Dr. Sacoby Wilson
The Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland – College Park was the site for the fifth annual Symposium on Environmental Justice and Health Disparities. The Rachel Carson Council was a sponsor of the day-long event held under the leadership of Dr. Sacoby Wilson, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Maryland’s School of Public Health. Wilson, who is Director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health (CEEJH) Lab, kicked off the conference with a rousing call for the assembled academics, NGO leaders, and community organizers to not only carry out critical research, but to take action to end environmental racism.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin
Dr. Robert K. Musil
Dr. Wilson also hosted a session called “Climate Justice and Equity: Beyond the Green New Deal,” at which Dr. Robert K. Musil, President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, spoke, along with Tara Toles O’Laughlin, North American Director of 350.org, and Alaura Carter, Grassroots Coordinator of the Climate Reality Project.
Musil described the RCC’s environmental justice efforts with projects in North Carolina and Maryland. The RCC works there with communities and environmental justice groups to oppose the environmental, health, and economic inequalities associated with industrial hog and chicken production facilities, fracked gas pipelines and infrastructure, and the newer, and less well-known, problem of the clear cutting of forests to manufacture industrial scale shipments of wood pellets to Europe in order to produce electricity. The adverse effects of all these facilities, Musil pointed out, are concentrated in a few counties in North Carolina and Maryland where the communities that suffer are poor, rural and disproportionately African American, Latino and Indigenous, such as the Lumbee Nation.
Musil added that the Green New Deal (GND), a resolution that was introduced in the House of Representatives in February, is a victory for the environmental justice movement. It specifically addresses economic inequality, calls for an economic “just transition,” and says that environmental justice communities must be included and heard in developing plans and policies needed to flesh out the GND. But, Musil warned, there are areas of concern not addressed specifically in the GND resolution that climate justice advocates like the RCC and others must raise as states legislatures and the Congress consider what steps need to be taken to ameliorate the climate crisis. Nuclear power, natural gas, wood pellets, and the use of biogas collected from hog wastes, Musil said, are neither renewable, sustainable or climate friendly.
Musil, Toles O’Laughlin and Carter all agreed that for the GND to succeed, environmentalists must actively engage at the local, state and Federal level, through education, organizing, lobbying and elections. Musil added that traditional environmental groups and campuses, like those in the RCC campus network, must support environmental justice communities and work to have their voices heard, including through financial support.
Echoing Sacoby Wilson’s opening call to action, Musil urged his audience to commit to action, to join and support those organizations already committed to a Green New Deal, and to come to Washington and make their voices heard — including at lobby days like those planned by the Rachel Carson Council for late October.
Throughout the day, the Symposium on Environmental Justice and Health Disparities modeled putting community members and representatives at the center of environmental work. A particularly powerful session was “CAFOs: ‘The Right to Harm’ on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Eastern North Carolina,” moderated by Maria Payan, Executive Director of the Peach Bottom Concerned Citizen’s Group, one of the principle people featured in the powerful new film, “The Right to Harm.” It tells the story of the adverse environmental, climate, and economic effects of CAFOs by looking at individuals whose lives have been disrupted. Payan opened the session with the film and then talked passionately about having to move out of her dream home that had lost all value because of wastes from chicken CAFOs. The session also featured Naeema Muhammad, Co-Director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Elsie Herring, a community advocate from Duplin County, North Carolina, whose family land was taken and surrounded by CAFOs. The nearby CAFOs spray hog wastes that have made ordinary life for Herring, her family, and her neighbors nearly impossible. Gina Burton, who faced similar problems from chicken CAFOs in Delaware, also spoke.
Marianne Engelman Lado
Mustafa Santiago Ali
Other parts of the symposium showcased local and state legislators concerned with environmental justice, activists leading fights against gas pipelines — including one in West Virginia that, if completed, will destroy the Boyd-Carter Cemetery, an historic African-American burying ground — and a workshop with Marianne Engelman Lado of Yale’s Schools of Public Health and Forestry and Environmental Studies, on how to bring civil rights suits against polluting industries under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The EJ Symposium concluded, as it began, with another stirring speech by Mustafa Santiago Ali, former head of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice during the Obama Administration and Vice President of Environmental Justice, Community and Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. Ali urged the assembled EJ activists and academics not only to fight for basic rights to clean air, clean water and community health, but also to offer a bold, positive vision of possibilities for frontline communities of a just transition that will lead them from “surviving to thriving.”