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Environmental Justice: Radical Care for All the Places Where We Live, Work and Play

By Marie Campbell

Mapped into a landscape with multiple petroleum companies, the “Nations” neighborhood reminds me a little bit of home. I grew up in a small town in Georgia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, sandwiched between a shutdown General Electric plant, a paper mill, and Plant Hammond, a coal-fired power plant. Coming up in a town so dependent on unsustainable and environmentally destructive industries (and by dependent I mean – a majority of the kids I went to school with had family members employed by these industries, entire livelihoods determined by them) seemed commonplace and even necessary. These industries provided much needed employment. Everything else they brought (cancer, pollution, asthma, etc.) was simply collateral damage.

Though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued several orders to GE to address the clean up of the area, the hazardous substances detected when the plant closed in 1997 remain in the soil and waterways, threatening human and non-human health. My grandparents lived literally right next door to the paper mill and the power plant, both situated on the Coosa River. When we were kids, driving down Alabama Highway to grandmother and papa’s house, the towering, billowing smokestack of the paper mill (what we called “papa’s smokestack”) was a significant landmark for us: as soon as we could see it, we knew we were almost there. I went to middle school just a few miles from there. Every now and then, an outdoor middle school gym class would be showered with ash from the plants. It was just normal. In 2014, the damage that Plant Hammond causes the water and living organisms in the Coosa River made the “Dirty Dozen” list, a list that highlights the worst offenses to Georgia’s waters. The list is compiled annually by the Georgia Water Coalition, a group of people dedicated to protecting Georgia’s water resources and aquatic habitats.

Over the past few years, I’ve looked back on my childhood and seen things about my hometown I couldn’t see before: devastation and serious injustice around race, class, and environment. Also in the past few years, I’ve fellowshipped and worked with some good people from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who live (and organize) in a community right next door to an Exxon Mobile oil refinery and petrochemical plant complex and who have several community and family members with debilitating health concerns directly connected to the toxic air pollution that the complex pumps into the neighborhood. NPR coverage of this reality reported that the “EPA’s environmental justice office tries to address an unfair truth: People who live near big polluting plants tend to have low incomes.” (See more here: http://www.npr.org/2013/05/30/187044721/baton-rouge-s-corroded-overpolluting-neighbor-exxon).

And this is true: it is commonplace for toxic industries to take up residence in poor white, black, and Hispanic communities. Relatively speaking, there are few people who truly benefit (financially, that is) from these industries and none of them… and I mean none of them… live where the plants and refineries are (re: where the plants and refineries poison everything). It comes down to this: marginalized people, poor people and people of color, carry the burden – the weight of ecological demise – in their pocket books, their homes, and their bodies while the powerful few who control the fossil fuel industry live as if disconnected from the planet, people, and creatures they actively destroy.

I’m sick of it.

The NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative talks about it this way:

“When folks think about climate change, the first things some people think of are melting ice caps and suffering polar bears. However, many fail to make the connection in terms of the direct impact on our own lives, families, and communities.

Climate Change is about Katrina, Rita, and Ike devastating communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, Climate Change is about our sisters and brothers in the Bahamas who will be losing their homes to rising sea levels in the coming few years. Climate Change is about people in Detroit, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere who have died and are dying of exposure to toxins from coal fired power plants.

Climate Change is about sisters and brothers in West Virginia who are breathing toxic ash from blasting for mountain top removal. Climate Change is about our folks in Thibodeaux, Louisiana who are being forced to move within the next 10 years because rising sea levels will result in the submersion of the coastal land that is their home currently.

It’s about the fact that race–over class–is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country.”

And so, at least one way that we can define environmental justice is to say: all people and communities have the right to equal environmental protection under the law, and the right to live, work and play in communities that are safe, healthy and free of life-threatening conditions. And by all people – I mean all – yes, poor white people, poor people of color. All.
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One Response to Environmental Injustice

On Thursday, October 30, Scarritt Bennett Center, Sierra Club, Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light, Nashville District Creation Care Ministries of the United Methodist Church, and Interfaith Earth Care Network joined forces with 61st Avenue United Methodist Church to show concern about climate disruption and support for strong climate protection policies, clean renewable energy, and social justice. Our climate vigil was held intentionally in the Nations neighborhood, near the August 13th tanker explosion site at Centennial Boulevard and 61st Avenue North (more here: http://www.wsav.com/story/26271376/tanker-truck-explosion and here:http://www.kpho.com/story/26271474/tanker-truck-catches-fire-in-west-nashville). At the vigil, we gathered to bear witness to the realities of poverty, injustice, and climate change through song and ritual and offered opportunities for further engagement and advocacy.

If you don’t know about 61st Ave UMC, you should. They are such a lively and welcoming group. It’s obvious that they love each other and their pastor, Rev. Paul Slentz, wonderfully. The self-proclaimed vision and description of the congregation goes as follows:

“Our vision:  We seek to follow Christ in the ‘Nations’ neighborhood – sharing God’s love and sowing seeds of hope. Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church is an over hundred year old church located in a low-income neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee known as ‘The Nations.’  We feel called by God to be especially in ministry with struggling folk, the ones that Jesus called ‘the least of these.’ We are a small but growing church of one hundred and ten members, most of whom are themselves low-income, including several homeless members. Sixty-First Avenue UMC has two pastors. The senior pastor is Rev. Paul Slentz, an ordained elder, who has been in ministry at Sixty-First Avenue since 1997. Rev. Myriam Cortes, joined us in 2012 and she heads up the ministries with our Hispanic neighbors.”

A few weeks before the vigil, Anita (BHB House Fellow) and I joined the congregation for their weekly fellowship and bible study. Rev. Paul invited us to guide the group in a conversation about environmentalism and earth care. Being new to the community, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We had a few prompts ready and a flip chart to take notes. But what we found surprised even our most elaborate expectations: in the midst of crying babies and background conversations, this congregation led us in one of the most profound conversations about the many dimensions of environmental justice that I’ve ever heard.

The conversation was robust, passionate, and deep. I scribbled frantically to get as many words recorded as possible. Anita and I left pondering the weight of all we had heard. As we sat with the poetry offered by the congregation, a liturgy emerged. Made up of readings, songs, prayers, and poetry, most of the words of the vigil came directly from the congregation – a composition made up of direct quotations and remixed phrases.

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A few pieces from the liturgy give some depth to what environmental injustice looks like in one neighborhood here in Nashville:

“On August 13th, a tanker truck hauling 8,500 gallons of fuel exploded, sending fuel vapors into the city’s storm water system and into nearby Richland Creek. The Nations neighborhood is home to several petroleum (oil and gas) companies, whose pipeline systems consist of more than 5,500 miles of underground pipe and above ground storage tanks and pump stations. The fossil fuel industry, including petroleum, coal and natural gas, continues to be one of the main producers of climate change and environmental destruction. Fossil fuel companies often find homes in poor neighborhoods.”

“This event highlights a bigger picture: environmental devastation and the fossil fuel industry disproportionately impact the lives of poor people – creating toxic and unsafe living conditions. We know that the presence of such devastating industries would never be tolerated in wealthy neighborhoods. We are fed up with this reality. We are fed up with grey gunk from factories that end up in our rivers. We are fed up with development that hurts us. Back in the day, some of us remember when development brought asbestos and lead paint into our homes. With all the development going up recently, what kinds of things are we being exposed to now? We shudder to think of it.”

“It sounded like we were in a military zone. Anyone with a heart condition could’ve had a heart attack! It doesn’t feel safe. Our neighborhood is supposed to feel safe.”

“No more tankers. No more pollution in our streets and our rivers. We need something better. There’s no telling what our children pick up off the ground. There’s no telling how terribly the military messes up the ground and tears up the Earth. There’s no telling what kinds of pesticides are used on the crops that end up in our grocery stores that end up on our plates. There’s no telling what kinds of sickness, what kinds of war, what kinds of pollution threaten our bodies. Some of us remember a time when the air was so clean we kept windows open to get a good breeze. We remember when the stars were so close you could reach out and touch them. In the city, you have to use a chainsaw to cut through fog and smog just to see the sky. We’d like to see mountains that aren’t chopped off, not all pavement and concrete like they do.”

“We’d like our kids to play outside without the constant threat of violence and pollution. We want clean water, clean air, healthy food, safe streets. We have a right to a beautiful and safe world, just as much as anyone else. We demand it.”

My dream for the world is that we imagine and create better solutions for safe, healthier, and secure communities so that all people might participate more fully in an ecosystem that is so much more beautiful and wondrous than the toxics we pump into it. And may we, finally, realize that all people deserve such a world. Racism, classism, and environmental degradation are interrelated realities and they are all toxic. Let’s be rid of them.

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To find out more about environmental justice offerings at Scarritt Bennett, contact Marie at emcampbell@scarrittbennett.org. Also see: http://www.ejnet.org/ej/.

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Marie Campbell is currently Assistant Director of Education, Programs, & Connections at Scarritt-Bennett Center.  In her current position, Marie coordinates the Belle H. Bennett House, a 10-month fellowship program for young women discerning vocation at the intersection of radical social justice and spirituality. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a B.A. in Sociology from Belmont University. Marie is passionate about environmental justice, liberatory education, and bold, intersectional feminism.