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Category Archives: environmental justice

When residents in Mossville, Louisiana felt the US Government wasn’t protecting their right to a healthy environment, they reached past the 14 petrochemical facilities surrounding the town. They also reached past the American regulators, legislators, courts who are supposed to protect them. The people of Mossville took their grievance to the highest human rights court in the western hemisphere. Now candid approval from the highest U.S. environmental regulator appears to have boosted their petition. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Six years ago Christine Bennett made her first trip to her nation’s capital to file a human rights complaint against her government.

BENNETT: Being here in Washington DC, going to make a petition is one thing. But it’s whether or not we’re going to be heard is the most important thing. Will somebody do something about it or are we just wasting our time?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bennett and her neighbors have been waiting a long time. The story of their rights not being protected goes back generations. Emancipated slaves settled the bayous of Mossville, Louisiana. They had land, but no voting rights to protect it. After World War 2, plastics companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Fourteen of those petrochemical plants ring the town today.

BENNETT: I’m living where my grandparents lived and I am one of the fourth generations. But now the place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Each year the air is loaded with four million pounds of carcinogens, earning this place the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Government researchers have measured three times the national average of dioxin in the bodies of Mossville residents. They argue that there are no environmental justice laws on our books to protect America’s most vulnerable communities. So that’s the case they took to the Inter-American Commission, a last line of defense for human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Government fought this arguing that the U.S. has plenty of environmental laws that protect its citizens. But last year, in an interview with Living on Earth, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, seemed to agree with the people of Mossville.

JACKSON: I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue as I understand it is in order to get heard is that they basically had to make the case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it.

The Conoco Phillips oil refinery is one of several facilities that release pollution including dioxins in Mossville. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was what the community of Mossville had been waiting to hear: A high-ranking Government official agreeing with the main argument in their case. Administrator Jackson is the first African American EPA head and she’s from Louisiana. Since she took the job, she has made environmental justice a priority of her agency. But even apparent support from Administrator Jackson didn’t put the human rights petition in the clear.

HARDEN: I think no one in Mossville operates under the assumption that everything will be great without struggle because that hasn’t been their experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Monique Harden. She’s the lawyer for the people of Mossville and has been making the case that they have to go outside of the U.S. to resolve their human rights abuses. The State Department argues back that the citizens can still appeal within the American legal system. To Harden, Administrator Jackson’s comment seemed to bolster the Mossville case.

BENNETT: Her statement was just very positive and very affirming and so when we read a few months later the brief that was filed by the U.S. government countering that, we felt that, well, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.

Many Mossville residents have left their homes due to the pollution. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Harden included Jackson’s statement in briefs she filed to the Commission last March, but the government hasn’t responded. The EPA and the State Department both declined to talk to Living on Earth as well. So we asked someone who advises on environmental human rights cases what this means. Barbara Johnston is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. She says the government’s silence speaks volumes.

JOHNSTON: I think there’s a minor war occurring (laughs) with all sorts of skirmishes over where our priorities are, whether we are actually going to actually demonstrate that we are indeed a nation that has great and huge concern of environmental justice, especially in cases of demonstrated environmental racism versus our economic liability. Because if the U.S. comes out with a petition that acknowledges its liability in this particular case, there is a very, very, very, very long list of injured parties out there.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which would make environmental justice a very, very, very expensive proposition. But environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden says it may be expensive but that would be the cost of living in a society that values all citizens and neighborhoods equally.

HARDEN: What so often happens, in communities that are struggling for environmental justice, is that they’re in dialogue mode but there’s no remedy. And a favorable decision by the Commission would create a different paradigm for what governmental regulation of the environment should look like.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In the meantime, the Mossville case has already opened an avenue for Americans to resolve environmental human rights abuse. A Navajo group fighting a uranium mine in New Mexico, has just filed their own human rights petition to the Inter-American Commission. And they cite the Mossville case as supporting their claim. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

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A small community in coastal Mississippi that was founded by freed slaves in 1866 was about to be paved over- that is until it was saved on a wing and a prayer… and another wing.  Since the birth of Turkey Creek, the founders and their descendants, have suffered through natural and manmade disasters, the most recent being the burden of toxic waste and Hurricane Katrina. Now Turkey Creek faces the threat of being buried under expansion from developments and the nearby Biloxi airport. The town has already lost heritage sites to developers; the cemetery where the town’s founders lie is now a row of condos. But help is flocking to this town from an unlikely source: The Audubon society. By turning the town into a bird sanctuary, the residents are getting a new lease on their land.
The effectiveness of the Audobon society to halt the erasure of Turkey Creek on behalf of birds over the efforts of local black activists on behalf of humans left The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac puzzled.  Watch below as he lampoons the environmental movement’s value of wildlife over humanlife.
His segment highlights the classic tension between social justice and environmentalism and hints at the debates within the respective movements. When the Audubon society gathered volunteers to build thousands of bird houses for birds affected by Katrina, that effort can be criticized as insensitive to human victims.  But Rev. Al Sharpton is misdirecting blame when he accuses the Audubon society of putting animals before people when they actually championed and advanced the preservation of Turkey Creek.
It’s a million dollar question; do the two movements need to be at odds? How do we reconcile the efforts of naturalists with the efforts of social justice workers? How can environmental justice inform both camps?


If you want the non-ironic story on Turkey Creek, check out Turkey Creek Community Initiatives.

Check for updates on the blog and on the group!

College of Law to Host Inaugural Environmental Law and Justice Symposium

Press Release:
Orlando, Fla. Florida A&M University (FAMU) College of Law and the FAMU Center for Environmental Equity and Justice will host its inaugural Environmental Law and Justice Symposium titled "New Directions in Environmental Justice" on Thursday and Friday, November 11-12, at the Sheraton Orlando Downtown and the FAMU College of Law campus. The symposium will feature an overview of the latest international, national, regional, state and local developments in environmental justice.

Thursday’s session at the Sheraton Orlando Downtown at 400 West Livingston Street will feature remarks by Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, Esq., Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 4 administrator. Registration begins at 4:30 p.m. Friday’s keynote speakers at the College of Law located at 201 Beggs Avenue include: Beverly Wright, founder and director of Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans; Quentin Pair, Esq., U.S. Department of Justice; and Prof. Maxine Burkett, University of Hawaii School of Law. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m.

We are pleased to host an event of this caliber that will not only boast nationally renowned experts in the environmental justice field, but also will focus attention on novel approaches to the environmental issues affecting our neighborhoods and our world," said FAMU College of Law Dean LeRoy Pernell.

Other notable speakers and panelists include: Prof. Deepa Badrinarayana, Chapman Law School; J. Mijin Cha, director of Campaign Research, Urban Agenda, NY; Carlos Evans, Esq., EPA Headquarters, Washington DC; Michael Goldstein, Akerman Senterfitt, Miami; Prof. Carmen Gonzalez, Seattle University School of Law; FAMU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Cynthia Hughes Harris; Kim Jones, Esq., EPA Region 4, Atlanta, Ga.; Marva King, EPA Office of Air and Radiation; Jacki Lopez, Esq., Center for Biological Diversity, San
Francisco, Calif.; Prof. Catherine O’Neill, Seattle University School of Law; Cynthia Peurifoy, EPA Region 4, Atlanta; and Raul Soto, EPA Headquarters, Washington DC.

"In addition to an impressive lineup of distinguished featured speakers, the panelists and moderators for the symposium also are leaders in the environmental law and justice field from government, academia, private practice and nonprofit organizations," said Randall Abate, FAMU associate professor of law and event coordinator. "Attendees can anticipate the symposium to address domestic and international dimensions of this timely topic, including the human and environmental impacts of the Gulf oil spill."
The symposium will also feature an Environmental Justice Listening Session to provide an opportunity for EPA representatives to hear from local environmental justice stakeholders. Also the Lake Apopka Memorial Quilt will be on display by the Farmworkers Association of Florida.
The cost is $50 for general attendees seeking CLE credit; $35 for FAMU alumni and members of the Environmental and Land Use Law Section (ELULS) of the Florida Bar; $25 for the general public not seeking CLE credit; and $10 for general students. FAMU faculty, staff and students may attend at no charge; however, Rattler ID information must be provided on the registration form. Eligible attendees will receive 7.0 Florida Bar CLE Credit hours and 3.5 State/Federal Government Administrative Practice Certification.

For additional information or to register, please visit the FAMU College of Law webpage at the following link: Additional inquiries should be directed to FAMU College of Law Associate Professor Randall Abate at

Residents of Tellevast Florida have agreed with Lockheed Martin to settle their property contamination suit out of court. This is a huge step towards compensating the 270 people whose lives have been tainted by a cancer-causing berylium leak from the Lockheed Martin plant. 

Lockheed Martin had bought the site from the original owner, the American Berylium Company. They didn't know the level of pollution but at purchase they assumed legal responsibiltiy of the contaminated site.  This responsibility expanded to cover the 200-acre pollution plume which had seeped into the town's groundwater.

The leak was discovered in 2000 by Lockheed but at the time the company was not compelled by Florida law to disclose its finding.  Residents only learned of the carcinogenic leak 3 years later. They have been seeking justice from Fortune 500 ever since. 

The cancer-causing agents like trichloroethylene (TCE), common machine degreaser, makes the ground water prohibitively dangerous.  Lockheed has acknowledged that it will take 50 years to restore the town to pre-toxic levels.  Despite this, they have refused to locate the 80 homes of this historic town.  

The terms of the settlement have not yet been made public by the company or Tellevast residents.

Read more:

At the edge of the Everglades in Florida's Manatee County, lies a small historically black town called Tallevast. Devoid of any sidewalks, Tallevast is populated by merely 250 residents and only 80 homes where neighbors are often times family members.  Taking up five acres of this 1.5 square mile town, is a closed down beryllium plant that was once the American Beryllium Company which manufactured beryllium metal parts for nuclear weapons for the Cold War. The plant was opened in 1961, four years before the Voting Rights Act, and was closed in 1996 after the Cold War ended and nuclear supplies became less in demand.  The plant employed local residents who ended up breathing toxic dust and handling a toxic degreaser that was used to clean the machinery.   
In 2000, while Lockheed Martin was in the midst of preparing to sell the plant, it was discovered that toxic solvents from the degreaser had been leaking from an underground plume for as long as 38 years.  The pollution had seeped 200 acres underground.  Still showering and drinking from well water, Lockheed Martin never informed Tallevast residents that their health had been severely endangered with carcinogen laden water.  But in 2003, three years later, residents had discovered the truth by chance and the news spread quickly through the small town and ruined property values as Lockheed Martin estimated 50 years for clean up.
Not long after, residents began experiencing cancer and berylliosis, a deadly lung disease, that had many fearing their health related problems were due to the plant.  Desperate to leave Tallevast, residents demanded that Lockheed Martin pay to relocate them but the mega government defense contractor refused and claimed that "the contamination had been capped and Tallevast is a safe place to live."  Lockheed Martin cited a 2005 opinion from a Florida Department of Heath doctor who found that there was no "imminent" health threat.  However, residents strongly disagreed.  To date, 80 cancer cases have surfaced. That's one cancer case for each home in the small town.  
With $42 billion in revenue and $3.2 billion in profits in 2009, Lockheed Martin sat comfortably at number 54 on Fortune 500's list of America's largest corporations.  The corporation has the coffers to relocate 80 households.  But some residents suspect that the company is fearful that they will set a precedent for other communities embroiled in environmental justice disputes. Residents have filed four lawsuits and are now pitted against Lockheed Martin, Manatee County and the state of Florida.  
The first case, which had 300 plaintiffs, will be heard this October.  The residents claim that their health has deteriorated due to Lockheed Martin's negligence to properly inform them that their drinking water had been contaminated.  Lockheed Martin is fighting all the cases.  The giant corporation's defense is that it notified the state as required by law.  State officials have said that the law did not require the company to inform residents of the environmental hazard.  
Read the full article here

The Environmental Justice Resource Center of Clark Atlanta has found in an analysis that the waste caused by the BP oil spill is being dumped into majority black neighborhoods.  BP’s spill waste summary has claimed that it has disposed of 39,448 tons of oil waste as of July 15th in landfills located in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  Five out of the nine of those landfills are located in majority black neighborhoods.   Dr. Robert Bullard, who authored the analysis, has called the BP waste plan “a haunting pattern of environmental racism.”  The landfills that the tar balls and oily sand and boom are being dumped in are the same municipal landfills that house diapers, demolition debris and food waste.  BP is trying to quell fears of the hazard waste by telling residents the waste is not toxic or dangerous.  However, residents in these areas are concerned that the petroleum sludge will seep into groundwater and contaminate the drinking supply. 
Oily water is handled differently than oil solids.  The oil solids are bagged by BP contractors and shipped to the nearest landfill.  Oil sheen (what you see on the surface of the Gulf) is mixed with ash and turned into solids.  Oily water is usually processed for fuel.  BP claims that it has collected 836,000 barrels of oil water from the Gulf of Mexico.  The oil giant alleges that for every 17 gallons of seawater, they can produce one barrel of oil.  The money that is generated by this recovering process will be donated to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Photo by: MSN

New research shows that Latinos and Asians are disproportionately likely to live near toxic refineries or manufacturing plants.  Researchers from UC Irvine looked close to 12,000 people in homes through 6 communities in Southern California. They found that neighborhoods with 15 percent more Latinos than average were exposed to 84.3 percent more toxic waste. Those with 15 percent more Asians were exposed to 33.7 percent more toxic waste.

But the study in the journal of Health and Place also claims that income and race are not the biggest factors in predicting one’s proximity to a toxic chemical site.  Researcher, John Hipp told the Orange County Register that "it turned out more educated neighborhoods have fewer of these sites. It’s less an income thing and more of an education thing."

This could be because less-educated immigrant communities are not aware of the health risks associated with living in the shadow of a toxic site. 

To educate yourself on the risks of resedential refineries, check out pH’s coverage of Human Rights in Cancer Alley.The study appears in July’s online issue of Health & Place

(Photo by Sousveillance)

Administrator Lisa Jackson’s EPA has made Environmental Justice one of is central issues.  The Agency has been inviting participation on environmental discussions in some creative ways.  Most recently EPA’s EJ branch hosted a video contest to find the new "Faces of Grassroots."  Submissions ranged from a Green Hip Hop Video, to a youth produced News Reports to an animation.  Check out all the winning videos here.

Millions of Africans were separated from their families and homes by slavery, but some of their familiar foods came with them.

For 145 years June 19th has been the day that many African American communities mark emancipation. Juneteenth, as it’s known, is a day for picnics and cookouts in honor of the end of American slavery. What’s not often appreciated at those gatherings is the role that slaves played in bringing some of those picnic foods to American tables. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony producer Ike Sriskandarajah explores how culture and agriculture overlapped in that dark chapter of American history.

SRISKANDARAJAH: For a thousand years before the Atlantic slave trade started, the origin of humanity was also its cornucopia. Many of the world’s staple foods first sprouted from African soil. They’re on your picnic table- from the sesame seeds on your bun, to the Worcestershire sauce in your hamburger, to your slice of watermelon. And if you reach into the cooler…


CARNEY: The cola in coca-cola is an African plant as well- the cola nut.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Judith Carney, is the author of, “In The Shadow of Slavery, Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World.” Her book traces the path of food that traveled with slaves. Including an ingredient in the world’s most ubiquitous fizzy drink

CARNEY: Cola, came on slave ships- they used cola in the casks of water that were carried on the ships to refresh water that was going bad during the prolonged voyage

SRISKANDARAJAH: So they were drinking coke 400 years ago on slave ships?

CARNEY: No, no- (laughs)- you need the coca part of it to add the sugar, I think. The only thing, I would say it’s slightly more bitter than eating a potato raw.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Another of our favorite drinks, coffee, also comes out of Africa. And millet, black eyed peas… Judith Carney tracks the migration of these foods through historical records

CARNEY: I went back and looked at the journals and the diaries, what did the ship captains- the slavers- how are they feeding people for 6 weeks to 3 months voyages?

SRISKANDARAJAH: One such log was written by a seventeenth century slave trader, moored off the coast of Western Africa.


VOICEOVER: A ship that takes in 500 slaves, must provide about a hundred thousand yams; which is very difficult, because it is hard to stow them, by reason they take up so much room; and yet no less ought to be provided, the slaves being of such constitution, that no other food will keep them; so that they sicken and die apace.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The slaver’s human cargo was valuable. So captains bought food the captured Africans could eat, and they bought enough of it. Sometimes the ships would even land in the New World with surplus.

CARNEY: And that I argue, the unwitting conveyance of bringing African food to the Americas, was the slave ship.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Once in the Americas the slaves were scattered to work plantation cash crops. But they were also expected to feed themselves.

CARNEY: We think of plantations as places that produced export crops, but we don’t think about them as places where human beings had to also know how to farm for their own nourishment.

SRISKANDARAJAH: A Danish Traveler, Johan L. Carsten’s, wrote a diary describing his observations of the Americas during the early Eighteenth Century


VOICEOVER: These plantation slaves received nothing from their master in the way of food or clothing except only the small plot of land at the outermost extremity of his plantation land that he assigns to each slave.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The staples from Western Africa flourished in the South, and from those meager plots came a rich food tradition. It was good enough for slaves, it was even good enough for a founding father. Culinary Historian, Michael Twitty says that Thomas Jefferson actually bought food from his slaves.

TWITTY: Oh yeah, oh yeah. The day-to-day needs of his own kitchen table, much of that was supplied by the enslaved population of Monticello. There are extensive records of purchases for the main house from the enslaved communities. He would buy cabbage, he would buy watermelon, he’d buy sprouts.

SRISKANDARAJAH: President Jefferson wasn’t alone.

TWITTY: Before the new immigrants come in at the beginning of the 20th century, we are the ethnic restaurateurs of America.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And Twitty says that African Americans didn’t just add ingredients to America’s Melting Pot- they spiced it up.

TWITTY: Red pepper was the most important, ubiquitous spice.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So important, that in 1780, close to 100 slaves, newly imported from West Africa, protested until plantation owner Josiah Collins supplied the spice.

TWITTY: Within a year of their arrival he has to order 1000 pepper pods to season their food because they will not eat bland food. They express to him that, ‘we want the pepper pods!’

SRISKANDARAJAH: Hot sauce has been on most southern tables since. African American cuisine still has its roots in those peripheral plots but, but African Americans’ connection to the land has changed.

TWITTY: We were an agrarian people for millennia even through the period of slavery- and we went from being 90 percent agrarian to 90 percent urban in less than a 100 years- think about that.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Freedom wasn’t free, emancipation cost the slaves their link to the land. African Americans couldn’t own or lease land, their only option was punitive sharecropping.

TWITTY: All that oppression hurt us in the long run because it divorced us from the land, it divorced us from nature and through food we can reconnect with that and begin to repair those links.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s part of Michael Twitty’s mission, he works to bridge that gap. He’s put together the African American Heritage Seed Collection. It offers heirloom seeds to today’s gardeners.

TWITTY: To see an okra plant that you know that was growing in Mt. Vernon or Monticello, to see a kind of rice grown in the rice plantations of 17th century South Carolina- it gives you the sense of such connection. Because I always tell people- my own corny saying, but: growing history is knowing history.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And knowing history can turn your bowl of gumbo into a portal back through time. For Planet Harmony and Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Happy Juneteenth.

[MUSIC]: Carolina Cholcolate Drops “ Peace Behind The Bridge” from Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch Records 2009).

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During this Freedom Holiday season for African Americans, Planet Harmony is honoring ten African American Green Heroes for 2010 for their outstanding efforts to challenge environmental tyranny.

Two of the longest days of summer mark double freedom holidays for African Americans.

On July 4th, America as a whole comes together to celebrate the official break from the tyrannical King of England. America’s revolutionaries proudly declared in 1776 “all men are created equal….”

But equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence didn’t mean freedom from the tyranny of slavery for America’s people of African descent. In fact America’s Founders actually wrote into the original US Constitution that “other persons” –in other words, black slaves —were only equal to 3/5ths of free citizens.

That math didn’t start to be corrected in until on January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln used executive orders as commander in chief in the Civil War to free an estimated 20,000 African Americans slaves in Union-occupied territory of the rebel Confederacy.

By the end of the Civil War in April of 1865, most but not all of more than 4 million slaves were freed as the Union Army advanced through the South.
But not all had been freed, especially in Texas.

And so it was on June 19th of 1865 in Galveston, Texas—two and a half year’s after Lincoln’s Proclamation  –that Union General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for all enslaved Africans in the Southwest.

With few union troops in Texas, slaveholders were able to keep news of emancipation suppressed for nearly two and a half years.  But when the slaves finally found out it touched off a jubilant celebration that continues—now some 30 States have either official state holidays and days of observance of Juneteenth, and many have a musical theme that recalls the exuberant singing and dancing of the original Juneteenth.

For more info about Juneteenth:

Click to find Juneteenth events near you

Juneteenth America

National Juneteenth Holiday and Campaign