This is a Moms Clean Air Force exclusive interview with Dr. Robert D. Bullard. Dr. Bullard is known as the “father of environmental justice.” He has been a leading campaigner against environmental racism:
We have spoken previously about frontline and “fence-line” communities surrounded by a variety of fossil fuel plants in Port Arthur, Texas. Children there already suffer a disproportionate health issues from air pollution – resulting in elevated levels of asthma. How has Hurricane Harvey specifically impacted families of color and low income families in the shadow of these facilities?
Hurricane Harvey exacerbated pre-storm inequality and increased health threats to Port Arthur’s vulnerable communities. Port Arthur was considered an environmental “sacrifice zone” before Harvey — and home to world’s largest oil refinery complexes, including the 3,600-acre Motiva plant, Shell Oil, Saudi Aramco, and the 4,000-acre Texas-based Valero. The Keystone XL pipeline was planned to end in this 64 percent people of color city. The most vulnerable population impacted by the ‘triple whammy’ of flooding, pollution from chemical plants and refineries, and mental stress of hurricane evacuation are children.
Could you comment about many industrial sites in and around Houston refusing to give clear facts about how dangerous the materials in their refineries are, even during this crisis? ExxonMobile has released information that two of their refineries were damaged, and harmful pollutants were released into the air. Why did regulations for being transparent with the public get rolled back? Why weren’t adequate precautions already in place for these companies?
Harvey shone the spotlight on the power imbalance between polluting industries and fence-line communities. Environmental justice leaders for decades have fought to get stronger regulations that protect fence-line communities from refinery pollution assaults. They have fought for greater transparency from industry and government regulators, at the state and federal level, who have resisted these calls and have responded by rolling back environmental enforcement and protection. This is a recipe for disaster. It means more illnesses, emergency room visits, and deaths. The call for eliminating regulations will aid and abet the ‘crime’ of increasing unnecessary health threats in vulnerable environmental justice communities. This is not only immoral and unethical; we believe it is illegal — or should be.
Harvey is a textbook example why the country needs a strong and independent EPA. Harvey raised questions about the adequacy of industry preparations for monster storms. The petrochemical failed the safety test. More than 1.3 million pounds of extra air pollution were released in the week after Harvey struck. There were explosions and fires burning at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby. Houston experienced flaring, leaks, and chemical discharges from oil refineries, chemical plants and shale drilling sites.
While the extent of the risk posed by Texas’ petrochemical industry in the wake of Harvey is unknown, we know that risks are not spread evenly across the Houston landscape.
Houston is segregated and so is industrial pollution. Pre-and post-Harvey pollution threats map closely with race and class. Houston’s communities of color face a ‘double jeopardy.’ Communities with higher percentages of people color and higher poverty levels face higher risks from chemical accidents and everyday toxic exposure. Poverty and race increase the likelihood of children living fence-line with risky chemical plants. Poor black and brown children are more than twice as likely to live in fence-line communities as poor white children. Houston has 133 schools that are within a one-mile radius of high-risk chemical plants — placing 101,720 students at risk.
A majority (9 of 16) of the Texas Superfund sites flooded by Hurricane Harvey are in low-income neighborhoods or communities of color. In order to be just, Harvey recovery plans will need to address these legacy environmental disparities.
The Department of Environmental Justice was eliminated from the EPA when Trump took office. What recourse do people on the ground have to protect their children from the results of extreme weather events and the ensuing new air pollution dangers?
It is important to understand that the environmental justice movement — as all social movements in the United States — was not created by the EPA or government. The impetus for the environmental justice movement was grass-roots, community-driven resistance to environmental injustice — policies and practices by polluting industries and actions buttressed by local, state and federal government. Closing the EPA Environmental Justice Office will not close down the EJ Movement.
The pushback by the Trump administration on equal protection is a crystal-clear message to environmental justice leaders and their allies that our communities, our lives, and our children don’t matter to those currently in power. We say ‘No’ to this madness. We are educating, organizing and mobilizing our students and faculty mentors at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and community based organizations (CBOs) across the climate-vulnerable Gulf Coast and South in a HBCU/CBO Climate Change Consortium to fight for programs and plans to build healthy, sustainable and resilient communities.
Our consortium emphasizes children and families. When we strive to protect the most vulnerable in our society, our children, we protect us all.