For years, I have worked as a community organizer in the Gulf – and am currently the Mississippi Organizer for Gulf Restoration Network. After years of working alongside coastal communities, I was recently appointed to a workgroup for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC). NEJAC is an advisory council that meets to ensure that communities have meaningful input on environmental justice issues.
It’s a fact: poor people and people of color are more likely to live and work on the frontlines of pollution, toxic industry and environmental destruction.
For decades, these communities – the ones that are routinely targeted to host facilities and infrastructure with harmful environmental impacts – have been fighting for the health and safety of their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and parks. Today, we call this important work Environmental Justice; but even before the formal title, marginalized communities were fighting for clean, safe and healthy places to live.
The roots of the environmental justice movement are deep. In the 1970s, sociologist Dr. Robert Bullard made a dismaying discovery: Houston landfills and incinerators were far more likely to be located in communities of color than in white neighborhoods. This realization launched a lifetime of environmental justice work for Dr. Bullard, and he is widely considered the “father of the environmental justice movement.”
The hard work of environmental justice leaders and movements of the past, led President Clinton to sign Executive Order 12898 which instructs federal agencies to address environmental justice in their activities.
Environmental Justice Communities have two main identifying characteristics: 1) residents receive disproportionate harm from a project, and 2) there is a lack of meaningful engagement for residents during the planning and permitting process.
Across the Gulf, there are examples of strong communities fighting for environmental justice:
- In Bayou Casotte, the Cherokee Concerned Citizens (CCC) are fighting to reduce the multiple sources of industrial pollution affecting their neighborhoods.
- In North Gulfport, there in an ongoing effort to fill 435 acres of precious wetlands – not only destroying this important ecosystem, but also threatening the community with flooding from dirty storm-water and heightened flood insurance rates.
- After the BP Oil Disaster, many workers were exposed to toxic dispersants and were not given the opportunity to meaningfully engage in the decision making process.
I am excited that the NEJAC meeting is happening in the Gulf - specifically in Gulfport, MS - because we face so many environmental threats in this region. The role of the council is to provide an avenue for communities, who have been excluded and marginalized for so long, to speak directly with decision makers about the issues they are working on. Now more than ever, Gulf communities need to be heard.
This week, March 16-17, there is an NEJAC meeting happening in Gulfport and communities from across the coast will be together, sharing stories of what their communities face, engaging with administrators and demanding real change.
This is important work for the Gulf – and an important moment for communities that have gone so long without having a seat at the table. Yet, this is not a silver bullet for the Gulf. There is important work happening through NEJAC, and I know that important work will continue outside of this council.
Here are some of the wonderful organizations working on environmental justice in the Gulf: STEPS Coalition, Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, Moving Forward Network and TEJAS.
Howard Page is GRN's Mississippi Organizer. He is also an organizer for the STEPS Coalition.
Photo Credit: University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment