• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Black History Month and Environmental Justice

Air Date: Week of

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.


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.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth