Patricia Hynes: Earth Day and the cause of environmental justice

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GREENFIELD >> On June 22, 1969, floating oil and combustible debris caught fire on the Cuyahoga River as it wound through Cleveland. While not the first river fire, it was the last for this and other fetid industrial rivers. Federal laws enacted in the early 1970s, in particular the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), began a more than 40-year uphill national effort to restore filthy rivers and to reduce, lung-injuring smog.

Ten months after the Cuyahoga River fire, the first Earth Day was launched. On April 22, 1970, 20 million people took to the streets in what was the largest political demonstration in history. They walked into polluted rivers with scuba gear, demonstrated at stockholders' meetings of corporate polluters, and conducted peaceful actions in front of the Interior Department. Ten thousand schools, 2,000 colleges and universities and almost every community took part. The U.S. Congress formally adjourned so that senators and representatives could attend teach-ins in their districts.

That afternoon I took my 25 11-year-old students to walk along the Brandywine Creek, which bisects Wilmington, Delaware. Maybe we picked up trash, maybe we just walked on the cobbly streambank — I don't remember.

The kids were mostly from the older, struggling east side of downtown Wilmington and the younger, uglier, angrier projects off Northeast Boulevard. They were second-class children in a state purported to have the highest per capita income and PhDs in the United States. Downtown Wilmington, a stone's throw from where we walked, was embellished with the Hotel DuPont and the DuPont corporate headquarters. Otherwise, it was a city of de facto segregated housing and schools.

I remember asking myself, as I watched kids jumping from stream boulder to stream boulder, what does this have to do with them? What do clean streams have to do with literacy, jobs, housing, and human dignity?

Time and events would answer my question.

The Housatonic River hosted health warning signs for those fishing when I was assigned as an EPA hazardous waste engineer in the early 1980s to oversee the study of the river, wetlands and floodplain pollution for eventual cleanup. General Electric's transformer division in Pittsfield had used the river as a sewer for toxic PCB waste from 1932 to 1977, which magnified through the river's food chain and concentrated in fish.

Studies suggested that the contaminated sediments were transported by the river and amassed behind downstream dams. The challenge of possible dredging and burying the contaminated sediments in a protected land site took me to meeting upon meeting with nearby towns to discuss a potential burial site for the toxic sediments. Predictably, no town was willing to offer their land, which left one option — a landfill in Warren County, South Carolina designated by the state and EPA for PCB wastes.

Poverty and pollution

Not long after, I learned of a public protest in Warren County led by African-American women who formed a human chain and blocked trucks' entry to the landfill. Their message: stop dumping other people's hazardous waste in our community.

This ignited the incipient environmental justice movement, a movement that now links poor, unjustly polluted communities of color and Native Americans in the US with climate justice activists in developing countries unjustly burdened by climate change caused by wealthy industrial countries. We are all on the Titanic, observed a Kenyan ecologist at the recent Paris climate conference, but the wealthy own the lifeboats.

The issues that plague our Earth in the 21st century are structural and systemic: climate change; plastics in oceans; GMO agriculture; loss of open space and biodiversity; environmental injustice and inordinate corporate power that stifles local democracy. Our state of Massachusetts is a microcosm embodying them all; and passionate, strategic citizen activism to reverse these plagues has fired up every corner of the state.

At least 27 cities and towns — many on bays and the Atlantic coast — have banned varied kinds of plastic. For more than 10 years, inner city Boston residents have stymied the siting of an extremely high risk biodefense/bioweapons research laboratory at Boston University Medical Center, which is located in a dense, urban neighborhood with a majority of low-income and minority residents.

The State House abounds with intense lobbying campaigns to lift the cap on net metering for large solar projects, to divest fossil fuels from the state pension fund, to put a fair price on fossil fuels, and to permit labeling of GMO foods. Organic farm and gardens, farmers' markets, permaculture and eating locally — all have deep, permanent roots throughout the state. After a decade of obstructive wealth-driven campaigns against wind power, three offshore wind projects are finally in the works.

Western Massachusetts is a cauldron of protest against the Kinder Morgan fracked gas pipeline. Preserving state-owned land protected under Article 97 of the Constitution from Kinder Morgan's corporate theft, beginning with Otis State Forest in rural Sandisfield, is a cause in which every community in the state with conserved open space has a personal stake. The Nolumbeka Project, beloved in the Connecticut River Valley, was founded to preserve New England's Tribal Heritage — a 12,000-year legacy of Earth connection and sustainability.

The arc of environmental protection is long but it bends toward environmental justice.

Patricia Hynes, a retired EPA environmental engineer and professor of environmental health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.


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