Addressing racism in our country’s climate agenda

Staff Editorial: The opinion of the El Vaquero staff members


Image via Unsplash

In 2015, an ExxonMobil refinery exploded in South Torrance, releasing industrial ash into the air and nearly damaging a tank containing hydrofluoric acid. This acid is so corrosive that it burns through the bone; many still wonder why this chemical is used so close to residential areas.

The term environmental racism was coined by African American civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis in the 1980s. The placement of toxic materials near communities of color is a form of systemic racism that disproportionately affects low-income and minority populations. With President Biden’s most recent declaration of environmental goals in the Leaders Summit on Climate, it is even more important to be aware of legislators’ neglect that places certain communities at higher risk for chronic, respiratory and developmental disorders.

A 1996 study published by the University of Southern California noted that “evidence from planning documents reveals a highly deliberate confinement of Latino residents to a district otherwise zoned for heavy industry.” The history of segregation and income clustering uncovers a relationship between income, race and exposure to pollutants that continues to especially affect low-income residents today. A study published by FracTracker Alliance and conducted by Dr. Ted Auch noted that “residents living in the shadow of 80% of our refineries earn nearly $16,000 less than those in the surrounding region.” Our legislators need to be aware of the systemic bias that forces people to choose between being poisoned by their surroundings or providing for their families.

Large corporations take advantage of the federal government’s weak stance on targeted environmental policy to exploit land and low-income communities. In 2016, protests were heard against the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline; both ran through native lands and the latter runs under Lake Oahe, a water source for the Standing Rock Sioux. In November 2019, the Keystone Pipeline leaked 380,000 gallons of oil — while this leak didn’t immediately harm any populations, we shouldn’t need a disaster to prompt action.

Environmental policy is expensive. Many supported the construction of pipelines to lower the transportation emissions caused by shipping oil on trucks. However, the goal of environmental policy should be a healthier earth, for everyone. Before the Dakota Access Pipeline was constructed, the majority-white neighboring city successfully petitioned a plan to build the pipeline beneath their own water reservoirs, leading to the construction under Lake Oahe. This “not in my backyard” behavior forces problems onto underrepresented communities. In 2020 alone, oil companies spent $122.5 million in lobbying for the placement of refineries and other facilities. Minority communities have little power to fight against this without support. 

Environmental and community sustainability are long-term benefits. The Clean Air Act of 1970 returns $40 for every $1 it costs to implement, in addition to the deaths and healthcare costs prevented. Our climate problems won’t disappear if we push the sources onto less vocal communities. America’s core value is equality, so we should fight for equal access to basic rights, for everyone. Acting as a bystander and ignoring environmental racism is only perpetuating the disparity, but every small action, from education to activism, will increase the prominence of this issue on our lawmaker’s radar.