Environmental Injustice Frequently Means Racial Injustice

March 6, 2017
By Mollie March-Steinman

Controversy has surrounded Pittsburgh being named America’s “most livable city” ever since the town proudly claimed the title. The same city that displaced thousands of Black residents due to gentrification and has not been proactive about providing affordable housing, healthcare, and quality education to underserved populations surely does not deserve to promote its livability.

In the past few years, many of us have broadened our understanding of racism to understand how it poisons institutions in the United States. Racial injustice is essential for the maintenance of our current political, judicial, and economic systems. Our current power structures would not survive without racist voter suppression, gerrymandering, prejudices about white innocence and Black violence, under-resourced schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and an economy that was built on centuries of slave labor.

One addition to the elements of systemic racist violence is environmental injustice. By now, most of us are familiar with the Flint water crisis, with Flint, MI residents now in their third year without clean water. We are also aware of the crude oil pipeline that water protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota have been battling against for nearly a year to defend their sovereignty and safety. Although these two injustices have been more widely publicized than most, we should not forget that environmental injustice is a national and global reality. The burdens of climate change are intentionally distributed amongst communities of Color, particularly those with limited access to resources or without wealth. In many cases, toxic waste is purposely dumped in more vulnerable communities, without community involvement in the decision-making process.

It is crucial for privileged Pittsburgh residents to process this information, especially as the impact of climate change grows more severe. Some of us were recently awakened to the idea that there may be an environmental problem in our city when the Pittsburgh Water and Sewage Authority (PWSA) issued a boiling water advisory to affluent as well as low-income areas. However, white, affluent Pittsburgh residents did not express the same concern and outrage when the Pittsburgh Public School district tested water at each school location a few months ago, and found high levels of lead in 14 water fountains and 141 of the samples. This lack of outrage is an especially privileged reaction because the school with the highest lead levels was Langley K-8 School in Sheraden. One sample from the school tested 11 times higher for lead than the 20 parts per billion (ppb) recommended by the EPA. Students at Langley are predominantly Black children, with 89% of the student body eligible for the free lunch program. The city of Pittsburgh must do more to protect residents in every zip-code from environmental injustice. This requires more than building another LEED-certified skyscraper downtown. It means investing as much as necessary to make sure infrastructure is secure, water is clean, and air quality is safe. It means ensuring the environmental health of our city, even if federal regulations change. And it means never cutting corners when it comes to something as precious as clean water*.

Dr. Molly Mehling, an ecologist, sustainability scientist, photographer and educator, notes, “Regarding the drinking water quality, my concern is that there may end up being a bias in fixing lead lines in affluent communities due to greater awareness, more monitoring data, and more political power in those areas. I am also concerned that the lead in water issue will, and has already, overshadowed the more important exposure pathways for young children: paint and dust.”

A recent article from the Pittsburgh Tribune includes a map with neighborhoods that submitted water samples to the PWSA. While the neighborhoods varied in their affluence, Mehling was right that lower-income neighborhoods didn’t submit as many tests. For example, residents in 15217 (Squirrel Hill/Greenfield), a predominantly wealthy area, submitted 763 tests, and had 11% of those samples return with high lead. On the other hand, residents in 15204 (Sheraden, Elliott, Esplen, Broadhead), which has an average household income of $42,593, submitted only nine tests, 11% of which were over the safety limit. The city cannot accurately assess the infrastructure in each neighborhood if there is an unequal distribution of water samples. One Squirrel Hill resident in the article remarks, “We had the means and resources to hire a private inspector to help us, but we found ourselves really concerned about a large portion of our community that wouldn’t have that resource.”

Environmental injustice in Pittsburgh goes beyond lead in the water supply, the paint in our old homes, or the soil in our yards. It also includes food deserts, a lack of green spaces, and greater exposure to pollutants depending on one’s zip code. Dr. Mehling observes that “cities, such as Baltimore, MD, have taken a close, systematic approach to analyze spatial patterns of socioeconomics and environmental conditions…. Baltimore uses that data to plant trees across the city in a more just manner.” By taking small steps like the one Dr. Mehling suggests, Pittsburgh can commit to becoming a livable city for all.

*For an in-depth focus on water privatization and the situation in Flint, refer to Jacqueline Souza’s article.

Mollie March-Steinman is currently self-designing an Economic Justice major at Chatham University. She is passionate about promoting peace and justice for all. Mollie is an intern with the NewPeople Editorial Collective.


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