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Mapping Environmental Racism

After I left my work as Chief of Staff to a Congressman on Capitol Hill, I spent the better part of the 1990’s in the world of environmental technology and related policy issues. I worked for an environmental services company that pretty much had it hands in all aspects of environmental infrastructure – waste management, energy production, water treatment, engineering. I took a job in their Washington policy office, eventually running the program and directing our interactions with the Congress, The White House, and relevant federal agencies like the EPA.

In the early months of my new job, I was asked to follow the development of an emerging issue in the environmental world that had a particular human dimension, known at the time as Environmental Racism, a term that was later recast as Environmental Justice.

The premise of the movement was that polluting industrial facilities were disproportionally located in communities of color. I studied the writings of the leader of the movement, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Executive Director of the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, and concluded that his basic premise was likely correct but he had framed the problem narrowly focused only on hazardous waste landfills. I felt there may be additional contributors, so I led our team in an effort to include all pollution of air, water, and land. We mapped a more comprehensive understanding of where the highest concentrations existed, and what contributed to the pollution.

We felt we should offer a solution. So over the course of a few weeks, we crafted a piece of legislation intended to list the most polluted counties in the US, study health impacts, and provide necessary relief. I made an appointment to meet with Reverend Chavis and share this approach. He came to feel that it was a solid idea, but mentioned he had not experience in introducing legislation. I offered to help.

That led to the introduction of “The Environmental Justice Act of 1992”, sponsored in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Lewis and in the Senate by then-Senator Al Gore. The attempts to turn the bill into law has been a winding road that continues to this day. But it’s gratifying to see the Biden Administration bring this issue once again to the forefront. For me, this experience was an in-depth look at just one of the many challenges of being black, brown or poor. The inequity still stares us in the face.

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