As chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Environment and Hazardous Materials, I would like to discuss the issue of environmental justice, also called environmental racism.
Many people in minority and poorer communities do not realize the extent to which they are negatively and disproportionately affected by environmental issues. There has also been a lack of attention to the issue at the federal level, which is why the matter is all the more urgent today.
I lived as a child in Warren County, N.C., a poor, predominantly African American community considered by many to be the birth place of the environmental justice movement. In 1978, transformer oil contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs was illegally dumped on North Carolina roadsides. The Environmental Protection Agency approved a landfill to dispose of the contaminated soils leading to more than six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests. In 1993, the community's greatest fear was realized. The landfill seal began to fail, threatening to contaminate drinking water. Decontamination of the landfill was not completed until 2003.
During this year's Congressional Black Caucus' Annual Legislative Conference, similar horror stories emerged from Tennessee, South Carolina, and many other minority communities throughout America. In fact, statistics show that nationally, minorities are much more likely to live next to toxic dumps. A 1987 study done by the United Church of Christ found that race, more than income or home values, was the main predictor for the location of hazardous waste facilities. Amazingly, according to that study, people of color were 47 percent more likely to live near a hazardous waste facility than White Americans!
In 1994, President Clinton attempted to address these problems by issuing an Environmental Justice Executive Order, directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take issues of environmental justice into account in their rulemaking. However, a 2004 EPA report found that this had not happened.
Minorities are also exposed to disproportionately higher levels of air pollution in the U.S. Young Black children are much more likely to live next to coal-burning plants which emit dangerous carbon emissions, negatively affecting the health of infants and also resulting in higher prevalence and death rates from asthma. Puerto Rican children have an asthma rate 140 percent higher than non-Hispanic White children, and although African Americans account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 25 percent of all asthma deaths!
On Oct. 4, my Subcommittee on the Environment and Hazardous Materials held the first hearing ever held on the issue of Environmental Justice in the House of Representatives. At this hearing, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the EPA's efforts to incorporate environmental justice reviews were insufficient. We also discussed legislation that I support, H.R. 1103, "The Environmental Justice Act of 2007." This bill would turn President Clinton's executive order on environmental justice into law and correct major deficiencies in EPA's environmental justice work. During the hearing, we also considered H.R. 1055, the Toxic Right-to-Know Protection Act. This bill would restore the requirements for the reporting of toxic emissions data from polluting facilities and ensures that the information is reported annually to the EPA.
It is critical that the federal government focus on the environmental and human health conditions in minority and low-income communities in order to eliminate the very real and serious health disparities that minority communities face.
The issue of environmental justice is one that must be highlighted and discussed on the national stage. Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods in our society should not disproportionately bear the burden of living next to toxic facilities and suffering more medical ailments as result.
U. S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn is a Democrat from Maryland.