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Senate Seeks Environmental Justice for Disadvantaged Hurt by Climate Change

July 23, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — Tracy Harden, owner of Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, told a Senate panel Thursday about how a 2019 flood along the Mississippi River Delta devastated her community.

High waters inundated 548,000 acres, nearly half of it cropland. Hundreds of residents in the sparsely populated area were left with no place to go as the water flooded 686 homes.

“This annual flooding has an enormous, lasting impact on the region well beyond folks not being able to frequent Chuck’s Dairy Bar because they’re not making a paycheck,” Harden said. “Populations are decreasing, economic opportunity is fleeing and lives and livelihoods are being lost.”

She testified to the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Superfund, waste management and regulatory oversight as it considers how to help disadvantaged persons who suffer the brunt of natural and environmental disasters.

“In 2019, we saw the worst of it,” Harden said as she mentioned two of her local residents who drowned. “But unfortunately, we, the residents of the South Delta, know we haven’t seen the last of it.”

She was referring to climate change. The flooding that has become a nearly annual event for her community is causing similar heartbreaking disasters throughout the United States as global warming sinks its teeth into the everyday lives of Americans, according to other witnesses and lawmakers.

“We cannot ignore the fact that while we all feel its effects, the worst consequences of pollution and the ravages of climate chaos disproportionately fall on communities of color and communities with the fewest resources for either adapting or recovering,” said Sen. Jeffrey Merkley, D-Ore., the subcommittee chairman.

He mentioned the Bootleg Fire in his home state of Oregon as one of 80 wildfires burning across western states, partly a result of climate change.

The Bootleg Fire alone burned through 400,000 acres of land by Thursday, contributing to wildfire pollution that has been detected as far away as New York City.

Other pollutants that hurt disadvantaged persons are more directly man-made, Merkley said. They include landfills, factories and chemical companies located in impoverished areas where they are least likely to run into resistance from local residents hungry for jobs.

Until recently, “The cost of these decisions and policies has been ignored,” Merkley said.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., referred to the discriminatory decisions as “environmental injustice,” which he defined as “adverse health or environmental impacts [that] fall disproportionately on minority and low-income populations.”

Many of the Biden administration’s proposals for confronting environmental injustice can be found in the president’s American Jobs Plan and the American Rescue Plan.

As originally proposed, the American Jobs Plan still pending in Congress would spend $2 trillion on U.S. infrastructure over eight years.

The money would be dedicated largely to projects such as roads and transit systems, “at home” infrastructure like water pipes and broadband and the “care economy” to assist elderly and disabled persons.

Senators at the hearing Thursday spoke about the need for new water pipes, particularly to replace the lead pipes commonly found in older homes. Lead from the pipes has been traced to cancer and liver disease. 

The American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11, is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus program to speed up the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession it caused.

It sets aside $50 million for environmental justice grants.

Another pending environmental justice bill is the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act. It would authorize $35 billion over five years for drinking water and wastewater cleanup projects with a heavy focus on assisting low-income and marginalized communities.

Witnesses at the Senate hearing tried to give examples of why the new funding is necessary.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, director of the nonprofit Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, talked about a trip she once took along the Lower Mississippi River to view environmental hazards.

“I was shocked by what I saw,” Flowers said. “It’s almost like a Disneyland of petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River.”

She called the area “Cancer Alley.”

Delbert Rexford, a Native American leader and resident of Utqiagvik, Alaska, talked about how thawing permafrost revealed toxic waste left over from years of oil drilling and refining.

“We could smell the diesel, the fuel,” he said.

Another time, northern Alaska residents of a rural village started getting sick, sometimes dying from cancer.

“The community could not understand why everyone was getting sick,” Rexford said.

A later environmental study found radioisotopes in the community’s drinking water.

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