Powell: Poverty, pollution: a toxic mix

Media and public opinion have made us aware of the environmental racism in Flint, Mich. Under the management of the state, the drinking water source was changed to a cheaper supply. More than 100,000 residents, predominately people of color, were subjected to high levels of lead in the water due to deficient treatment. This has caused significant health problems.

John Powell

Chemical toxicity can affect anyone, but poor and disenfranchised communities feel the effects more deeply. Poverty, class and racial discrimination often relegate them to live near industrial installations and urban centers where automobile traffic is heavy. Their livelihoods depend on occupations that pollute the environment. Corporations are prone to place facilities with toxic pollutants in those locations.

Robert Bullard, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, says, “I see what’s happening in Flint as the classic case and a poster child for environmental racism.”

Here are two other communities that have experienced the effects of dumping or the release of hazardous waste in their communities:

— Uniontown, Ala.: Ninety percent of its 1,600 residents are black, and the county is 70 percent black. A landfill in this community accepted toxic industrial waste after a dam breach. The landfill also accepts toxic waste from 33 states. Residents are deeply concerned about the water quality in their community.

— Kettleman City, Calif.: Kettleman is a poor Latinx town. Birth defects and infant deaths have been cited as a result of a chemical waste facility.

Economist William J. Kruvant says, “Living in poverty areas is bad enough. High pollution makes it worse.”

The problems in these cities are symptomatic of a larger disease — a lack of concern for the disenfranchised. Our refusal to take seriously the concerns of these communities shows we think they don’t deserve equal protection.

Ecological activists have protested. Lawsuits have been filed. Some cities are enacting legislation to combat potential ecological devastation. Yet pollution continues at a record pace. Federal safeguards on climate change have been rolled back so that industries can increase their pollutant activity.

Most people of faith connect their convictions with caring for all of God’s creation. Caring for the vulnerable of society is a crucial element of creation care. Faith communities have worked to alleviate hunger and provide comfort for the sick. However, there are people who are indifferent toward the devastating effects our actions have on the places we live. Our communities are experiencing the outcome of this disinterest.

Many people believe governmental agencies should protect our communities from hazardous chemicals. The opposite is occurring. There’s been an increase in carbon pollution from coal-fired plants as a result of relaxed federal regulations. With the lowering of emission standards comes an increase in health problems, like lung cancer and premature deaths.

We can demonstrate solidarity with the dispossessed by not supporting politicians and groups that promote toxifying our communities. We need to help each other change our lifestyles, because pollutants harm all of us.

John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has worked as a pastor, preacher and teacher in Mennonite churches and institutions.

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