Will We Ensure Environmental Justice in the COVID-19 Recovery?

For many who live near refineries, incinerators, and other heavy industry, lockdowns and shelter in place orders like we have all experienced lately are a far too common occurrence.  The New York Times took a closer look at these communities to show why the residents are so vulnerable to the disease.  The data so far show, according to The Times, that people with two conditions tied to air pollution, inflammatory lung disease, and coronary heart disease, face a higher risk for severe cases of the virus.  And nationwide, “low-income communities of color experience significantly higher levels of pollution, studies have found.

Why This Matters:  Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali explained to put the COVID deaths into context, “we know more than 100,000 people die prematurely in the U.S. every year because of air pollution.”  Many low-income areas have not seen the dramatic improvement in air quality during the stay at home orders that we are seeing more generally in large cities.  The pollution rules and enforcement are relaxed under EPA emergency pandemic policies so we don’t even know what is coming out of the smokestacks.  As Heather McTeer Toney of Moms Clean Air Force told ODP last week, large industrial facilities are able to “run roughshod” over the communities that are being hurt the most by the pandemic.

Lockdowns Are Nothing New In Some Communities

Last year in Detroit, a Marathon Petroleum refinery emitted a pungent gas, causing nausea and dizziness among neighbors and prompting health officials to warn people to stay inside.  A “flare failure” at the plant had released hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and other compounds, Marathon told state regulators, but the plant operator “did not detect any emission levels of concern” as a result.  That same county has seen more Covid-19 deaths than most other than in New York state.  In Michigan, The Times reports that “African-Americans have accounted for more than 40 percent of deaths, even though they make up only 15 percent of the population.”  Clean water and affordable electricity are also a huge problem in Detroit, according to  Michelle Martinez, the Statewide Coordinator for Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

Ironically, in Harris County (Houston) they are cranking out masks and gloves and the other protective gear now, but then the used PPE is coming back to the same place for incineration as medical waste. Minority groups have accounted for about two-thirds of early Covid-19 deaths in the city, despite making up only 22 percent of the population.  “Hospitals need the masks, the gloves,” Yvette Arellano, a community organizer in Houston’s polluted neighborhoods told The Times, but ironically, minority communities that are the most hard-hit by COVID “are breathing in the toxins that industry says is necessary for the safety of other people.”

To Go Deeper:  Watch these highlights from the session last week, and listen to the Political Climate podcast with Third Way’s Jared DeWese and Akunna Cook on Fighting Energy Injustice.

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