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You Asked About Environmental Justice And The Effects Of Pollution. We’ve Got Answers.

(FILE PHOTO: Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

Members of the Indiana 2020 Two-Way asked us questions about the community impacts of contamination and pollution. To join, text “elections” to 73224. 

Some of those questions were answered in our post on how to find pollution in your home or neighborhood. 

Indiana Public Broadcasting gathered a panel of experts to have a larger conversation about environmental justice, including: Denise Abdul-Rahman, Indiana NAACP environmental climate justice chair; Olon Dotson, associate professor of architecture at Ball State University; Maritza Lopez, East Chicago Calumet Coalition Community Advisory Group president; and La’Tonya Troutman, LaPorte County NAACP and Just Transition NWI member.

What is environmental justice?

The Environmental Protection Agency defines it as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” 

It’s not clear when environmental justice protests started in the United States. But Denise Abdul-Rahman said when the Ward Transformer Company started dumping toxic PCBs in an African American community in Warren County, North Carolina — that signaled a bigger movement.

“It sparked the NAACP and others who staged a massive protest – and over 500 protesters were arrested – calling out this example of environmental injustice,” she said.

Abdul-Rahman said environmental injustice — including the effects of climate change — has disproportionately affected low-income Americans and people of color.

“There are people that think of environmentalism — they think of saving the whales or hugging the trees,” she said. “And when folks think about climate change, what often comes to mind is melting ice caps and suffering polar bears. But historically, American society has failed to make the connection in terms of the direct impact on environmental injustices including climate change on our lives.”

Olson Dotson said if you look closely at the history, environmental injustice in the United States probably goes back all the way to when Europeans first colonized Native American land. 

“Cultivating the land and destroying it, and introducing invasive species, and forcing slaving, and eradicating and engaging in other atrocities — not only in the Western Hemisphere but throughout the world — with little regard for the existing environment,” he said.

Abdul-Rahman says environmental injustice can take on a much broader definition too — including things like the Jim Crow laws, redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, and over-policed communities.

Why are disadvantaged people more likely to live in polluted areas?

Abdul-Rahman said things like coal-fired power plants that put pollution into the air or incinerators that contaminate the air, water and food are more likely to be sited near low-income communities and communities of color.

Olon Dotson said often those in power choose to site these facilities in areas where people have less of a voice or political clout to oppose them. What’s more, he said, disadvantaged groups are often forced to move to these polluted areas.

“Either through various forms of redlining or other forms of discrimination where they're not allowed to live anywhere else,” Dotson added.

What health risks do people in polluted areas face?

Because there are so many different kinds of pollutants, there are also many different ways they can negatively affect your health. Abdul-Rahman said living near a coal-fired power plant, for example, can affect your lungs, your heart and your life expectancy. 

“A [Black] child that ends up getting asthma by living near these plants is three to four times more likely to be rushed to an emergency than a White child. So these impacts are dire to our communities,” she said. 

This is even more serious during the COVID-19 pandemic. People who live in polluted areas are more likely to have the underlying heart and lung conditions that put them at a greater risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19. 

Dotson said racism in the health care system can also play a role. 

“I have severe asthma,” Dotson said. “And I grew up in the ’60s and as a small child, coming from Mississippi back to Indiana, I almost lost my life when I was not treated. I was refused treatment in the hospital when I had a severe asthma attack. And a doctor saw me, saw that I couldn't breathe, and actually came out to the car because I wasn't permitted in the emergency room and administered aid to me.”

But these communities face other hardships too. Abdul-Rahman said pollution can also drive down property values — which can cause ripple effects. 

“There's lack of investment in the communities, lack of investment in the school systems, and all of that is all connected,” she said.

What is a “just transition” and why is it important to include these communities?

Abdul-Rahman said some people in the labor industry define a “just transition” as considering how coal miners — and coal workers in general — will be impacted by the shuttering of coal plants and movement toward renewable energy sources. Sometimes this means providing those workers with job training opportunities or compensation.

But she said environmental justice advocates like herself say it's important that we also think about what a just transition looks like for the communities that have been hosting pollution from things like coal plants and the destruction from natural gas pipelines. 

“Hey, what about a just transition for the $49 billion that African Americans have paid into the energy sector, but only hold 1.1 percent of the energy jobs, while our unemployment rate for African Americans is double than others and extremely high now during this COVID-19 pandemic?” Abdul-Rahman said. 

She said a just transition should ensure that everyone has the ability to thrive in a new, green economy — especially as our climate continues to change. 

How can we use architecture as a tool for environmental justice?

For one week in the fall, Dotson says the entire College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University shuts down to take students on trips to see architecture up close. But instead of taking students to something like a Frank Lloyd Wright home, Dotson had another plan. 

“I came up with this idea of traveling within a 250 mile radius of Muncie and looking at physical, social, and institutional abandonment. So I call it the Midwest distress tour,” he said.

Dotson said he’s taken students to cities like Gary, Detroit, Flint, East St. Louis and the southside of Chicago. This led to the creation of Ball State’s minor and certificate programs in Social and Environmental Justice — which Dotson said may be the first of its kind for any architecture school in the United States. 

Dotson said it’s sad that environmental justice in architecture is something that the world is just now starting to recognize. He said there is a place for talking about how people and their buildings are impacting bees and the spotted owl.

“But we also need to talk about how we regard each other as human beings and that's something that we seem to be reluctant to talk about — perhaps in our own guilt, our own privileges,” Dotson said. 

But Dotson said these trips are not just about looking at distressed neighborhoods, but also at community members and spaces that are working to make them better. Like Sylvester Brown, Jr. who started a program in north St. Louis called The Sweet Potato Project.

“Where young people who would otherwise be on the streets are out growing sweet potatoes and selling sweet potato product — not only just on the street or in farmers markets, but also the school systems. So there's wonderful stories in the midst of all this abandonment and despair that give us a sense of hope.”

What are some statewide environmental justice solutions?

Abdul-Rahman said there are a number of things the NAACP would like to see in Indiana — including legislation that promotes a just transition, community-owned solar and better financing mechanisms that would provide better access to solar power.

“We'd like our members to be passing clean air ordinances, either locally or — goodness knows — a more stringent clean air ordinance across the state. It’d be great to have an environmental justice commission at the state level,” she said. 

Instead of LEED energy efficiency certification, Dotson said he’d like to see more building owners participating in the Living Building Challenge — which he said is a much more rigorous program. 

Abdul-Rahman added that the NAACP would also like to see building energy-efficiency codes change and a requirement that every new home has to have solar energy.

What was your first clue that something was wrong in East Chicago?

Maritza Lopez didn’t know about the contamination until after she had closed on her family’s home in 2012. She received a postcard from the Environmental Protection Agency about a library meeting. 

Lopez, a former EMT, listened to the presentation from the EPA, which outlined the lead and arsenic contamination. She said she raised concerns about the health impacts on residents at the time.

“All basically they talked about was, ‘oh, well, if you're concerned, make sure you take your shoes off at the door, leave them there and have another pair of shoes or slippers that walk inside the door inside your home.’ That's what EPA’s recommendation was about. Because they said they still had to work with the responsible parties, make the decision with them to get the funding,” Lopez said. 

What do you think the USS Lead site would be like if you and other residents hadn’t stayed involved?

Lopez has been an advocate for her neighborhood since then. She serves as the Community Advisory Group president, or CAG. CAGs are part of the EPA’s Superfund program to give residents the ability to discuss needs and concerns with the EPA. 

Lopez said in East Chicago, they aren’t being treated as stakeholders. The EPA is making decisions with city leadership and the potentially responsible parties. 

“It's bothersome when the residents have no voice in how we're being affected. This is another cancer alley, you know, where majority Brown and Black people here,” she said. “They know that and the fact that they are not taking into consideration our livelihood – it’s bothersome.”

Most recently, the EPA has proposed de-listing some of the properties at the USS Lead Superfund site from the National Priorities List. Lopez said she and other members of her community have concerns about ongoing investigations that haven’t been completed – for example, groundwater seepage from buried lead materials.

“Where does that leave the voice of the people?” she said. “The groundwater issue has not been taken care of, the seepage continues coming and being contaminated. There are several homes that we already know that have been tested after EPA cleaned inside their homes, that are re-contaminated inside with the lead. So what has EPA done? They know the fact that this is high priority. And they're just turning a blind eye.” 

Give us a sense of what it’s like in Michigan City for folks living near the coal plant?

La’Tonya Troutman, LaPorte County NAACP and Just Transition NWI member, said residents were already struggling with basic needs before the global pandemic. When coal ash gets into the air, it can cause asthma, inflammation and trigger other immune responses that affect the respiratory system. 

Because of that, the LaPorte County NAACP and Just Transition NWI asked for stronger safety measures from the utility company NIPSCO to protect residents during the removal and transport of coal ash, which was supposed to be removed from ponds at the plant.

“And it is time for us to do two things, at this point: it's time for us to take ownership and get ownership,” Troutman said. “Take ownership of what's happening within our communities, take ownership that we have the power, gifts, whatever talents, skills and abilities to do things like contact our legislation to do things like attend a city council meeting, to raise your voice for things such as a clean air ordinance or, you know, coal ash contamination.”

NIPSCO did delay the coal ash removal, though a spokesman said the delay is to allow the utility to prioritize important gas and electric infrastructure projects in the state.

The Michigan City coal plant is shutting down in eight years. But does that really mean it’s over?

Troutman said the hard part is yet to come. She said the community has eight years to figure out what that coal plant looks like after it’s shut down.

“But the visioning session is happening now,” Troutman said. “Again, that's just something that we can definitely do. So we want to say we have eight years, but we can be pushing for this in a progressive way, if we know which way we want to go.”

To what extent are the companies responsible for the contamination being held financially responsible? 

As part of the Superfund program, the EPA negotiates with the potentially responsible parties for money to go toward cleanup. In East Chicago, those are U.S. Metals Refining Company, DuPont and BP subsidiary Atlantic Richfield. 

Lopez said the residents are left out of those negotiations. 

“The responsible parties — EPA negotiates with them, the amount of cleanup funding for the cleanup. We don't know the amount and we argue with EPA telling them no, that's not what is appropriate,” she said.

The EPA secured $24 million for longer-term cleanup efforts, secured in a 2014 court agreement with Dupont and Atlantic Richfield. In 2017, it got additional funding to clean up the middle third of the Superfund from U.S. Metals Refining Company. And in 2018, those agreements were amended, though a federal judge denied a request from residents to be involved in that process.

Troutman said her experience has been similar. Activists got an ordinance passed to hold NIPSCO more financially responsible for contamination in Michigan City. 

“They still had many, many things kind of went from third parties, so they're still not responsible. So even if you kind of get them to be somewhat more financially accountable, it's still, kind of, is a very loose hold,” Troutman said.

How can educators learn more about environmental justice challenges facing their communities?

Abdul-Rahman said the NAACP has an intersectionality of education and environmental justice toolkit. In 2017, 175 children in East Chicago participated in a program called Our Youth Scientists to learn about testing their water, soil and air.

“And we taught them how to do media to document and journalize their own story, their legacy of where they live,” Abdul-Rahman said. “And we gave them T-shirts and backpacks and we told them that they were our youth scientists, and we had them present their data and we thank them for all the data that they collected that we then had them create a collaborative relationship with Indiana State University.” 

Troutman pointed to a specific teacher in her community, Daisy Lee, an environmental science teacher at Krueger Middle School, as an example of some of the ways environmental justice can be included in education.

How do we get people to care about environmental justice? How do we get people to care about environmental justice so that people take action?

Dotson said the protests he’s seen this summer – broad and diverse people engaged in activism – has given him some hope. But in order to make those changes stick, people have to really criticize the systems of oppression in the United States. 

“I think it also starts in our education systems – if we can incorporate this into our curriculum, the critical importance of these topics, into our curriculum and not just ignore it,” Dotson said. 

Abdul-Rahman said it comes down to activists sharing their stories and showing what is wrong with the systems that are currently in place. 

“That is how others – just like when we saw the visual of someone with their knee on George Floyd's neck – that others then began to see the visual of how horrifying it is,” she said.

She said the Black Lives Matter movement gives momentum to issues like environmental justice and environmental racism. 

Troutman said she’s focused on taking action with things within her control. 

“What you can do is right outside your door,” she said. “What is happening in your community? What is in your community, what's happening in your community that you don't like? What's happening in your community that you do like? What's not in your community that's a necessity? And then, what are you going to do about it?”

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story said the NAACP wants to see legislation promoting community solar and would like to see building codes change. For the purpose of clarity, the organization would like to see community-owned solar legislation and building energy-efficiency codes change.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled some instances of Denise Abdul-Rahman's last name. It also referred to an NAACP program as "Are You Scientists" which was incorrect. The program is called "Our Youth Scientists."

Contact reporter Rebecca at or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.