – there are innumerable examples of environmental racism and classism that pervade the nation today – some of which are obvious and others that go generally undetected by most of us. And the Twin Cities are no exception.

Take for example, the City of Saint Paul where the latest data from the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy’s (CEED) Twin Cities Environmental Justice Mapping tool reveals some rather troubling, though not surprising truths. When it comes to the prevalence of blighted housing, the volume of highways and railroads, the degree of industrial land use, and other factors resulting in poor air quality, the same neighborhoods consistently dominate the map. These include census tracts in Thomas-Dale, the North End, Payne-Phalen, Dayton’s Bluff, and the West Side neighborhood across the Mississippi River from downtown.  In other words, areas where there is a significant presence of low-income residents and people of color.

Another important measure illustrated in CEED’s mapping tool identifies areas of “energy vulnerability.” CEED notes that:

Historically, the gap in physical investments in housing and other infrastructure needs have left some neighborhoods with a “capacity gap” in terms of sustainable investments. Yet, the cost of energy hits low and moderate income households harder than middle and upper income households…Until now, energy investments at the household level have largely benefitted middle to upper income neighborhoods. 

Again, the same St. Paul neighborhoods identified as “energy vulnerable” or “energy poor” are the same as those with substandard housing, a disproportionate amount of industrial and commercial land use, and high exposure to exhaust and other pollutants due to their proximity to highways and railways.

All of these factors considered, if you really want to discover how disparate environmental living conditions can be in poor neighborhoods, then take a moment to navigate CEED’s infograph that compares the circumstances of two Twin Cities neighborhoods within two miles of each other.

One of the neighborhoods has a median household income of just over $30,000 as compared to approximately $140,000 for the other. Residents in the poorer neighborhood can find approximately 550 acres of industrial land use and highways within a one mile radius of their home. The wealthier residents only have 100 acres of such land use in the same one mile radius. The poorer neighborhood’s respiratory hazard index is much higher and its number of MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) sites per acre is 44.

That is compared to approximately 8 MPCA contaminated sites per acre in the wealthier neighborhood. By contrast, a short walk will yield access to 280 acres of parkland to residents of the wealthier neighborhood, whereas, on a similar walk the poorer residents will find only a little more than 6 acres.

The CEED infograph tracks a number of other measures such as population density, percentage of owner occupied housing, energy vulnerability, access to healthy food, public transportation usage, and even the existing urban tree canopy (which is higher than 42 percent in the wealthier neighborhood and less than four percent in the poorer one).

These statistics are beyond absurd, and yet, the issue of environmental racism and classism still fails to get anywhere close to the attention it requires. The need for (and access to) cheap land, cost-saving strategies, and a plethora of other excuses have long been used to explain the environmental disparities between rich and poor. Regardless, communities of color and the poor almost exclusively bear the brunt of environmental injustice, whether it is pre-existing or the result of new infrastructure and land use policies.

And while not a lot of progress has been made some of the agencies charged with addressing this injustice, including the Environmental Protection Agency, are in danger of having their regulatory policies reversed and their funding cut (or eliminated altogether).

Are Minnesotans are being killed by their neighborhoods? And, if so, why are we letting this happen?

Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.

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