What is environmental justice? One way we could understand it, is as the place where the health, wellbeing, and prosperity of individuals and communities intersects with the environment. But what do we mean by the environment? Environmental justice has expanded the understanding of environment from something located in the wilds or in protected enclaves, to something which exists everywhere—most notably where we humans “live, work, play, learn and pray” (Environmental Justice). Environmental justice is fundamentally concerned with ensuring that everyone has a fair chance of living the healthiest life possible. Additionally, it has broadened the scope of the environmental movement from that of conservation, preservation, and sustainability of flora, fauna and natural resources to take into consideration the impacts environmental degradation has on humanity. What follows will be a brief overview of the environmental justice movement as it relates to a key theme within the movement, environmental racism.
While it is a lamentable yet undeniable reality of our age that pollution exists almost everywhere, the difficult fact is that certain communities are subject to a disproportionate amount of this pollution. Some communities more than others are burdened by facilities that spew contaminates into the air, seep them into the soil, and dump them into the water. Alarmingly, more often than not these are low-income communities of color. Industrial polluters such as landfills, trash incinerators, coal plants, and toxic waste dumps deeply impact the physical and psychological well-being of residents thus propelling communities into a death spiral of compromised health and deteriorating community strength. Additionally, as the presence of industry increases, property values decrease as these areas become undesirable. The decline in property values makes locating industry in these areas even more attractive. The remaining residents, usually the poor and people of color, have no other housing alternatives and little political clout and thus little means of fighting the siting of these facilities in their neighborhoods. Within the environmental justice framework, these inequities are referred to as environmental racism.
However, as Dr. Robert Bullard, the foundational mover and shaker within the environmental justice movement points out “…race and class are intertwined” (1999) so how then do we know that it is class and not race which is the stronger determining factor in facility siting? For perhaps as authors Pastor, Sadd, and Morello-Frosh point out in their article entitled Environmental Inequality in Metropolitan Los Angeles,
…the underlying factor in hazard siting is land value, and this correlate[s] with income and therefor minority presence, the disproportionate exposure of communities of color and the poor to hazards may not be the result of discriminatory action but could simply reflect market dynamics. (2005)
This ‘market dynamics’ theory very well may be the case in some circumstances. However, a great deal of research seems to illustrate that this is perhaps the exception. A 1983 study, Siting Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities, was one of the first studies to focus on the distribution of environmental risks. This study focused on the EPA’s region IV which is made up of eight states. At the time, region IV contained four offsite hazardous waste landfills and African Americans made up the majority of the population in three of the four communities where those landfills were located. Yet only 26 percent of the population in all four communities was below the poverty level (General Accounting). This study and many subsequent studies like it confirmed what environmental justice advocates believed, that racial minorities are burdened with a disproportionate amount of environmental risks (Chapter 2: What is Environmental Justice?, 2001). In fact, an Associated Press study in September of 2005 showed that African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of causing risks to health (Environmental Racism’s Indisputable Facts, 2007).
We can see then that in this question of which factor trumps the other—ethnicity or income—in the siting of waste facilities, it seems that ethnicity does indeed dominate. Income of course does play a key role in the siting of facilities, and these two factors are, as previously mentioned, intimately connected. Yet there’s a deeper unexamined assumption that emerges from this debate. That being, that if these facilities were sited based purely upon income, would that somehow be more acceptable than siting them based on race? Is that really in any way less discriminatory than basing it on race? Are the poor any more deserving of having these harmful facilities placed in their communities? We seem to be a little more able to justify such actions when there’s economics involved, yet when we step back to look at the big picture, the line between environmental racism and environmental classism is indeed thin, and both are intolerably unjust. As Dr. Bullard commented in an interview with Earth First! Journal,
…the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don't just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say "no" and that's environmental injustice. (Schweizer, 1999)
This highlights a revelation championed by the environmental justice movement, that being that the issues of race, class, and environmental degradation are inextricably linked. Thus we begin to see just how important the environmental justice movement is, perhaps most notably to its sister, the environmental movement. Relations between these two movements have been strained, yet as Dr. Bullard writes,
Environmental justice is… about justice. Until we get justice in environmental protection, justice in terms of enforcement of regulations, we will not even begin to be able to talk about achieving sustainable development or sustainability issues… (Schweizer, 1999)
Indeed it seems that in order to get everyday blue-collar people on board with the environmental movement there must be some attempt to speak to their concerns—namely, the concerns of everyday survival, food, jobs, housing, and schools for their children. The success of the environmental or green movement does indeed rest upon the support of the masses, yet it is a movement that is marked largely by racial and socioeconomic homogeny. This has had the effect of engendered mistrust among economically and politically oppressed groups toward environmentalists. Too often environmental reforms mean resources are being used which could have been directed toward addressing the very real problems of the poor and disenfranchised. And to add insult to injury, more often than not those reforms benefit the affluent and not the poor. Thus what is needed is a much more diverse and inclusive range of representatives within the environmental movement to be able to address these very real issues and concerns—this is a bridge of immense importance that the environmental justice movement has been able to build.
Accounting Office. (1983). Siting Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. Washington D.C.: United States General Accounting Office.
Chapter 2: What Is Environmental Justice?. (2001, January 1). Not in My Backyard: Executive Order 12,898 and Title VI as Tools for
Achieving Environmental Justice. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/envjust/ch2.htm
Environmental Justice. (n.d.). National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/explore/ehs/justice.htm
Environmental racism's indisputable facts. (2007, October 1). Environmental racism's indisputable facts. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://www.ucc.org/ucnews/octnov07/environmental-racisms.html
King Jr., M. L. (1963, May 16). Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]. Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Pastor, M., Sadd, J. L., & Morello-Frosch, R. (2005). Environmental Inequality in Metropolitan Los Angeles. The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution. San Francisco: Sierra Clib Books.
Schweizer, E. (1999, July). Environmental Justice: An Interview with Robert Bullard. Environmental Justice: An Interview with Robert Bullard. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://www.ejnet.org/ej/bullard.html
The Keystone XL pipeline is shaping up to be one of the most contentious projects of our time. The pipeline, which if built, would bisect the United States spanning 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, has sparked tremendous resistance amongst environmental activists across the nation. Only just recently, 398 student activists from more than 80 campuses were arrested for protesting the proposed pipeline in front of the White House (Goodman, 2014). Journalist turned climate change activist and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, has campaigned extensively throughout the country to raise awareness on the issue and exert pressure on the Obama administration to reject the pipeline proposal.
These however, are the voices that we are most accustomed to hearing from on such issues. It is the voices too often not included or invited to the podium though, that are often those who are living on the frontlines, those who are already feeling and living the impacts of ruthless environmental degradation and toothless environmental policy. They are the marginalized and disenfranchised peoples—the poor and non-white peoples. What follows will be a brief examination of how the Keystone XL pipeline will and already has impacted one such group of people, the First Nation peoples of Alberta, Canada, where the pipeline would begin.
The initial upsurge of resistance to the Keystone project was instigated by First Nation peoples, particularly those surrounding the Alberta tar sands project, which has been deemed the earth’s largest industrial project. These are the people that have already been suffering the impacts of the tar sands project and perhaps have the most to lose should the Keystone pipeline be approved. It’s important here to make the connection between the ongoing Alberta tar sands project and the Keystone pipeline. Though proponents of the pipeline have claimed that whether the pipeline is approved or not it will not stave the ongoing flow of oil from the region, opponents to the project such as the First Nation peoples, are convinced that the pipeline represents a vital proxy in a larger battle to put the brakes on what has already been, not just an ecologically disastrous project but one which threatens the tradition, heritage, spirituality, and cultural identity of numerous indigenous communities.
Activist and indigenous spokesperson Eriel Deranger called it, “culturally devastating, threatening the ability of… indigenous communities to maintain their way of life and traditional, sacred connection to the land and waters… as that land and water is poisoned, posing lethal threats to… health” (Stephenson, 2014).
Extraction of tar sands oil is a particularly intensive process which requires tremendous amounts of heat, water and chemicals to separate the tarry, viscous substance, known as bitumen, from sand, silt, and clay. This is one of the primary concerns of the native tribes in the surrounding area, as the water used in the tar sands extraction process comes from the surrounding rivers and underground aquifers. It can take as much as three barrels of water to extract a single barrel of tar sands oil (Grant, 2009). The vast majority of the water used in the extraction process then becomes so irredeemably polluted that it must be stored in large human-made pools, known as tailing ponds, some of which are so large that they can be viewed from space (Edwards, 2010). These tailing ponds begin to accumulate heavy bitumen, which in turn sinks to the bottom of these ponds, and builds a toxic sludge which is full of harmful substances like cyanide and ammonia (Grant, 2009). These chemicals then have the possibility of working their way into the local water table.
Already, indigenous communities living as far as 150 miles downstream from tailing ponds have witnessed an increased rate of cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism (Edwards, 2010). For example, in the lakeside village of Fort Chipewyan, Erial Deranger’s tribal home, 100 of the town’s 1,200 residents have died from cancer. Studies have suggested the cancer rate is 43% higher than normal and some of the cancers are rare varieties linked to contaminants (Edwards, 2010). It is for this reason that Deranger no longer lives in her tribal homeland. Poignantly, she explains why she has so vehemently fought the tar sands and Keystone projects, she says:
The driver for me is that this is my homeland, these are my people…my family. I know people with cancer. I know people who are dying. A few years ago, when I started working with [Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation] leadership, they asked me to move back [to Fort Chipewyan]. And I talked with my family, with my daughter, who was 12 at the time. And she was like, ‘I’m not moving to Chip.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because I don’t want to die.’ (Stephenson, 2014)
This points to an impossible dilemma presented by the tar sands and Keystone projects for many First Nation peoples. As the poisons of industry slowly encroach upon their tribal homelands and contaminate the soil and water and work their way into the food chain, do they stay and risk compromised health for themselves and their kin? Or do they relocate leaving land that is not only deeply rooted in their family and tribal histories but is intimately woven into their spiritual and cultural identity? Unfortunately, for many this may not be a choice at all, merely for lack of the financial means to relocate. A 2013 Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) study revealed that 50% of Canada’s Aboriginal children live in poverty (McKinnen, 2013). And in 2006, the median income for Aboriginal peoples was $18,962—30% lower than the median income of the rest of Canadians (Wison & Macdonald, 2010, p. 3).
It is perhaps for all these reasons that the First Nations peoples have provided the strongest opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. In a recent declaration issued from members from the seven tribes of the Lakota Nation, along with tribal members and tribes in Idaho, Oklahoma, Montana, Nebraska and Oregon, First Nation peoples have vowed to offer “epic resistance” to the construction of the pipeline—what they have now dubbed the “black snake” in reference to a Lakota prophecy (APTN National News, 2014). In Alberta, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) has started fighting back, launching legal challenges to the oil companies and the Canadian government, arguing that approval of tar sands and Keystone XL projects violates the terms of Treaty 8, signed in 1899, guaranteeing their First Nations rights.
It is apparent then that the Keystone XL project is not just an environmental issue; it is also an environmental justice issue. Environmental justice as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is the:
Fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic or socio-economic groups should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local and tribal programs and policies. (Goldtooth, 2013, emphasis added)
Given this understanding of what constitutes environmental justice, can we indeed say that communities like those of Fort Chipewyan are not bearing a “disproportionate share of environmental consequences” as a result of the tar sands and Keystone projects? And as Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network points out in regard to the pipeline,
The lack of comprehensive consultation with Native Nations and lack of meaningful participation with indigenous traditional societies, spiritual leaders and tribal grassroots on the protection of sacred areas and cultural and historical resources as an environmental justice and treaty rights issues is completely unacceptable. (Goldtooth, 2013)
Not only then are First Nation peoples finding themselves already deeply impacted by the tar sands and Keystone projects but also markedly absent from the discussion. Thus, they are making a voice for themselves and have taken a definitive and unyielding stance in opposition of the pipeline should the Obama administration approve it. Unfortunately however, even if the Keystone XL pipeline is rejected, it will only slow the expansion of the Alberta tar sands project. First Nation peoples then are finding themselves on the defensive as the need for ever-increasing amounts of resources pushes industry closer and closer to the edges of their sacred tribal lands, they are finding themselves pitted against a much more pernicious and powerful force than any oil company alone, but the monolithic institution of capitalism itself.
APTN National News (2014, January 31). Keystone 'black snake' pipeline to face 'epic' opposition from native american alliance. Retrieved from http://aptn.ca/news/2014/01/31/keystone-xl-black-snake-pipeline-face-epic-opposition-native-american-alliance/
BK Goldtooth, T. (2013, March 7). Environmental justice and the keystone xl pipeline. Retrieved from http://ecowatch.com/2013/03/07/environmental-justice-keystone-xl/
Edwards, R. (2010, April 13). RBS in battle with the Cree First Nation over dirty oil development project on tribal lands. Retrieved from http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/transport-environment/rbs-in-battle-with-the-cree-first-nation-over-dirty-oil-development-project-on-tribal-lands-1.1021471
Goodman, A. (2014, March 3). Xl dissent: 398 youth arrested at anti-keystone xl pipeline protest at white house. Retrieved from http://www.democracynow.org/2014/3/3/xl_dissent_398_youth_arrested_at
Grant, J. (2009). Clearing the air on oil sands myths. Drayton Valley: The Pembina Institute.
Stephens, W. (2014, February 4). Keystone xl and tar sands: voices from the front lines. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/blog/178224/keystone-xl-and-tar-sands-voices-front-lines#
Wison, D., & Macdonald, D. (2010, April). The income gap between aboriginal peoples and the rest of canada. Retrieved from http://www.anac.on.ca/Documents/Resources/4728_Aboriginal-Income-Gap.pdf
Yerman, M. (2013, August 29). The keystone pipepine is an environmental justice issue. Retrieved from http://www.momscleanairforce.org/keystone-environmental-justice/