Poor neighborhoods tend to be disproportionately exposed to environmental pollution and toxins. Dillard University professor Beverly Wright talks to host Jeff Young about the Obama administration's policy on environmental justice.
YOUNG: California’s Senators, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein say they want Chemical Waste Management’s landfill expansion put on hold until the investigation is complete. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also taking a keen interest in Kettleman City. The EPA’s regional administrator even met with Mrs. Saucedo and others. That got the attention of experts in environmental justice.
Dr. Beverly Wright is a sociology professor at Dillard University and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans. Dr. Wright says she’s seeing a significant change in EPA’s attitude toward environmental justice issues, starting with the new administrator Lisa Jackson.
WRIGHT: I would say that we are extremely excited about the difference that we are now seeing at EPA. We have seen an increased interest in environmental justice with an administrator making open statements that environmental justice would be one of her priorities, because as soon as she was named she immediately began an initiative to make certain that children were safe in schools around the country and launched a large-scale study.
That sends an unbelievable signal, especially when you look at the fact that in the last eight years we have seen almost no movement for protecting minorities, or people of color, or vulnerable populations.
YOUNG: Now, we’re talking about Lisa Jackson, new administrator of the EPA under President Obama. She’s the first African American to lead the agency; she’s a native or your town, New Orleans…
WRIGHT: Yes, she is.
YOUNG: How does that personal background affect her view of these issues, do you think?
WRIGHT: Her personal background does influence her concern about health in minority or people of color neighborhoods of poor communities because she comes from a city that is predominately African American and poor. And she knows firsthand about pollution.
YOUNG: You know, you mentioned Administrator Jackson’s action on air quality near public schools, and this raises another aspect of her biography and that is that she’s a mother. And when I heard that news about the schools, I said to myself, that’s a mom. That’s that a mom’s kind of activity, isn’t it?
WRIGHT: Yes, it is, and she’s not just a mother, she’s a mother with a child who has asthma, and the city of New Orleans the asthma rates are extremely high among young, but we’re also a city where our first black mayor died from an asthma attack. The only fear that I have with this administration is that while Administrator Jackson is really pushing to get things done the coacher of some of these regional offices are such that she still won’t have enough time to make the changes she needs so that these new values can sort of trickle down throughout the agency.
YOUNG: What would you be watching for in a case like the Kettleman City, California case that would indicate real action and not just a change in rhetoric?
WRIGHT: When in fact you begin to see that something is taking place to protect people. In the Mississippi chemical corridor where I live, we have 136 petrochemical plants and six refineries over an 80-mile stretch of land. We release nearly 200 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil.
So you’re talking about an extremely polluted area. So, how do we first of all, stop the bleeding, what policies can we put in place to do that; and then, what do we do to protect the people on the ground who are being affected. If the scientists say that the science isn’t there to support that, but you’re looking at sick people, what do you do? And there are creative means that could be taken to keep the community safe.
YOUNG: It sounds like, in general, what you’re looking for is kind of an application of the precautionary principle to say, if we’re going to err it’s going to be on the side of caution and public safety.
WRIGHT: Absolutely. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. Erring on the side of caution. The bottom line for EPA should be the health of the community.
YOUNG: Dr. Beverly Wright directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Thank you very much.
WRIGHT: Thank you, bye bye.
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