Here’s an alarming fact: Low-income and Black residents are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and toxic dumping. Activists call it environmental racism. The nation’s first Black EPA administrator calls it unacceptable.
It’s about time the job gets done.
For decades, Black activists have been ranting against environmental injustice, the powerful grassroots phrase used to describe how toxic waste and other lethal contaminants have been dumped in Black and minority neighborhoods.
Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is leading massive clean-up training projects at abandoned gas stations, old textile mills, closed smelters and industrial and commercial properties from coast to coast.
President Barack Obama has empowered Jackson to literally clean up the mess in underserved and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods – places where environmental clean-ups are needed most.
“I’m passionate about the work we do,” Jackson said during a recent interview in her spacious office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. “We protect human health. There is a clear correlation between air quality and asthma in the African-American community. When air quality is neglected, we’re on the front lines of dealing with the health effects as a result.”
Jackson is also creating jobs for Black people in an unstable economy.
Since last year, more than 5,200 people have been trained through the Brownfields Job Training Grant Program, and 3,300 have been placed in full-time employment in the green jobs environmental field with an average starting hourly wage of $14.26.
And then there’s the next generation.
In Black communities across the country, children are breathing toxic fumes from garbage trucks and school buses that often lodge in their lungs and could lead to asthma and other serious respiratory diseases. Jackson wants to clean up the air so black kids and other children of color are not exposed to life-threatening pollutants just by walking to school.
A no-nonsense engineer from Louisiana, Jackson has a personal connection to air quality: Her 13-year-old son has asthma and uses an inhaler, so clean air is important for his respiratory development.
The work Jackson is doing for Black people and the environment is critical, and she’s doing it rather quietly.
She’s addressing the quality of clean drinking water, for example, which she says was not always a top priority under the Bush administration. The deterioration in the quality of the water in the Great Lakes — Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario — has been caused by a mix of chemicals, human and animal waste, minerals and other substances from manufacturing plants, municipal sewage pesticides, fertilizer nutrients, household chemicals, gasoline and used motor oil.
The Great Lakes are used to supply drinking water to tens of millions of people, and if the quality of the Great Lakes water supply is threatened, so is the health of millions.
Obama selected Jackson to head the EPA because she cares; she’s a mother of a child with asthma; she understands the internal workings of the EPA after 15 years with the agency; she’s a consummate diplomat; and she’s also putting people back to work.
For Black people — and Black communities across the country — it makes a difference who is leading the nation’s federal agencies. And in Jackson’s case, here are three examples from the EPA about how Jackson is helping to improve the quality of life for Black Americans:
• In West Oakland, California, a low-income community of 25,000 people, 90 percent of whom are people of color, the EPA has targeted 30 to 70 acres of a closed army base to relocate and centralize port-related truck services outside of the community to reduce exposure to diesel pollutants.
• In Philadelphia, the Overbrook Environmental Education Center provides an urban oasis complete with native plantings, outdoor biology labs and green architecture. The project grew out of a need for students at Overbrook High School to learn more about their natural environment.
• In Camden, New Jersey, the EPA is using more than $25 million in Recovery Act funds to demolish the former General Gas Mantle facility and to clean up surrounding soils.
Jackson grew up in New Orleans. She wasn’t a Girl Scout, a hiker or a camper, but she did understand the importance of the environment because she knew there were concerns about the quality of New Orleans drinking water.
For a southern woman who was never a big fan of the great outdoors, Jackson, the nation’s chief environmentalist, is off to a good start.