As temperatures hit record highs in Houston, Texas, recently, Robert Bullard, considered the father of the environmental justice movement, saw a pattern. Hospitalizations from heat stroke and health outcomes such as asthma from living next to noxious facilities in the city’s Black neighborhoods have the same root cause.
“It’s brutal. What you’re looking at is another example of the climate and health impacts that will all fall disproportionately on our most vulnerable communities,” Bullard says. “We’re talking about the same environmental justice communities that historically have borne tremendous equity impacts from power plants, refineries, oil and gas facilities.”
A distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and longtime activist, Bullard has written 18 books, including the landmark 1990 Dumping in Dixie, which documented how toxic waste sites and other facilities were disproportionately located in predominantly Black neighborhoods throughout the southern United States.
Bullard, a member of the White House environmental justice advisory council, says the US supreme court’s recent curtailing of federal authority over carbon emissions reductions at power plants “can be placed in that same arc of decisions that are basically taking away rights and not protecting the public” as supreme court decisions that are dismantling civil rights’ victories.
What does the supreme court’s decision to rollback federal authority on regulating power plants mean for Black, brown, and indigenous communities?
It sends a dangerous signal that the federal [EPA], which is the chief enforcement department in the country, has little or no authority to use science, data and facts to protect the public. It leaves it to the political whims of who is elected to a specific office.
When you start extending that whole idea that this whole regulatory authority is being unraveled, it’s like pulling a string on a coat. It provides unequal protection and uneven enforcement and uneven burdens on already overburdened communities, communities that have contributed the least to climate change. We are talking about even worse impacts on those frontline communities that are flooding and getting damaged by dangerous storms, droughts, wildfires and smoke. …That’s the unfairness of this court decision, not taking into account the cascading effect this will have on communities already overburdened with pollution and climate change.
The supreme court decision centered on what power the US government has to address climate change. Do you see parallels between the decision and the increasing natural disasters, heat waves and winter storms?
It’s all connected. When you talk about having a plan to address these issues, when you talk about heat waves, or you talk about hurricanes, or you talk about flooding, you talk about drought, the communities that are hit the hardest are the communities that have the least amount of resources to bounce back.
When money comes down for disaster recovery, too often, the money doesn’t follow the need. When the money goes to the state, the state tends to distribute monies in a way, historically, that will leave behind the most vulnerable, the hardest hit and communities of color. That kind of framework allows for the same kind of unequal treatment and equal treatment when it comes to the supreme court not allowing the EPA to regulate Co2 or emissions from power plants.
Texas is a textbook case for not having a federal policy that applies to all states. In the absence of that, you will have this patchwork. That applies to not just climate, not just greenhouse gases, but also voting and allowing states to gerrymander, suppress the vote – to do all the things that at one point, when we had a strong Civil Rights Act, would not be allowed to happen.
The same forces that are trying to turn back the clock when it comes to civil rights are the same forces that are dismantling environmental protections. You start looking at the court decisions and the practices at the state levels and you can see how it’s basically moving away from protection of public health, away from science, away from facts and away from participatory democracy and public health.
Historically, how has the federal government been able to tackle the disproportionate impact pollution has on communities of color?
When we look at the EPA, it was founded in 1970. All these many decades, it has attempted to address this unevenness and unequal protection. But it has not eradicated the fact that some communities have the wrong complexion for protection. Some communities are seen as sacrifice zones. They don’t have the political power, organizations and lawyers that can force dollars, resources, infrastructure to protect certain communities. We still have communities that are overpolluted and underprotected.
A lot of it has roots in systemic structural racism. When we talk about how the federal government can use its authority on enforcing equal protection, not allowing industries to just keep piling pollution, and not using federal dollars to allow states to discriminate. It’s against the law, but it still happens. We have to fight for more stringent enforcement, equal enforcement of our environmental laws, our housing laws, our transportation laws and our energy laws. All of it revolves around health – the health of the environment and healthy people.
When you get a court decision that basically says EPA doesn’t have that authority, it’s almost like saying: if the federal government doesn’t have the authority, then who does? We know that all states are not created equal. That’s the way the real world operates. America is segregated, and so is pollution.
For those trying to make changes in their own communities, what’s left to do after this supreme court decision?
We have to work on multiple issues. We don’t separate this court decision from trying to suppress the right to vote. We have to work on voting. We have to get our residents access to healthcare. Our groups are not just working on air pollution. Our groups are working on survival issues. We have to work on getting investments in our communities like the bipartisan infrastructure law. We have to work 24/7 to ensure that those dollars get into the communities that are most at risk when it comes to flooding, when it comes to legacy pollutants like SuperFund sites, when it comes to transportation. We have to talk about water systems and water infrastructure that’s falling apart.
At the same time, we have to fight to get individuals elected to the school board, the city council, the county commissioner, the state legislature and the Congress and president. This is the kind of strategy we have to continue to move forward in light of these bad decisions. We can’t just throw up our hands and say, ‘Oh, it’s hopeless.’ We have to persevere.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
July 18, 2022 at 02:58PM Edwin Rios