Putting Quality-of-Life Issues at the Core of Environmental Movement

Print by Ricardo Levins Morales
Print by Ricardo Levins Morales
Symposium participants share stories, strategies of taking on big industry, agriculture.

By Rona Kobell, Bay Journal

When a large energy company came to Myersville, MD, in 2011 requesting permission to build a compressor station for its natural gas delivery, Ann Nau and her neighbors thought they’d win the fight to keep it out.

Dominion Transmission, a subsidiary of Virginia-based Dominion Resources, hoped to build the station less than one mile from the Frederick County, MD, town’s only elementary school. Nau, who had a child at the school, worried about air emissions from the 16,000-horsepower station. She worried about overwhelming the town’s small fire department, about traffic on its small-town roads, noise and fumes.

The neighbors organized a group, Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community. They wrote letters. They packed public meetings. And when the town zoning board unanimously denied the zoning variance Dominion needed, Nau and her neighbors rejoiced.

Myersville compressor station
Myersville compressor station

But about a month ago, the Myersville compressor station fired up its engines, and has just announced plans to double its capacity. Nau and her neighbors lost the fight because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Dominion a certificate of public convenience, authorizing the project. The FERC approval trumped the local zoning decisions.

“We did all the things we were supposed to do,” Nau said. “To have that so easily ignored by a regulatory body was really disheartening.”

Nau was one of several citizens-turned environmental activists telling their stories at the third annual Symposium on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health Disparities in Maryland and Washington, DC. The two-day event at the University of Maryland in College Park drew hundreds of students, environmental activists and researchers. Their goal: Move the Chesapeake Bay cleanup beyond oysters and crabs and into quality-of-life issues, like the right for all people to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

“This should be at the core of the environmental movement. Why is it on the fringe?” asked Sacoby Wilson, director of the Initiative on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health at the university. “It’s about humanity. We need to value everyone.”

Companies are more likely to put chemical plants, incinerators and power- generating stations in areas where real estate is less expensive and zoning is favorable. These areas tend to have high concentrations of the poor or and people of color. According to a National Institutes of Health study published in 2011, African-Americans were much more likely than whites to live in the areas with the “worst air quality.” That proximity leaves residents at risk for a number of conditions, including asthma and certain kinds of cancer.

Asthma is an indicator of the air quality in a neighborhood, though it can also be hereditary. Nationwide, African Americans are three times more likely to be hospitalized for and die from asthma. African-American women have the highest mortality rates for those for suffer from asthma, more than twice the rate for white women, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation. And African-American children are more than twice as likely to contract asthma, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Besides Nau’s experiences with the Dominion compressor station, conference attendees heard from West Virginia residents who attempted to stop fracking in their communities, as well as researchers working in seaside African-American communities that are more vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise. Activists fighting an incinerator in Curtis Bay, in an industrial area in Baltimore, discussed their struggle. And rural dwellers who bought homes in the country only to find themselves in the midst of a quickly industrializing agriculture industry talked about the perils of taking on “Big Chicken.”

Maria Payan, a resident of York County, PA, showed photos of her home surrounded by intensive agriculture operations. She told attendees that fighting industry to preserve quality of life involves knowing the Right to Farm Law, Freedom of Information Act and the best ways to reach legislators. Even then, sometimes the victories are small. “You have to keep plugging away,” she said. “If you don’t stand up and fight, you don’t have any chance.”

One small victory came earlier this year, when the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement included a “diversity outcome.” According to Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale, codifying the need for diversity in the agreement recognizes the concerns of communities of color and of lower economic status. They need to be valued and they need access to information about events or conditions that can affect their health, such as advisories on fishing in contaminated rivers, he said.

The diversity outcome was included after the Bay Program received more than 2,400 comments about the agreement. In addition to a lack of diversity outcome, Bay watershed residents were also concerned that none of the outcomes addressed climate change or toxics. They do now.

Of the people who live near the incinerators and the chemical plants, Wilson said, “their lives should be valued. Their blood should be valued. Their spirit should be valued.”

But the fight for environmental justice can be a lonely one. Frederick Tutman, who delivered the conference’s keynote address, acknowledged as much. He is the only African-American Riverkeeper in the Bay watershed. His river, the Patuxent, runs through a diverse collection of landscapes. Among them are expensive homes in densely populated Howard County, rural farms in Upper Marlboro, a trailer park in the shadow of a power plant on the Calvert County border and the job-starved communities in the Washington, DC, commuting corridor.

“People have repeatedly told me that black folks don’t care about the environment. That strikes me as an absolutely absurd concept,” Tutman said. People of color care deeply about the environment, he said, but environmental leaders have to meet them where they are. That means talking about uncomfortable topics. Like wealth. Like access. Like race.

“This work does nothing if it just benefits crabs and oysters. It also has to benefit people,” he said. “This job, it’s huge, but it’s also empowering. We’re helping people solve their own problems — not the ones we bring them, but the ones that were there already.”

Wilson was a driver behind a bill introduced in last year’s Maryland General Assembly that would require lawmakers to look at the cumulative impacts of allowing polluting industries, like incinerators, to move into certain areas. The Curtis Bay community in Baltimore, which is already home to several chemical plants, is fighting plans to put an incinerator within its boundaries.

Wilson said he and his coalition partners would introduce the bill again this year.

As for Nau, she and her neighbors continue their fight. They are watching the compressor very closely. They have filed a federal lawsuit against FERC. And they are joining forces with citizens in Lusby, Calvert County, who oppose a liquefied natural gas facility at Cove Point. FERC has approved that site as well. Myersville residents worry that the combination of fracked gas from the Marcellus in Western Maryland will run through the Myersville compressor to ships at Cove Point, where it will be exported to Asia. The gas companies will make money, but they fear, everyone else will lose.

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