From the Metro Times:

Standing on her front porch, Bettie Simmons can plainly point out why an environmental justice movement is so necessary.

“Look, I just cleaned this last week,” the 71-year-old says as she points to the black dust that collects in clumps on window frames of her southwest Detroit home. “It didn’t use to be like that here.”

At his home nearby, Roland Wahl has mysterious gluey silver particles stuck on his backyard grill cover. “Some of the particles are so fine, they’re like powdered sugar. And you breathe them,” he says. He’s also annoyed by the roar of the trucks that carry supplies, equipment and more workers to nearby industrial sites that weren’t there when he moved in 40 years ago.

Up the street from Wahl, Linda Chernowas often finds a black, oily film on the pool in her yard. She describes it in a raspy voice. She’s been diagnosed with reflex laryngitis, and her doctor told her to move out of her neighborhood, believing the pollution is exacerbating her condition.

The three are longtime residents of the area near where I-75 crosses the Rouge River. It’s within ZIP code 48217.

Simmons, Chernowas and Wahl insist it was nothing like this when they and other long-time residents moved to the area. Now they say the continued industrial development — the Marathon Petroleum oil refinery expansion, new sewage treatment facilities, asphalt yards and other heavy industry — has diminished their quality of life and is damaging their health.

They’d sell their homes and move, but what can they get for them? The recent real estate downturn is bad enough, but the area’s continued industrialization leaves them little hope. Who would buy a house and move to a street with trucks roaring by, the smell of sewage treatment in the air and the smoky glow of the oil refinery dominating the skyline?

The Detroit City Council has refused residents requests for a moratorium on industrial development in the area. That would cost the city much-needed jobs. And residents protested in 2007 before the council approved Marathon’s $2.2 billion expansion in a deal that included about $176 million over 20 years in property tax exemptions.

These residents are on the frontline of the environmental justice movement, the roughly 35-year-old effort to ensure that minority and low-income communities aren’t disproportionately paying the high price of industrialization with their health, quality of life and property values.

Environmental justice advocates — largely local community organizations but a growing number of government bureaucrats — seek to draw attention to the human costs of “progress” and protect the residents who live near pollution sources.

It’s where environmental advocacy and civil rights meet to demonstrate the consequences of capitalism that are often brushed aside in the quest for development and profits. The movement is about establishing a balance — or at least making sure residents are considered in plans for development, expanded industry and construction projects.

“The main difference between regular environmental protectionism and advocacy and environmental justice is we bring human beings into the equation,” says Patrick Geans-Ali, communications coordinator at East Michigan Environmental Action Council. “Typically, with most environmental groups — and we’re about this 100 percent as well — it’s land protection, air quality, water quality, land use, animal rights and protection. We’re for all those things, but we feel a lot of the time when it comes to environmental justice, what’s missing is the protection of human beings.”

And in its 35 years, the environmental justice movement has had varying successes and failures.

“It’s still a struggle,” says Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and widely considered one of the movement’s pioneers. “The environmental justice community is saying we need to make sure the EPA and other agencies hold the line.”

Bullard says the movement suffered “a great deal of slippage and pushback” under Bush administration policies that favored industry over “costly” regulations and extensive permitting. But Bullard credits President Barack Obama and his EPA administrator for making environmental justice a priority for the agency.

That attention has not come without critics. An Investor’s Business Daily editorial in October wondered if “green socialism” was the EPA’s goal and criticized the agency for hiring an environmental justice coordinator. And the current climate in the U.S. House of Representatives could put roadblocks in the movement’s path.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) recently released a list of 110 anti-environment votes taken in the house this year. Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, calls this chamber “the most anti-environment House of Representatives in history” intent on removing controls on power plants, oil refineries and factories in the name of jobs and profits.

But movement leaders insist environmental justice has an important economic development component, especially for people who live near industry.

“We do green jobs,” says Sandra Yu, a program manager at the nonprofit Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, “but we’ve also got to do advocacy work that produces policy that encourages local people getting hired in projects.”

As the environmental justice movement refocuses for the 21st century, it also seeks to increase and support the green economy and increase collaboration between grassroots environmental justice and community groups and governmental agencies.

“If I had to really define the environmental justice movement in 2011, it would be that it still defines environmental in the context of where we live, work, play, learn and worship, as well as the physical and natural world. It emphasizes the whole idea that the movement is a grassroots, bottom-up, community-based movement,” Bullard says.

“We emphasize the whole idea that a centerpiece of the justice movement is that we speak for ourselves. That’s still a theme that says communities that are the most impacted should be able to speak for themselves.”

Strategies for doing that will be part of a national environmental justice conference in Detroit next week, only the fourth such annual gathering sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It will draw an expected 500 participants. The conferences themselves are one measure of how what began as a protest movement has had an impact and influence on the establishment.

“We want to be a catalyst for Detroit becoming this new urban center where everyone could thrive in economic, environmental and social health. In pursuit of that goal, we focus on green jobs, civic engagement and sustainable development,” says Yu, who is involved with planning the conference. “If you’re talking about sustainable development, we don’t want it to happen to people, we want it to happen together.”

The national conference, headquartered at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, will hold meetings downtown that will focus on green job creation, the detection of pollution sources, and how to build better relationships between governmental agencies and community groups.

“Having the meeting in Detroit is more than just symbolic,” Bullard says. “Detroit used to be the Motor City. It used to be a city of homes. Detroit used to be one of the major industrial manufacturing cities in the country.”

Attendees — state and federal governmental workers, and local and national environmental justice advocates — will tour the southwest Detroit neighborhoods where Simmons, Chernowas and Wahl live to see what toll the residents are paying for the past and present industry in the area.

“We always do a community tour so people can actually go out and see what some of the folks are dealing with,” says Laura McKelvey, group leader of the office of air quality, planning and standards in the community and tribal programs group at the EPA. “It’s a great learning experience for the federal participants so they can get an on-the-ground sense of what people out in the real world are facing.”

Patterns of pollution

Beginning in the late 1970s, environmental justice advocates started fighting against and publicizing the siting of landfills, incinerators and other polluting facilities in minority and low-income areas. The first landmark dispute was a 1979 case in Houston, where African-American homeowners fought to keep a landfill out of their suburban neighborhood. The resulting lawsuit was the first to challenge the location of a waste facility using federal civil rights law.

Three years later, protests over the location of a PCB-laden landfill in North Carolina — in a rural, mostly African-American county — drew national attention. That led to a 1983 U.S. General Accounting Office study that found about 75 percent of hazardous waste landfills in eight Southern states were in predominantly black communities.

Then in 1987, the national study “Toxic Waste and Race” found that race — not income level, land value or homeownership rates — was the most powerful predictor of where waste facility sites were located.

“It’s no coincidence that the majority of landfills, waste facilities, industrial waste sites are in communities of color,” says Richard Hofrichter, the senior director of health equity at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “You can’t explain that away too easily. There’s a pattern.”

Much more.

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