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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Black History Month and Environmental Justice

Air Date: Week of February 18, 2011

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Hazel Johnson passed away in January. She leaves a legacy of environmental activism. Johnson fought to clean up asbestos and pollution in her Chicago neighborhood, and worked with the federal government to focus attention on environmental issues affecting minority and low-income communities. Planet Harmony and Living on Earth’s Ebony Payne has this tribute.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: This February marks the 35th Anniversary of Black History Month in America. It’s a time of celebration and commemoration but this year, it’s also one of sadness - for one of the champions of environmental justice, Hazel Johnson, has died. In this remembrance, Ebony Payne of our sister program Planet Harmony takes us back to February 1994.

PAYNE: Seventeen years ago this month, Hazel M. Johnson stood beside President Bill Clinton and watched nearly two decades of her work signed into law. The Executive Order on Environmental Justice mandated that federal agencies and laws treat minority and low-income communities equitably throughout the states.

Johnson knew firsthand how a toxic environment could tear a community apart. She was born in Louisiana’s infamous ‘Cancer Alley’ - oil refineries sickened her community when she was young. In the 1970s, Johnson lived in Altgeld Gardens, a public housing development in the south side of Chicago. The 190-acre Altgeld was surrounded by about 50 documented landfills, and there were more than 250 chemical waste dumps and storage tanks leaking underground in the area.

Johnson saw cancer-causing asbestos steal the lives of hundreds of her neighbors, including her husband, John. Hazel Johnson was interviewed for the documentary “Altgeld Gardens: Life in a Toxic Environment.”

[JOHNSON IN FILM: Well, I’m used to calling this area a toxic doughnut. We sit in the center of it, and we’re all surrounded by all types of pollution.]

PAYNE: So Johnson took action. She learned that the Riverdale Neighborhood, where Altgeld Gardens sits, had the highest incidence of cancer in all of Chicago, and began to investigate what was killing her community. She founded the People for Community Recovery in 1979. The group educated young Chicagoans about urban environmental issues - and about the toxins that were making them sick.

They pushed city officials to clean up the asbestos, and pressured them to stop the flow of cyanide-contaminated water into a senior citizen’s home. In 1993, Johnson served on the EPA’s first national Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Here, her voice became national, and she helped advise the EPA on how to address environmental justice for the very first time in the history of America. The 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice grew from Johnson’s contribution on the EPA council, but went largely ignored during the Bush administration.

Now, Lisa Jackson, EPA’s first black administrator, has put environmental justice high on her agenda. Hazel M. Johnson was called the mother of environmental justice. Her voice may now be silent, but her influence lives on. For Planet Harmony and Living On Earth, I'm Ebony Payne.

GELLERMAN: Our online sister program, Planet Harmony, welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com.

 

 

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