A Shared Environment: D.C. and Environmental Justice

April 22, 2016

The Washington Navy Yard on the Anacostia River located in Washington D.C.: Naval Historical Center

“The hoopla of Earth Day is over. The problems remain. Only time will tell if these demonstrations accomplished anything.”

46 years ago, “the most trusted man in America,” NBC news anchor Walter Cronkite, spoke soberly to the country at the dawn of a decade of new environmental consciousness and action. This movement continues today, even as the scale of human impacts on the environment itself continues to grow exponentially. NASA has said that global warming is quite literally changing how the earth moves on its axis. Environmental consciousness, like the environment itself, has not been static since that first Earth Day.

The environmental justice movement has developed over the past several decades, critiquing mainstream environmentalism. The movement focuses on the disproportionate impact of environmental harm in low-income communities and communities of color. It grew out of the struggle of individual communities and linked the civil rights movement with the environmental movement.

There is a lot that can go unobserved from the view on the Hilltop. Using environmental justice as a lens to look at D.C. today paints a different picture of the city than what many are used to seeing.

A Brief History of Environmental Justice

There are various ways to understand the term environmental justice: academically, legally, politically, or practically. In all cases, environmental justice deals with both race and class.

A foundational claim, supported by a landmark study, “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” is that hazardous facilities are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, and that race is a better predictor of their location than class.

Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, writes that hypothetically speaking, this means that in the U.S. a low-income, white community is less likely to encounter an environmentally hazardous facility than a middle-class, black community. Studies since have shown that this holds true for other environmental issues as well, such as air pollution. These claims are especially relevant in the D.C. metro area, which is one of the most segregated in the U.S.

Most of the definition of environmental justice accepted among activists today was established in the 17 principles of environmental justice. These were adopted in 1991 by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington.

Since then, the concept has grown within public and political consciousness. President Clinton signed an Executive Order on Environmental Justice in 1994, and an Office of Environmental Justice was created within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) soon after. With the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, the words “environmental racism” have been used in the popular media with increasing frequency, and both Democratic presidential candidates include environmental justice in their plans and platforms.

Talking Past Each Other

It is clear that more people are using the phrase “environmental justice.” However, some scholars and activists doubt that the concept is understood in the same way by everyone who does.

“One thing that I think might make a difference in terms of how people approach the issue is whether the focus is environment or whether justice is the primary motivation,” said Georgetown sociology professor Yuki Kato. One approach is to focus on the environment, and tangible ways to improve it (air, water, soil quality, etc.). Another is to see the environment—inclusive of everywhere people live, learn, work, pray, and play—as just another aspect of social justice.

The second perspective is the one taken by many environmental activists and scholars, such as Michael Heiman, a professor emeritus in Environmental Studies and Geography at Dickinson College, who says we should view cases of environmental injustice and racism as a single portion of a spectrum of injustices resulting from an unjust and racist system. There are plenty of other symptoms—The New York Times, for example, found that only 8.7 percent of the most powerful people in America today are minorities.

Now that the term environmental justice is being used more and more outside of the traditional movement, there is sometimes confusion between the two perspectives that Kato defined. Using Flint as an example, Kato explained that while water quality was the tangible environmental issue, it was not what residents are most upset about.

“It’s really what water represents,” said Kato. “[It’s] about the neglect, about the disrespect for people, about the way the whole city functions. And so in a way you can give them clean water, but that’s not the problem.”

Today, Flint is the example on everyone’s mind of both environmental racism and the tangible health impacts of lead poisoning. According to Laura Anderko, a professor in the School of Nursing and Health Studies who specializes in environmental health, problems in infrastructure lead to these crises nationwide, including in D.C. from 2000 to 2004 and in schools in Newark, New Jersey today.

Anderko also emphasizes the systematic problems that give rise to the Flints of today. She sees them as products of systemic social injustice in combination with practical problems of national infrastructure. “Racism is part of our societal fabric …” said Anderko. “Some communities are seen as more disposable.”

Translating this understanding to D.C., a city with the fourth highest income inequality in the nation, rampant inequality in housing and education, and severe black-white segregation, environmental injustices fit into a range of social justice concerns.

The Major Influences on Environmental Justice in D.C.

The big categories of environmental justice concerns are the patterns of waste management and hazardous sites in the District as well as the health of the Anacostia River, among other concerns. These “other” concerns overlap with aspects of D.C. such as housing inequality or broader infrastructure which aren’t traditionally considered environmental. The key agents who exercise influence are federal, state, and city government; mainstream environmental groups, environmental justice activists, and impacted communities. They define the way the landscape of environmental justice in D.C. can change, for better or for worse.

In D.C., government agents include the EPA Region 3, the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE), and the Mayor’s office.

The EPA’s Region 3 encompasses the D.C. area, and runs the region’s EPA environmental justice initiatives. An EPA Region 3 project report presented in May 2010 identified a range of community concerns including lead exposure, children’s health, hazardous facilities, subsistence fishing, green jobs, and green economy. Since then, three workgroups were set up, focusing on these concerns and developing projects in specific parts of D.C. For example, the Children’s Environmental Health Workgroup is working on addressing environmental health and safety in Ward 8 through a healthy homes, schools, and child care program. Beyond this, federal legislation makes the EPA responsible for the cleanup of various types of contaminated sites, such as brownfield sites and Superfund sites (like the Navy Yard in D.C.). These can impact the health of surrounding communities.

An interactive map showing EPA clean-up sites is available here.

In D.C., much of the EPA’s action is done in collaboration with local government, including the DOEE. The DOEE and the Mayor’s office helps to define local legislation that can decide issues with environmental justice implications, like what waste disposal facilities can go where.

Environmental justice activism in D.C. stretches from mainstream groups to grassroots organizations to local activists and communities. Mainstream environmental groups, particularly well-established and politically influential groups, often fit into the landscape tangentially.

The Sierra Club, for example, despite being among the attendees to the 1991 Summit, spans the breadth of the mainstream environmental movement in both its work and its history. In the last couple years, the Sierra Club D.C. Chapter has been taking steps to incorporate environmental justice structurally, and the Chapter has been involved in several local and city-wide fights within environmental justice.

Other environmental groups are more focused on environmental justice specifically. The Energy Justice Network’s actions in D.C. include focuses on waste management and hazardous siting. Anacostia River Keepers works to stop the impacts of toxins and polluted runoff on the health of the Anacostia River and the surrounding neighborhoods. Many local groups intersect on the same environmental justice issues, such as the well-being of the Anacostia River and surrounding neighborhoods, although each has a varying degree of focus on the environment versus social justice.

Residents of affected communities are the ones who best understand the problems at hand, and they have been the drivers of the environmental justice movement. In D.C., as in the nation, community members such as Michelle Bundy have become activists for their community. Bundy has spoken on behalf of her community in protest of a trash transfer station on Benning Road. Representatives of Advisory Neighborhood Committees (ANCs), the most fundamental unit of local government, can also serve as community leaders. ANC representative Rhonda Hamilton from Ward 6, for example, is currently fighting for environmental justice for her community, which is threatened by plans to build a new D.C. United soccer stadium on a contaminated site at Buzzards Point.

These different agents tend to intersect. According to Hamilton, the Sierra Club has been present and involved in the same fights as her communities, as has the Energy Justice Network. The fact that these fights are often about how the city or the federal government goes about making decisions and informing impacted communities means government is implicitly involved. D.C.’s siting of hazardous waste and energy facilities exemplifies these intersections.

A Community Perspective on Environmental Justice

Hamilton underscored the impact of environmental hazards on children’s health and well-being at an event hosted by Capitol Innovations on Environmental Racism (see the podcast here).

“It is environmental racism. It’s purposely done. And people who are in these communities, they’re breathing the air every day. And the air doesn’t stop.”

Hamilton’s work with the ANC is organizing the community and bringing the problems her community is facing to city government. “So we reach out to the council, and we reach out to the mayor to ask them to do more for the community. But it’s still not enough that’s being done. There’s still a lot of families and a lot of individuals that are suffering behind these environmental hazards,” said Hamilton.

Community involvement defines the fight. “When you think about the environment it’s like, ‘whose fight is this’ a lot of times, and it has to be our fight, it has to be united communities,” said Hamilton. People’s concern for their children’s well-being directly applies to environmental concerns. Families work hard to prevent their children from going to school hungry so that they can perform well.

“They can’t do well in school if they’re hungry—I think the same can also be said for the environment …” said Hamilton. “And if you go outside and the air that you breathe is contaminated, that’s an unhealthy environment. So how does a child live in an unhealthy environment and be able to go to school and perform as they’re expected to perform?”

Where Is “Away”? D.C.’s Environmental Racism in Waste and Energy

Various city-wide influences converge to define what it means to throw something “away” in D.C. The Sustainable DC plan, originally put forward by D.C. Mayor Gray, began in 2012, setting goals to make D.C. the “healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States” by 2032. This includes a goal for zero waste by 2032. A big concern for activists like Ewall is that this plan defined “zero waste” as “zero waste to landfills.”

The problem is that this means incinerators could contribute to the sustainability goal, despite the impact they have on the environment and local communities through the pollution and toxins they release. Both the Energy Justice Network and the Sierra Club have been pushing to change this classification and fight specific contracts that place incinerators in environmental justice communities. On July 14, 2014, D.C. passed a new piece of legislation that prioritized waste disposal in a new way classifying incinerators on the same level as landfills.

D.C.’s hazardous facilities are not isolated within the District. They impact surrounding communities as well. The environmental injustice these communities face make up some of the big battles fought by groups like the Energy Justice Network.

An example of D.C.’s impacts beyond district lines is Prince George’s County, Md., which Ewall jokingly calls “Ward 9,” because of the number of Washingtonians being pushed there by gentrification. According to Ewall, these patterns of gentrification in D.C. match up with the movement of hazardous energy facilities out of D.C. “We have some of the worst gentrification in the country. Three of the five most whitening zip codes in the country are right down the middle of D.C.,” said Ewall.

In 2013, all but one of the three fossil fuel power plants in D.C. were shut down, followed by a proposal to open three new gas-fired power plants in Prince George’s County, in addition to two coal and gas power plants already there. This would, according to Ewall, create one of the worst clusters of fossil fuel plants in the country.

“So, gentrify the areas where the power plants used to be in the Beltway, and then push the black people out of those areas, and then push the power plants out to where they’re going. That just paints such an awful picture but that’s what’s going on,” said Ewall. This means some of the D.C. environmental justice problems the Energy Justice Network is working on are actually outside D.C., helping communities to fight the latest of these power plant proposals.

“That’s the heart of environmental justice: communities of color in particular but also low income communities, where they’re not the same, are disproportionately impacted by these toxic industries,” said Ewall. “That’s where the movement grew out of.”

Combatting an Unjust History

Efforts to clean up the Anacostia River and protect surrounding neighborhoods are fairly numerous across D.C., and the EPA focuses some of its Region 3 efforts in Wards 7 and 8. At first glance, though, it’s easy to ask why the Anacostia River is such a focus of rehabilitation efforts when many of the environmental concerns it faces—stormwater runoff, sewage overflow, and pollution—are shared with the Potomac River.

According to Uwe Brandes, the founding Executive Director of the Masters Program in Urban and Regional Planning at Georgetown University, the historical pattern of injustice around the Anacostia River has had accumulating impacts that continue today. Any comparison of the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers, which both have significant environmental problems, has to take this into account.

According to Brandes, in the late 1960s, a special governance structure was created to clean the Potomac River, which yielded great progress. “In the context of the city, that was great,” said Brandes. But no equal or sustained effort was made to clean the Anacostia. The consequence is that today, working to clean up the Anacostia means combatting an accumulation of inequalities in infrastructure.

Initiatives to revitalize the Anacostia River fall into a spectrum of efforts aimed at reinvigorating the communities east of the river, which despite a rich cultural history are currently underserved. According to Brandes, today there is actually more public investment on the east side of D.C. than on the west side, which is changing the situation in Anacostia.

“I see environment as inclusive of the built environment. So this isn’t just about trees. It’s about trees and buildings and communities and land use, and how uses like transitional housing are planned and located across the city,” said Brandes.

This definition brings a lot of city projects, everything from the sewage system to homeless shelters, into the environmental justice perspective. Moreover, there are concrete ways in which environmental justice features in urban planning processes. The EPA, for example, uses its environmental justice framework to screen projects like these to ensure that there are no disproportionate costs for low income or minority communities.

“There is a legal aspect to this which is incredibly important,” said Brandes.

Responsibility and Justice

There are two main concerns regarding individual action on environmental justice issues. The first is the danger of obscuring the responsibility of systemwide agents by focusing on individual actions as solutions to environmental and social problems. The second is the danger of only treating the symptoms of a system whose normal, everyday function is driving the injustice and degradation.

According to Ewall, corporate-funded ad campaigns with themes that emphasize individual environmentalist actions like recycling and personal consumption are used to create a sense of individual responsibility that distracts from corporate responsibility.

Ewall says that these shift the blame, “making us think that we as individuals are not only the ones responsible for the social problems but are also the solution of social problems … so that you blame yourself and say, ‘I’m the cause of litter. I just need to pick up after myself, not blame McDonald’s for the packaging.’”

Ewall references the 17 environmental justice principles to underscore his point—only the very last one talks about individual action. Rather, that definition of environmental justice focuses on protecting communities from the actions of larger social entities and empowering communities classed by corporations as the path of least resistance, not on changing individual lifestyles in order to compensate for the functioning of society.

What Can Be Done

If emphasis on individual responsibility obscures the real problem, what can individuals do? Different people who have engaged with environmental justice both in and beyond D.C. have concrete expressions of these concerns when asked ‘what can we—as students, as a university, as Georgetown residents, as D.C. residents—do?’

Audrey Stewart, director of Georgetown’s Office of Sustainability, says that Georgetown takes steps to do so through a holistic approach of sustainability initiatives and other forms of engagement. “We are actively working to help provide a healthier and more sustainable environment for all members of our local and global communities,” wrote Stewart in an email to the Voice, referring to Georgetown’s moves toward reducing stormwater runoff as an example. According to Stewart, this is also exemplified in the University’s in other ways, through the research, teaching, and engagement of faculty and students.

“I think a lot of environmental groups at Georgetown are becoming increasingly aware that [environmental justice] issues are an inherent part of our mission, even if we don’t realize it …” wrote Caroline James (COL ‘16), former GUSA Secretary for Sustainability Georgetown and a member of GU Fossil Free, in an email to the Voice. “Race, gender, and socioeconomic issues inevitably have something to do with the environmental issue at hand.”

Kato believes that the University as an institution can be the place for important conversations to happen about what environmental justice, such as how to prevent cases in which external activists speak for communities rather than letting them speak, or about the dangers of co-opting environmental justice language in mainstream sectors.

“I think that is really where you can harness those conversations, but still letting activism lead the way into conversation. Because then that really brings out ‘what the issue is’ as it’s understood on the ground,” said Kato.

Tyler Tynes, a journalist with the Huffington Post who spoke at a Georgetown event titled “Environmental Racism in the United States and Occupied Palestinian Territories” about the crisis in Flint, which he covered with fellow journalist Julia Craven, answered decisively. “You’ve got to care. You’ve just got to care.”

Craven emphasized that caring is more than a reflex response, and noted the privileged position that wealthy, predominantly white communities like Georgetown have. “It’s not just sending water bottles or posting a Facebook status, like trying to raise awareness. That’s important, awareness is important. But it’s actually combatting the privilege that you have.”

Hamilton believes that different communities in D.C., from her Ward 6 neighborhood to Georgetown, ultimately share our environments and therefore share the fights that her community faces. “Some communities feel like they may not have these hazards that we have in our communities, but because of our environment we are all connected. We all breathe the same air.”

Even before our first Earth Day—almost exactly seven years before, on April 16, 1963—Martin Luther King Jr. encapsulated the concerns of the environmental justice in a single line. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Lingering social inequalities in the District take on greater clarity through the lens of environmental justice. Much progress has been made since King wrote those words, yet much work remains to ensure the well-being of the ground not far from the podium where he once dreamt of a more just Earth.

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