Lunch & Learn: Environmental Justice and Appalachia
By Briagenn Adams, CG News
The Office of Sustainability at Ohio University invited Dr. Harold Perkins, Assistant Professor in the Geography Department, to speak on Monday about Environmental Justice in Appalachia.
Perkins takes pride in being an urban political ecologist, dealing with the social-political component of managing the environment. “There is no aspect of nature, no aspect of the environment that isn’t in some sense social,” he said.
The birth of the environmental justice movement began in 1978 in Warren County, North Carolina when unscrupulous business owners knowingly dumped more than 30,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl onto shoulders of North Carolina roadways, contaminating the soil for miles around.
The serious issue, however, was the fact that Warren County is a rural, predominantly black and poor community, and the residents felt as if they had become victim of environmental racism.
This event sparked the largest peaceful civil disobedience since the Civil Rights Era, resulting in over 500 arrests. Eventually, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was forced commit to detoxifying the site by 2004, at a tremendous expense. In 1987, a United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice study determined that minority status is the single best predictor of location for toxic waste facilities in or near communities.
“Mainstream environmentalist usually focus on the non-human victims for environmental concerns,” Perkins explained. “They don’t really think of the environment as where we work, live, and play.” But in reality, the higher rates of cancer, asthma, and other life-threatening diseases prevalent in these marginalized communities actually place the residents on a small-scale “endangered species” list.
The problem is that the people living in these places tend to lack the resources found in richer locations. They do not have the money to hire a lawyer to sue the companies who are dumping their toxins, nor do they have the funding to relocate. And the environmental justice situation is not much different in Appalachia, Ohio, according to Perkins.
Perkins went on to explain about so-called “sacrifice zones,” that are currently viewed as a necessary aspect of our capitalist economy. Appalachia, with its long history of “boom and bust” extractive economy in logging, coal, oil and gas, has become a prime target for environmental abuse.
Pollution and environmental degradation in Appalachia is perhaps greater in magnitude than any other instance that has galvanized environmental justice activists in other locations, but the “jobs versus environment” debate has prevented change. Because of the dire economic situation in Appalachia, many people in the community prioritize their jobs over the effects of pollution.
This became clear in a recent case, which took place in Little Hocking, Ohio, when a local company was convicted of having released chemicals into the environment for over 50 years. Residents were finally notified in 2008 that they had the highest level of C8 contaminated water on earth, but were still fearful to speak out because of their employment
or pension with the company. As Perkins pointed out, people should not have to choose between a livelihood and contamination. “This is a contradiction,” he said.
“Environmental advocates are sympathetic towards jobs and livelihood, we can’t blame the Appalachians for wanting prosperity,” Perkins said. “But we need to balance the deed for development with the need for environmental safety.”
What we need to do, Perkins said, is bear in mind community concerns while considering the intergenerational consequences of our actions, and how poor environmental protection in exchange for temporary economic benefits will irreversibly damage the lives of our children and grandchildren in the future.
“We need to think long-term,” Perkins said.
According to Perkins, right now, the best course of action is communication. “There is a stunted form of public participation in environmental decision-making,” Perkins said. “It is obviously not in an industry’s best interest to freely give out information regarding environmental policies.”