Many people understand the environment as a force of nature that can neither benefit nor harm different population groups. But like everything else on earth, the environment is also subject to human influences. Unfortunately, these influences often tend to get their hands on the worst of our society, including racism and classism. Ultimately, this can lead to environmental racism.
Myrriah Gomez, an assistant professor at the Honors College, studies environmental racism and, specifically, its impact in New Mexico. As an introduction to the topic, he notes that Dr. Benjamin Chavis originally coined the term "environmental racism", but a complete definition comes from Robert Bullard in his book "Dumping in Dixie".
Bullard defines environmental racism as “any policy, practice or policy that differently affects or harms (intentionally or unintentionally) individuals, groups or communities because of their race.
Environmental racism refers to how minority-owned neighborhoods, populated primarily by people of color and low socioeconomic status, are fraught with a disproportionate amount of dangers, includinggiftLandfills and other sources of pollution and bad odors that affect quality of life. This can lead to various diseases and cancer. As the fight against climate change intensifies,minority communitieswill be disproportionately affected.
These differences are entirely due to power dynamics. In a study by Nicholas Carnes in his book The Cash Ceiling, he detailed how millionaires make up just 3% of the public in 2018, yet still control all three branches of the federal government. While over fifty percent of US citizens have blue collar jobs, less than two percent of congressmen held blue collar jobs prior to their congressional careers. Furthermore, no member of the working class has ever become President of the United States or Justice of the Supreme Court. Most were millionaires before being elected or appointed to that office.
This inequality is also transmitted racially. In a study by Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility, he showed that in 2016, 90% of Congress is white and 96% of US governors are white. Furthermore, the top 10 richest Americans are also white.
This is often perpetuated in politics, which is a way of perpetuating environmental racism. This situation is simple. Typically, when government officials or other individuals or groups in power are faced with the decision of where to place the latest hazardous waste facility or landfill, they don't want it placed in their backyard and instead choose to place that waste dangerous in landfills and landfills in communities full of people who don't look like them or are under the same tax bracket.
Environmental justice and the people who act against you
The fight for environmental justice began in 1982, when protests erupted in Warren County, a predominantly black community in North Carolina, against a plan to build a landfill in their community. Following these protests, the Environmental Protection Agency investigated three similar dumps in southern states such as South Carolina and Alabama, finding that all were located in black or low-income areas.
Gomez notes that a major impetus for policies focused on environmental justice came from a 1987 report by the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ. The report, titled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Social-"Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites," was the first of its kind and found that most hazardous waste sites tend to to be in minority communities.
This triggered a series of government actions for environmental justice, starting with President George H.W. Bush of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice. President Bill Clinton extended this protection by signing an executive order requiring federal agencies to address environmental justice for minorities and low-income populations in all of their policies.
This effort was not fully established, however, as Congress never passed legislation to make the law executive order. Because of this, President George W. Bush was able to shift the Office of Environmental Justice's focus from low-income and minority communities to all people, leaving vulnerable populations without federal counsel.
While President Barack Obama returned to fight for environmental justice, no strong legislation was passed. Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the EPA's budget and regulations were reversed. Ultimately this results in vulnerable communities being left behind.
Environmental racism in New Mexico
Sadly, New Mexico is no different when it comes to environmental racism. According to Gomez, environmental racism is deeply rooted in New Mexico's history, going back to its founding as a state.
After the Mexican-American War, the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo stating that the newly acquired territories would become states as soon as possible. While states like California were quickly admitted to the Union because they were rich in resources like gold, New Mexico took over 60 years to become a state. One of the main reasons for this delay was the predominantly indigenous and Mexican population in this region.
Gómez explains that, in an effort to obtain statehood, the region's Anglo-Saxons relied heavily on immigration from the eastern United States to shift the social composition from indigenous and Mexican to white. This is difficult when, at the time, political influencers such as William G. Ritch claimed that indigenous and Mexican communities did not know how to farm their land and that New Mexico needed the help of Euro-Americans to truly prosper. Others, like L. Bradford Prince, imposed on Mexicans the identity that they were Spaniards, that is, white, and that the United States should accept them on that basis.
“All this time [19th century] New Mexico was pushing for statehood. Until then, people from the Midwest or East Coast viewed New Mexico as an uninhabited, barren desert,” explains Gomez. "They [Euro-American politicians] paint this picture of New Mexico as a wasteland, and if more Euro-Americans came, they would change that makeup and really use the resources here. There's garbage in New Mexico."
Gomez goes on to say that encouraging Euro-American immigration to New Mexico was for purely capitalist purposes, and the region's resources became a commodity. Although New Mexico has a history of evicting indigenous peoples from their lands, encouraging Euro-American immigration has caused New Mexico natives to lose more land and other resources, emphasizing a white savior complex. The white savior complex refers to a white person who selfishly provides assistance to people of color. This often manifests itself in a white person assuming that a non-white person needs their help to succeed.
The wasteland concept returned to New Mexico politics when the federal government decided where to test the first atomic bomb. Trinity Test in New Mexico and the Manhattan Project were notorious for initiating the use of nuclear weapons; However, they have been detrimental to the communities here. In fact, New Mexico was not at the top of the list for the Manhattan project.
"New Mexico and the Pajarito Plateau weren't the best locations for the Manhattan project," says Gomez. More suitable sites were identified. One of them was Oak City, Utah, but in Oak City, Utah, they should have evicted 40 white Mormon farm families."
New Mexico was eventually chosen on the recommendation of lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer. Meanwhile, Hispanics and indigenous people were forced to move from the Pajarito highlands to Los Alamos.
“The Manhattan Project decided in 1942 that Los Alamos was the best location for Project Y and used a significant area to forcibly evict the Mexican Americans residing there. It was an illegal land grab and many residents were not notified in advance and were evicted,” explains Gómez. “Reports from the time say that they left behind animals that the military police used as target practice. Agricultural and livestock equipment remained. Families lost their livelihoods and many lost their homes. As a result, nearly 60 years later, a class action lawsuit was filed and dismissed on behalf of the settlers and their families.
Although the Trinity test was conducted in an area with relatively few surrounding communities, communities downstream from the site did have environmental impacts. Gómez explains that communities downstream from the site have suffered serious health problems.
“Whether they know it or not, they now know what the impact is, and the government has never done a large-scale study to fully understand the impact, including the health disparities caused by the Trinity trial,” explains Gomez. “Hispanic communities in the area were ignored prior to Trinity's test site selection and have been living with the fallout ever since. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act never included Trinity's downwinders, who are predominantly Hispanic and Native American. The government has even refused to apologize to these communities."
New Mexico's story of environmental racism is far from over. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERLCA), more commonly known as the Superfund Act, which aims to identify hazardous sites that threaten the environment or raise public concern due to leaks and spills. mismanagement and identify who is responsible. Gómez explains that as soon as the game is identified, the area will be cleared. But this usually takes years, even decades.
"Currently, 21 Superfund sites in New Mexico are on the EPA's national priority list, including three in Albuquerque," said Gomez. "Some of the New Mexico Superfund sites are the result of New Mexico's nuclear heritage, including uranium mining."
The nuclear legacy that Gómez mentions dates back to the Manhattan Project, but has been revived in the last two decades. Gomez notes that the rhetoric around the wasteland concept continues to find its way into current environmental issues in New Mexico, particularly with regard to what is considered the New Mexico Nuclear Corridor.
Much of the startup is associated with Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance initiatives and directly tracks the location of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Eddy County. Backed by the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, WIPP was placed in southeastern New Mexico in 1999 and was designed for nuclear waste storage and was placed there while the region was dry and isolated. While WIPP has used Manhattan Project-like rhetoric to clean up New Mexico's nuclear waste, it has also done much harm to the same communities.
“The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance is mostly white people who have interests in these companies. It's the same people who own hotels in the city, who are on the boards, who are making these proposals to bring these high- and low-level waste disposal facilities to southern New Mexico," explains Gomez. Looking at the composition of Eddy and Lea counties, 64.8 percent of population identify as black In Eddy County, 53.8 percent of population identify as black 41.5 percent of households in Lea and 26.6 percent in Lea speak a language that is not a predominantly Spanish language."
In recent years, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance has promoted the creation and expansion of a nuclear corridor in southeastern New Mexico, building a state-of-the-art nuclear disposal site under Holtec International, a site that will be the only repository of nuclear energy from high level waste. . Although they claim that this site would temporarily maintain high levelsnuclear waste, there is no long-term storage facility that makes Holtec the de facto permanent facility for the entire country.
“Recent examples of environmental racism include proposed new sites, such as Holtec International's recent proposal to build a high-level radioactive waste facility in southern New Mexico,” says Gomez. “Neighboring communities made up of large numbers of Hispanics and Hispanics. These communities were largely excluded from the process. The New Mexico Department of the Environment also granted the DOE temporary permission to dig a new well at WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Facility, without a permit. There was no public hearing. Important information was not provided in Spanish. This is environmental racism."
As New Mexico adds more toxic waste to the environment, many New Mexico Superfund sites have yet to identify actions to remedy the damage already done.
"The Jackpile Paguate uranium mine in Laguna Pueblo, as well as the United Nuclear Corporation mine responsible for the 1979 Church Rock uranium disaster near the community of Red Water Pond Road, are Superfund sites, meaning they have existed since Los Angeles. Sites that were no longer being rehabilitated were closed in the early 1980s."
Gomez points out that environmental racism occurs throughout New Mexico, with new cases popping up frequently in the state.
how can you help
Fighting for environmental justice is a lot harder than you think, especially in New Mexico. Many organizations that contribute to environmental racism often contribute to short-term economic prosperity in the community, forcing people who live there to choose between their long-term health or the financial support of their families.
"If people, and especially people of color, are paid good money to work in these industries, what do we do? Don't you want to bite the hand that feeds you properly?" explains Gomez. "So mom, dad, aunt, uncle and anyone who gets cancer and illnesses related to radiation exposure and we get complacent because we're making a lot of money off of it."
Therefore, Gómez strongly emphasizes the call to action of the 1986 report, which is still valid today, a call that includes the role of universities.
“The 1986 Breeds and Toxic Residues Report made many recommendations, some of which are still valid today. They called on universities to "support racial and ethnic students in pursuing education in technical and professional fields related to environmental protection, such as B. Environmental protection, such as environmental engineering, medicine, law, and related fields." They recommended the creation of scholarships for students to study in these areas”, explains Gómez. “They recommended creating a comprehensive curriculum to study the intersections of race and pollution and their impact.”
But he also points out that many students don't need the university to tell them what's going on in their home communities. Students are resilient and many of them are already committed to combating environmental racism. But funding curricula and projects on these issues allows the community to regain control of the environmental decisions that are made around them without falling into a white savior complex.
Gomez highlights the importance of amplifying voices and creating platforms for minorities to speak out about their experiences of environmental racism. This becomes even more important as the racist origins of large conservation groups like the Sierra Club gain public attention. Gomez also encourages people to avoid "slacktivism", a new trend in which people limit their activism to their social media posts.
"I would like to encourage people, especially students, to learn about and get involved with the grassroots organizations that are leading the environmental justice movement," said Gomez. “At a time when 'slacktivism' has been characterized as a 'like' and 'sharing' culture, we need more people to get involved and make room for BIPOCs (black, indigenous, people of color) to share their experiences . or even donate money to these organizations, which often base their budgets on donations."
Finally, there is pressure on those in positions of power to not only clean up current hazardous waste, but also to prohibit the future placement of hazardous waste near minority communities. This includes requiring that important information be available to all area residents in their native language and giving them a seat at the table when these decisions are made.
Gomez's forthcoming book, Nuclear New Mexico: Identity, Ethnicity, and Resistance in Atomic Third Spaces, further explores the impact of the nuclear industrial complex on New Mexico.
Quote: The Complicated History of Environmental Racism (August 5, 2020) Accessed February 24, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2020-08-complicated-history-environmental-racism.html
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