Written by Brooks Berndt
In December, news outlets ranging from the New York Times to Mother Jones magazine were touting the leadership of California at the UN climate summit in Paris. The LA Times portrayed Governor Jerry Brown’s active presence in Paris as representing not only the crafting of his “political legacy” but also his preoccupation with preventing “catastrophe.” Yet, environmental lawyers, community activists, and faith leaders are increasingly bringing to the public’s awareness what has long been California’s dirty secret. In a state known for its environmentalism, environmental racism has remained a festering, unbridled sin.
Last summer, a lawsuit was filed against Brown and California Oil and Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen shortly after California instituted regulations for the practice of fracking, the injection of a chemical-water mixture underground to extract oil. The lawsuit asserted that the regulations discriminated against students of color who disproportionately attended schools close to permitted oil wells. More recently, another lawsuit has been filed against the city of Los Angeles for its approval of oil drilling in neighborhoods populated by people of color. Earlier this week the LA Times reported, “Working-class, minority neighborhoods in Wilmington and South Los Angeles have been plagued for years by foul odors, noise and dirt from oil operations that are practically in their backyards.”
Another battle front against environmental racism is also in Oakland, California. In the low-income, predominantly black and Latino community of West Oakland, a proposed coal terminal is being challenged by local advocates. In a statement entitled “Black Lungs Matter,” the Alameda Interfaith Climate Action Network cited the history of the environmental justice movement upon which they are building. In particular, the statement noted the work of the Rev. Ben Chavis and the Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States report issued by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. The statement then detailed research that demonstrated how the residents of West Oakland already live in a community that suffers from high levels of pollution. Those living in the neighborhood experience “five times more toxic pollution per person than residents of the city of Oakland,” while “children in West Oakland are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average child in the state of California.”
The Rev. Laurie Manning of Skyline Community Church UCC in Oakland has been active in struggles against both fracking and the proposed coal terminal. In November, she joined an interfaith coalition to deliver a letter to Brown that called for a halt to fracking. On Tuesday of last week, Manning went to Oakland’s City Hall with Becky Taylor, a former Oakland Port Commissioner and a member of Skyline’s green team. At a rally before the City Council met, Manning spoke of the pride she felt about Governor Brown’s environmental leadership in Paris, but then asked, “Why would we want to be complicit in prolonging and accelerating this environmental and humanitarian health crisis?” The hope is that this complicity will end as the state’s dirty secret continues to be exposed and growing pressure forces elected officials to act in the public’s interest rather than the interests of the fossil fuel industry.