The Racial Discrimination We Too Often Overlook

If you're paying any attention to the deeper conversations around race that are happening in this country right now, then you've heard people talk about the devaluing and marginalization of black lives.

People of color are saying loudly and clearly that it's time to rid this nation of the scourge of race bias, both implicit and conscious bias, and protect communities of color from its devastation.

Much of the discussion around race centers around the horrible confrontations we've seen unfold before our eyes when police shoot unarmed unsuspecting black folks who were posing no threat. With so many of these shootings, it mattered little whether the people who end up losing their lives were sitting, standing, or lying down with hands raised in surrender. The victims of these police shootings were also victims of the way bias often operates in the minds of people who are given guns to protect us. When officers acting out of bias encounter black or brown skin, suspicion, fear and disregard for those black or brown lives takes over.

It makes complete sense that these brutal police killings captured on video tape send people to the streets time and time again demanding reform. I've been one of them.

But there are other ways that black and brown lives are marginalized and devalued that largely escape notice.

It has been well documented that we face higher levels of pollution from power plants, refineries, landfills and waste treatment facilities. We breathe worse air, in large part because, black and brown communities have been targeted for the pollution that no one wants. And given the higher rates of cancer and asthma in areas of high pollution we can assume that we're we more likely to die because of this exposure.

In September, the United States Commission on Civil Rights slammed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce civil rights laws that were intended to avoid discriminatory impact on communities of color.

The Commission on Civil Rights took a close look at the first-ever regulation of coal ash, the highly toxic remains of coal that's burned in power plants to generate electricity. The commission knew that low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live near coal ash waste, given the EPA's own analysis, and thought that the new coal ash regulation, called the coal combustion residuals rule, would be a sensible way to gauge the EPA's response to a hugely significant from of industrial waste that adversely impacts communities of color.

The conclusion: "The EPA tremendously dropped the ball on making the determination of whether there were environmental justice violations when issuing the coal ash rule," said Commission Chair Martin Castro in a recent video statement about the 230-page report.

"We're hurting the same people we're supposed to be helping by the EPA coal ash rule," Castro added.

Coal ash has been linked to cancers, stroke, heart disease, kidney, liver and lung illnesses, brain damage, asthma, anemia and developmental damage in fetuses. Coal ash is the second-largest form of industrial waste. More than 120 million tons of this toxic waste are generated each year.

The Commission concluded that the first-ever coal ash regulation could, in some ways, have an adverse impact on communities of color because of the way it was devised.

When the EPA designated coal ash as nonhazardous solid waste instead of hazardous waste, despite the presence of so many toxins, it left regulating coal ash up to the states, without national standards that could be enforced.

And EPA predicts that 30 of the 47 states that have coal ash will decide not to implement any new guidelines to protect the public, according to Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice attorney who specializes in hazardous waste law. She has pointed out that these 30 states are more likely to have coal plants that disproportionally impact low-income and minority populations.

But wait. It gets even worse. The coal ash rule is forcing some closures of coal ash ponds, which are large open pits filled with water and toxic sludge, if those ponds are unstable or contaminate groundwater. And power companies that own these coal ash ponds are beginning to move the toxic waste to municipal solid waste landfills that have no special protections against coal ash.

And guess what? Those landfills targeted to accept coal ash are likely disproportionately in communities of color and low-income communities, especially in the Southeast. For instance, a study from the University of North Carolina School of Public Health found that communities in North Carolina with more than 50% people of color were 2.8 times more likely to have a landfill than those comprised of less than 10 percent people of color.

U.S. Rep. Henry C. "Hank" Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, recognized the inequity and introduced a bill last March that would eliminate the loophole that allows power companies to dump toxic coal ash in municipal solid waste landfills without adequate health and environmental protection.

This coal ash rule could be a textbook example of how structural racism happens and compounds problems.

This problem of environmental injustice is as real as the police brutality we've all seen captured on videotape way too often in recent years. Environmental issues may not boil the blood in the same way. But coal ash and other toxic wastes cause cancer, asthma, brain damage. This stuff kills. Silently.

Those who decide where to place toxic waste are less visible but no less responsible for making decisions that take lives. And our response--despite the work of a pretty small number of dedicated advocates--is definitely not loud enough to bring us the change we need.

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