Ravaged By Covid-19, Polluted Communities Demand Environmental Justice

Growing up in Newark’s South Ward, Kim Gaddy often struggled to breathe. When her asthma was at its worst and inhaling stung and failed to fill her lungs, she would wind up in the local emergency room. Gaddy spent considerably more time in the ER when her three children were young. They also grew up in the South Ward, where the children’s asthma rate is three times the national average.

All of Gaddy’s kids — now 31, 20, and 16 — have asthma too, as did Gaddy’s parents, two of her brothers, and her first cousin, Louie Pigford. Pigford, who lived across Weequahic Park from her, died of asthma when he was in his 40s. So did Gaddy’s brother-in-law, Greg Shaheed Westry, who went to the porch of his house on Newark’s Vassar Avenue one summer night in 2004 hoping to catch his breath and instead collapsed. He died before the ambulance arrived.

Gaddy, who works as an environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action of New Jersey, has spent much of her time since then trying to call attention to the absurd number of polluting plants in her neighborhood. Newark has 930 facilities permitted to release pollution, 87 of which have current violations.

“We have been fighting for clean air for decades,” Gaddy said as she drove slowly through the South Ward on a steamy July morning, past a lot where cars were being noisily flattened by a machine, a factory where plastic was being baled for recycling, and scrapyards filled with mounds of twisted, rusty metal, beyond which you could you could see the faint outline of the Manhattan skyline.

Near the highway overpass on Frelinghuysen Avenue, Gaddy pointed out a streak of oil down the middle of the road, which she said posed a problem during the frequent floods of the area. The persistent oil slick had also caused a few of the elderly people from the nearby public housing development to slip, she said. But even though nearby factories had already come back online as pandemic restrictions were loosened, the streets were largely empty save for one hunched woman slowly wheeling an oxygen cart and a small cluster of masked people gathered outside a methadone clinic.

Even during the pandemic, Newark has seen an increase in permitted pollution. In April, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection expanded the permits of crematoriums so that they can operate around the clock to keep up with the mounting number of coronavirus fatalities. With five of the facilities located just a few miles from her home, Gaddy described the harmful air pollutants they emit as “just another thing to think about when we’re trying the mourn the loss of our family members.”

The sheer number of chemicals and the facilities that emit them has made the fight for clean air in Newark nearly impossible. Gaddy can’t pinpoint blame for her family’s asthma — or for the cancers that have stricken her father and brother — on the fumes from many diesel trucks that roll through her neighborhood on their way to the port because the nearby Superfund sites could play a role. So could Newark Airport and the nearby Covanta incinerator, which burns more than 1 million tons of garbage from New York City and the rest of Essex County and was only recently was fitted with a filter that the company had installed on incinerators in some more affluent New Jersey neighborhoods more than a decade ago. Direct causality in a highly polluted area is almost impossible to prove. Instead, the health problems are almost certainly a result of some combination of the pollutants that plague the area.

A few minutes’ drive from Gaddy, in section of Newark called the Ironbound, Maria Lopez-Nuñez and her friends sometimes play a game in which they try to identify the exact cause of each of the foul odors they smell. If the air smells like a giant toilet just overflowed, the culprit is probably the sewage-processing facility. A sweetish chemical reek usually comes from the glue factory or the plastic manufacturing company near South Street. And the “carcass-y” stink is unmistakably from the fat rendering plant on Doremus Avenue. Lopez-Nuñez, who has lived her whole life in highly polluted communities, is better than anyone wants to be at the game.

But the neighborhood odors also motivated her to fight. “I grew up smelling them,” she said. “And then at a certain point, I realized I didn’t have to put up with them anymore — that not everyone lives like this.” Now, as the director of environmental justice and community development at Ironbound Community Corporation, Lopez-Nuñez works to block the development of new polluting facilities in her neighborhood and to clean up the toxic mess that’s already there.

Around the country, as the coronavirus devastates communities of color, some are experiencing a similar reckoning with their overburdened surroundings. The pandemic has been brutal in environmental justice communities, adding a new layer of suffering in places that already shoulder a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards. Newark’s death rate from Covid-19 is 223 per 100,000 people, compared to 177 statewide and just under 44 in the U.S. as a whole. Nationwide, the Black and Latino death rates from Covid-19 are almost three times that of white people.

As the virus has spread across the country, highly polluted areas have burst into public view, as if they were mapped out in invisible ink. And in some of these places, both the pandemic and the national protests against police violence are creating a sliver of hope that we may finally begin to address the inequity at the root of both.

“The murder of George Floyd was a spark that lit the fuse of injustice that is connected to a whole powder keg of issues,” said Rev. Leo Woodbury, a veteran environmental activist based in South Carolina, where Covid-19 rates are spiking in areas that have been previously challenged with both flooding and toxic waste. “This is the moment to address all of these things,” said Woodbury, who described the fight as “a battle between wealth and health.”

Cumulative Impacts

While the racial disparities around Covid-19 were first regarded as a mystery, it soon became clear that they could at least partly be explained by exposure to pollution, which can cause conditions that make people particularly susceptible to severe effects from the disease. Another factor is the clumping of other burdens in these “sacrifice zones,” as an open statement by dozens of environmental groups issued in July made clear. “Disinvestment in environmental justice communities has contributed to polluted air and water, fewer hospitals and healthy food options, jobs without paid sick leave, and crowded living conditions that make social distancing difficult,” the statement explained. “These factors — the lack of access to clean air and water, healthcare or paid leave, or safe and healthy food, transportation, housing and workplaces, among others — cause the disproportionate impacts we witness.”

The environmental groups’ statement called for general strengthening of environmental and health protections and, more specifically, for laws that require the evaluation of the cumulative impacts faced by residents of environmentally overburdened areas before siting any more facilities there.

In New Jersey, legislation that would do exactly that now appears to have a shot at passing after languishing in committee for more than a decade. First introduced in 2008, the state’s “cumulative impacts bill” would require companies applying for new permits or permit expansions in vulnerable areas to determine whether a new facility would “cause or contribute to adverse cumulative environmental or public health stressors in the overburdened community that are higher than those borne by other communities.” If such permits would further burden these vulnerable areas (which the bill defines as having higher rates of low-income residents, non-English speakers, and people of color) the Department of Environmental Protection would be required to reject them.

The bill isn’t likely to dramatically alter the Newark factoryscape any time soon because it doesn’t require the state to deny applications for permit renewals if they add additional environmental stressors to overburdened communities. Instead it would allow the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to modify permits when they renew them to lessen the impact of facilities. Lopez-Nuñez acknowledged the limits of the legislation.“Do I wish that we could reverse environmental racism in one bill? Yes.” Still, she believes that the legislation would be an important step forward. And her organization is one of more than 165 throughout the state that have thrown their support behind it.

In late July, the state assembly failed to hold a planned vote on the bill after opponents suggested that it would result in plant closures and job losses. The bill’s sponsor, Assembly Member John McKeon, told me the delay was “just a bump in the road” and that he was confident the legislation would come to a vote in August. To environmental advocates, who have yet again set themselves to ensuring its passage, even this level of progress — the possibility of the much-delayed passage of an imperfect bill — feels like a tremendous step, one made possible by the peculiar political moment.

While the bill first moved out of committee in February, it was only after anger over police violence exploded across the country in May that it gained real traction, according to Sen. Troy Singleton, the bill’s sponsor. “As the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all of this stuff happened, you started to see the community saying enough is enough. We need to force the conversation about what our country is really about along the lines of race,” said Singleton. “And suddenly it became urgent to get something in place — legislation that can address environmental justice.”

Sacrifice Zones

And yet for the people living with the constant stink and sting of pollution, the attention feels anything but sudden. Newark has been an industrial and manufacturing hub since leather-tanning companies sprang up there in the 1800s. As with many of the country’s most toxic areas, the concentration of polluting facilities began in earnest as white people left and the people of color who remained didn’t have the political power or money to stop the influx of dangerous industrial plants. Home values dropped as the spewing of chemicals increased, intensifying the disparity between Newark and the more affluent suburbs, and making it even easier for companies to build dangerous facilities in the city.

Today, while New Jersey’s population is 59 percent white, Newark is only 8 percent white, according to the most recent census numbers. The South Ward, where Gaddy lives and much of the industry is clustered, is just 3 percent white. Yet despite the indisputable clumping of dangerous pollution in Newark and other poor areas of New Jersey, the battle to keep companies from heaping even more pollution on Newark and other overburdened spots has been steeply uphill.

“It was like running on sand in waist-deep water,” said Cory Booker, who began representing some of Newark’s most polluted ZIP codes on the city’s Municipal Council in 1998, before becoming mayor of the city in 2006 and a U.S. senator from New Jersey in 2013. Booker grew up in a relatively affluent part of the state called Harrington Park. But he moved to Newark in his 20s, where “I was surrounded by the awful extreme cases of asthma and lead poisoning,” he told me in late July. Hearing about children’s illnesses from distraught parents “who did everything right but just grew up in a highly toxic environment that was designed by overt racist laws,” he quickly came to see the problem as structural: the result of decades of redlining, racist mortgage policies, and the disproportionate shunting of public housing into cities.

Booker managed to make a few environmental improvements in Newark, including planting trees and pushing forward the cleanup of the Passaic River, which is contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and dioxins, but he wasn’t able to make a dent in the underlying imbalance in the concentration of polluting facilities there. No one has.

“We were fighting a battle with very little help,” Booker told me. He blamed the impasse in part on the failure of the larger environmental movement to “center racism and the impacts on Black and brown communities.” And it’s true that the big green groups were slow to recognize and call attention to the racism that underlies the national distribution of environmental hazards. So even while pollution continued to mount in poor areas where a high proportion of residents were people of color, most people only thought about those areas when they glimpsed or smelled them as they passed through on their way to somewhere safer.

In 2017, Booker introduced legislation in the Senate that took a similar approach to the state bill, requiring the consideration of cumulative environmental impacts in both state and federal permitting decisions. Last year, he reintroduced the legislation, which would also allow communities like Flint, Michigan, to sue for damages over the mismanagement of their water and expand a 1994 executive order that required federal agencies to address the negative health and environmental conditions faced by minority and low-income groups.

In February, House Democrats Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Don McEachin, D-Va., introduced similar legislation, the Environmental Justice for All Act, which would also require consideration of cumulative impacts, as well as create federal grants to address environmental racism and put fees on fossil fuels that would be used to help communities transitioning away from mining and extraction of oil, gas, and coal. But neither bill has a chance of passing until after the presidential election — which, for polluted communities, could be the most consequential election ever.

A Clean Future?

Even before the pandemic, environmental justice had made its way into the Democratic primary more forcefully than ever before. Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Gov. Jay Inslee, and billionaire Tom Steyer all made the issue central to their presidential runs, and last November the candidates held the first-ever environmental justice forum.

In mid-July, after Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee, one of the three “bold ideas” that appeared on the top row of his Vision for America was a “plan to secure environmental justice and economic opportunity in a clean energy future.” Biden’s policy statement, which begins by tying “corporate pollution” to the underlying conditions contributing to the racial and ethnic disparities of Covid-19 and goes on to address a range of pollutants, including PFAS, is centered on a truth that has never before made it to the forefront of the platform of any major party’s presidential nominee: “that communities of color and low-income communities have faced disproportionate harm from climate change and environmental contaminants for decades.”

Having the Democratic nominee acknowledge that racial justice is at the core of the environmental and climate crises he would be tackling is critical, according to Robert Bullard, who is sometimes referred to as the father of environmental justice. Bullard, who has spent more than 40 years fighting pollution in communities of color, spoke with Biden about environmental justice twice before the candidate issued his plan.

“He said all the right things,” Bullard said of their conversations. While allowing that there is no guarantee that Biden will live up to his promises — “you never know about politicians,” he said — Bullard is hopeful that this painful political moment may finally force white people to acknowledge the systemic racism that has both created environmental sacrifice zones and laid the groundwork for the pandemic’s decimation of communities of color.

“We’re saying white supremacy and racism have played a major part in determining who gets the high ground, who gets to escape to their summer houses and not deal with Covid, and who has to go out there and be essential workers,” said Bullard. “It is upsetting for a lot of white people,” he said. But acknowledging the assumption underlying both crises — that one group of people is more deserving of safety, health, and life than another — is essential for the country to make meaningful progress.

Having grown up in the Deep South, barred from the local “public” library, school, and swimming pool in his hometown of Elba, Alabama, because of the color of his skin, Bullard knows racism intimately — and knows that there have been some important improvements for civil rights. “The Confederate flag flew above the American one in my hometown,” he said. “But for the last 40 years, we’ve had to settle for incremental tinkering around the edges.”

In the decades since Bullard first began his work, the federal government has failed to significantly improve the lot of people stuck living near some of the most toxic sites. In 1987, a report by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice presented incontrovertible proof of the problem, looking at the demographics of towns near toxic waste landfills, which were disproportionately situated in African American and Hispanic communities.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that was supposed to address the inequities by requiring all federal agencies to make environmental justice part of their mission. But a decade after the order passed, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General found that the EPA had failed to comply with Clinton’s order. And three years after that, the United Church of Christ issued a report finding that the problem had become worse rather than better and that government officials had “knowingly allowed” people of color “to be poisoned with lead, arsenic, dioxin, TCE, DDT, PCBs and a host of other deadly chemicals.”

Trump’s Racist Policies

Today, race is not just the biggest determinant of people’s proximity to toxic waste, but also the biggest factor determining exposure to water and air pollution in the U.S. While that was the case well before Donald Trump took office, his approach to environmental regulation has made the inequities worse, reversing changes that previous administrations had put in place to protect public health and generally attempting to recreate a bygone era when companies had far fewer regulations governing how and where they disposed of their waste.

While the racism of Trump’s approach to foreign policy and immigration has been widely acknowledged, as has his open and gleeful use of racist language both on the campaign trail and to disparage his political opponents in Washington, there has been less attention to his racism in the environmental realm. But there, too, his administration has dispensed with the dog whistle, opting to openly dismantle protections for civil rights.

Over the past four years, the EPA has closed five complaints that were based on the Civil Rights Act, including one filed over air pollution from an Exxon refinery in an African American neighborhood in Beaumont, Texas. Although the complaints had been ignored for years, the Trump administration’s response has been arguably worse, according to Marianne Engelman Lado, director of the Environment Justice Clinic at Vermont Law School, who represented the impacted communities in all five of the cases. Engelman-Lado said that none of the five communities had received adequate relief before their cases were closed and described the EPA’s logic in dismissing one of the cases, over putting a landfill in a historic Black community in Tallassee, Alabama, as “utterly nonsensical.”

“We have been struggling with a backlash to the civil rights movement for my whole career,” said Engelman Lado. “But the current administration has threatened to dismantle civil rights law as we know it — both through regulation and the courts.”

Indeed, the Trump administration is also in the process of rolling back 100 environmental rules, many of which were passed to protect vulnerable low-income communities near industrial facilities. Among the changes being implemented by the Trump EPA are the weakening of restrictions on power plants, coal ash ponds, and various forms of air pollution, all of which will impact the members of the Navajo Nation living near Four Corners Power plant in the San Juan basin in New Mexico.

Four Corners is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the U.S., and ash from the coal, dumped on the reservation since the 1960s, has contaminated groundwater with toxic metals. While the Obama administration put rules in place that would have forced the closure of unlined ash ponds by 2018, the current EPA — led by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Xcel, one of several coal companies that opposed the rules — is rolling them back. The result is that the Navajo people in the Four Corners region and many other communities living near coal ash ponds will have to continue to live with contaminated water.

“People here use that water for their crops,” said Carol Davis, executive director of Diné C.A.R.E., an organization that has fought against asbestos dumping, medical waste incineration, logging, uranium mining, and oil and gas drilling on Navajo land. Davis noted that the tribe’s growing area is located between the power plant and a coal mine, “which means we’re probably eating contaminated food,” she said. People in her community have elevated levels of heart problems and asthma, which they reasonably believe may result from the contamination.

Ignoring Indirect Effects

Perhaps the most galling and pointed of Trump’s environmental reversals for people of color is the revamping of the National Environmental Policy Act, which was passed 50 years ago to give communities the ability to weigh in on major federal projects that would impact them. Under Trump’s final version of the rule that governs NEPA, which was issued on July 15, the input of the people affected by industry will be scaled back in several ways. The period in which the public can respond to environmental impact statements, which can be more than 1,000 pages, would be shrunken from 45 to 30 days. And the new rule would make all document distribution online, which will be extremely difficult for Navajo people near the Four Corners plant.

“A lot of people aren’t online here,” Davis said. “Some people don’t even have electricity.”

Trump’s version of the law will also dispense with a requirement to consider indirect impacts of federal projects, a change that will cripple communities that are trying to challenge new developments, according to Kym Hunter, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. Hunter has successfully used NEPA to challenge several highway expansions in environmentally overburdened areas by pointing out their indirect effects. “If you just look at the direct impacts of a highway, it’s just the pouring of concrete,” said Hunter. “With indirect effects, you have the traffic and air pollution from the cars and the runoff into the streams.”

The nation’s oldest environmental law, NEPA was most recently used to help bring about the historic defeat of two massive fossil fuel projects: the Atlantic Coast pipeline, which was canceled on July 5, and the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was shut down the next day. Both pipelines threatened wildlife and Indigenous land and also added to the use of climate-destroying oil and natural gas. Under the new rule, the Trump EPA has eliminated the need for consideration of the climate impacts of projects.

Nor will there be any need to assess the cumulative impacts of federal projects under NEPA. According to the rewritten rule, people in Robeson, North Carolina, will no longer be able to use the law to challenge new federal projects on the grounds that they already face more than their share of environmental risk. The fact that the county has 858 sources of pollution, including 20 hazardous waste sites, 16 solid waste landfills, and 65 animal facilities, including poultry processing plants, would no longer be relevant.

The existing risks clearly take a toll on health. Robeson County, the most racially diverse rural county in the country, ranks last out of the 100 counties in North Carolina in terms of health outcomes, according to assessments by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Nevertheless, companies continue to put polluting facilities there, according to Naeema Muhammad, organizing director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. “It just seems like we’re battling one thing after another — and it’s not just Robeson County,” said Muhammad, who described the accumulation of polluting facilities in several poor, Black areas in North Carolina area as worsening.

While the changes to NEPA are scheduled to take effect in September and several environmental organizations are planning to challenge them in court before then, some of the administration’s environmental rollbacks have already dramatically shaped life and death in the most toxic areas of the U.S. The Trump EPA’s March 26 decision not to penalize violations of pollution rules during the pandemic has led to an increase Covid-19 deaths, particularly in mostly Black and low-income areas, according to a study released in May.

By examining data from more than 21,000 industrial sites, American University professor Claudia Persico and her co-author, Kathryn Johnson, found that increases in pollution, particularly the tiny bits of air pollution known as PM2.5, were associated with higher deaths from Covid-19, and that the increased pollution had a particularly large effect in counties where a high proportion of residents are Black, unemployed, or low-income.

Death Alley

The direct connection between increased pollution and Covid-19 deaths comes as little surprise to the people of St. John, Louisiana, who have lived with unsafe levels of air pollution for years and are now facing some of the highest death rates from Covid-19 in the state. Since at least 2015, the parish, which is mostly Black, has been home to the U.S. census tract with the highest cancer risk from air pollution. St. John, which also has elevated death rates from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, is part of the industrial corridor along the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley, which has recently been rechristened “Death Alley” to reflect the range of ailments that prematurely kill residents there.

Like Newark, there are multiple polluters and pollutants in St. John. In addition to ethylene oxide and chloroprene, two carcinogens that contribute to the area’s astronomical cancer risk, at least 43 other industrial chemicals are found in the air in St. John, as well as PM2.5, the tiny particles that emanate from several nearby chemical plants and oil refineries.

As in Newark, despite years of activism, the residents of St. John have been unable to convince regulators to force local industry to reduce its emissions to safe levels. But while New Jersey appears to be on a path to greater environmental protections, pollution may be about to increase in St. John. A nearby Marathon oil refinery, which already releases 554 tons of PM2.5 annually, is in the process of seeking approval to release an additional 40 tons each year.

While there is always a power imbalance between fence-line communities and the companies that pollute them, in Louisiana it is made more extreme by a long tradition of tax exemptions. For more than 80 years, state lawmakers have incentivized companies to operate there by waiving their some or all of their local property taxes — a policy that has taken billions of dollars from communities that could have used them to pay for public services such as libraries, schools, and health clinics. Although defenders of these exemptions cite them as supporting economic development, companies have actually cut jobs even as they’ve reaped billions in tax breaks.

But even in Louisiana, one of the most industry-friendly states in the U.S., the tide may be beginning to turn. In St. John, where the Marathon refinery has more than $3 billion in tax exemptions, environmental activists recently began pointing to the connection between the company’s tax vacation and its environmental impacts. “These two conversations are starting to come together,” said Jane Patton, a senior campaigner with the Center for International Environmental Law, who is based in New Orleans. “People are realizing that there is intentional siting of these massive industrial edifices in communities that are predominantly Black and brown and an intentional disregard for community needs wrapped up in the tax exemptions.”

Even before the pandemic, advocates had had some success in convincing local boards to reject proposed property tax exemptions for industry. In 2016, the governor signed an executive order giving communities the power to reject the tax breaks for the first time in the state’s history. In November, the St. John school board voted to reject a $25 million tax exemption for Marathon. Since the executive order was issued, these bodies statewide have voted to reclaim an estimated $240 million for their own tax base, according to Broderick Bagert, lead organizer at Together Louisiana.

“When the locals got to act, what they said was not ‘no’ but ‘hell no,’” said Bagert.

The amount of tax exemptions that have been recently rejected is still just 3 percent of the $8 billion the state has given away to industry over the past decade. “But the political shift has already happened to where communities are saying we’re wise to what’s been going on,” Bagert said. Local advocates plan to raise the tax exemption issue if they are granted a public hearing about the proposed increase in pollution at the Marathon refinery. They submitted multiple requests for a hearing to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality before a July 24 deadline and are hoping to hear back soon.

Around the country, others are waiting as well. Bullard is keeping his eyes on the Democratic presidential candidate and hoping, he said, that “Biden stays out there and does the kind of speeches and campaigning that shows the kind of vision that’s needed to bring us back from this pandemic and systemic racism.” And then, of course, there’s the wait to see what will happen on November 3. That’s “the inflection point I’m looking toward now,” said Booker. “Will this country, fatigued from the outrage and indignities of this presidency, weary of a majority leader in the Senate who calls himself the grim reaper — he calls himself the grim reaper! — will we change leadership?”

In Newark, Gaddy is waiting for the vote that may finally stop polluters from colonizing her neighborhood. It’s been a terrible year so far, in which she has seen her community devastated by the coronavirus. But as the August heat beats down on her city, she is still at work, pushing for what she hopes will be an end to the patterns of pollution that have plagued her family and her hometown for generations.

“This is our moment,” said Gaddy, “we have nothing left to lose.”

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