In the previous post we saw the introduction to the Toledo environmental justice townhall, with some background on Ohio’s unfortunate environmental past and something of a more hopeful future embedded in prospects for an environmental justice bill. Now we move into the most substantial section of the meeting: the citizens’ accounts of specific current environmental justice struggles from around Northwest Ohio.
After the introductions we got into the meeting’s meat, the citizen testimonials, a time for testifying. Again, I’d like to emphasize the churchy vibe of the whole event, with citizens testifying and Morris Jenkins even referencing his own church history (I think his father was a preacher.) This is clearly a foundation and source of strength for much of the environmental justice community, as it was to the civil rights and justice community of the 50′s and 60′s. The moral authority and clarity of the group was on full display, and was wielded (in my opinion) much more effectively than it has been in typical liberal activist circles. God wasn’t referenced particularly often; it was almost unstated that just as the church might be the base for a community, so too is the struggle for security, health, and justice. It was extremely subtle, much more so I think than it was back in the civil rights era, but undeniably present and powerful.
Most of the testimony came from prepared remarks by activists and state legislators of various stripes, but there was also time at the end in which the floor was opened up to anyone who had something to say. The first presentation was on industrial livestock operations, especially a Union County egg operation containing 3.3 million chickens within a three-mile area. According to the speakers, industrial livestock operations only ‘work’ because they externalize costs (in terms of the enormous masses of unused and toxic manure) to local rural communities that suffer from water poisoning and soil degradation, the government subsidies that support the operations, and the lax enforcement of environmental regulations by government agencies. These arguments are widely known, especially by Oberlin students, but it was definitely new to me to hear them being made by people who lived in close proximity to a livestock operation, people who couldn’t get the smell out of their house and who couldn’t drink their own water (agriculture, especially livestock production being the largest source of Ohioan water pollution). The speakers also pointed out that industrial farms are relatively unhindered by typical health codes and laws- they operate without building codes and zoning concerns for health and quality of life issues. Transparency and the lax enforcement of Ohio EPA regulations was a major theme that would be revisited time and time again throughout the testimonials. For more information, check out the group Wood County Citizens Opposed to Factory Farms.
The next presentation was on industrial issues in East Toledo. The area is afflicted by a local oil refinery, with issues of stench, basic quality of life, and frequent sickness attributed to the refinery. In addition to its current burdens, there is a proposed coal coke plant which would further degrade Lake Erie water and local living conditions. This in a neighborhood, Harbor View, in which the average annual family income is $13,000. That is absurd on its own, let alone without factoring in the tremendous health costs the coke plant must bring with it, imposing huge burdens on an already afflicted community.
Unfortunately, the speaker from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) who was supposed to tell us about farm worker exposure issues didn’t show up. While there were some latino members of the audience, I would really have liked to hear from Mr. Espinoza, as I’m not well informed regarding farm worker and immigrant EJ issues.
The next series of speakers discussed lead poisoning and cancer clusters, with lack of awareness and adequate information definitely a key concern. Lucas County (where the city of Toledo is located) is second in the state of Ohio for lead poisoning rates (after good old Cuyahoga), and there were a number of health professionals and building inspectors who talked about the laws and effects of lead poisoning. One of the most disturbing correlations was one found between levels of lead exposure and juvenile ‘delinquent’ behavior. Lead poisoning has many well known affects, typically lowering concentration and cognitive development as well as immune system strength, but there have recently been studies done that show a direct connection between lead poisoning, disruptive behavior in school, and juvenile incarceration and run-ins with the law. To make that clearer, lead poisoning, which is concentrated in poor, black, and latino communities, is strongly correlated with incarceration rates, school dropout rates, and the continuing cycle of underdevelopment of communities of color. This was one of the strongest indicators for me of the major connections between environmental health and quality, the cycles of poverty and the criminal justice system, and education- definitely connections that environmental justice is comfortable making, and the climate movement (and even ‘mainstream environmentalism’, if it hopes to be broadly relevant) must get used to as well. The EJ bill will hopefully include in it much stronger lead standards and regulations, which will hopefully, in tandem with other initiatives, facilitate the establishment of pathways out of poverty.
The cancer cluster presentations were simply horrifying. We heard from a couple parents out of Clyde in Sandusky County, one of whom had two children both with severe but theoretically treatable, cancer. These children were half-siblings, making it less likely that the cause is genetic. There are over 20 cancer-afflicted children in the area, an extremely large number considering that these children live in a town of only six thousand people. I couldn’t believe the strength of these parents bringing their stories to the EJ townhall, and was made aware of how critical not only criminal justice, but public health is to environmental justice (and will be to the climate movement in a larger sense.) The parents were clear that they did not have conclusive proof as to who was responsible for the cancer cluster- there are numerous potential point sources of pollution in the area, but studies have yet to be done identifying what in particular might be causing the increased incidence. On the other hand, they can’t yet say that anyone isn’t responsible, and stressed the need for quicker, more urgent study. They suggested that faster implementation of regulation and study, and checking up on communities be a part of the EJ bill, so that other communities won’t have to wait over a year (as did Clyde) to get some attention. Hopefully the EJ bill, when passed, will ensure that other communities receive a much more rapid response so that such clusters can be avoided.
The next speaker, one of Dr. Jenkins’ students, gave a short presentation on my favorite topic in the world, green jobs. He made the case for green jobs being essential not only in seeking justice and equity, but providing solutions to the EJ movement’s concerns, emphasizing how green jobs can bring a transformation of how we work, live, eat, and get around. Green jobs in renewable energy reduce the need for polluting and health-devastating coal plants, and can also facilitate the cleaning of water supplies, agricultural land, and blighted urban spaces. He cited that Toledo was once the glass-making capital of the US, and noted that Toledo’s industries are now making the transition from glass to solar PV (see more on Toledo as Ohio’s solar valley here- the speaker claimed it has already saved or created 10,000 jobs) manufacturing, definitely a heartening prospect for the region. Hopefully their example can be taken even farther throughout the state, facilitating leadership in wind turbine, plug-in/hybrid car, and public transportation manufacturing and repair. He also talked about brownfield cleanup and ecological restoration, both vital fields that are definitely among the least outsource-able of the green jobs and will contribute to greater environmental health and room for in-fill urban development, preventing sprawl and thus helping encourage infrastructure less intended for cars and more intended for people. It was definitely exciting hearing about this from a local person my own age, seeing how far the green jobs message has come and how meaningful it is to my generation.
Teresa Mills then spoke again on the Ohio EPA’s inability to function as a true protector of environmental health and quality. I didn’t manage to take down notes for all of what she said, but much of it was related to stuff we’d already heard: the lack of regulation of industrial livestock production, the minimal oversight and cozy relationship between the Ohio EPA, utilities, and manufacturers, and the Ohio EPA’s disturbing history of keeping information out of the public eye. In one whistle-blower’s account, Ohio EPA officials went so far as to avoid taking notes on a series of meetings with developers with the explicit purpose of making sure such meetings could not constitute the publicly available record. To re-state more boldly, the Ohio EPA held meetings that it knew were damaging to their image and credibility as a regulatory agency, so damaging as to necessitate avoiding leaving a significant paper trail. She ended her speech by urging us all to hold the state executive branch responsible, as the Ohio EPA is an arm of the governor’s will and vision for the state.
Finally, there was a representative of the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, I wish I remembered what local union) to talk about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and its relationship to environmental justice. He talked about how a lot of the environmental problems of the state can be related back to the narrow-minded bottom line, big business’ tendency to try and gain easy, simple profit regardless of external costs to communities. He also laid out the case that the labor movement has always been engaged in the aims of environmental justice, to ensure the health and welfare of local communities. Environmental justice needs to keep big business in check, and organized labor has historically been at the very front lines of that struggle, the first line of defense against pollution and damage to the community. More than that, labor represents the community, the workers, and the protection of living and family-supporting wage that is fundamental to the green jobs movement. He then laid out some basic information about EFCA, how it strengthens unions and workers that want to form unions, thus giving organized labor more tools to contest damaging big business practices, to stand up against pollution. For more information, see Citizen Obie’s EFCA Center page. Overall I thought he made a compelling case for stronger labor leading to stronger support for environmental justice within business. There are many groups like Green For All, the Apollo Alliance, and the Blue Green Alliance that are already working at creating these kinds of coalitions, and they will definitely prove to be extremely necessary as we climate activists and environmental justice activists work to broaden and strengthen our base.
Thus ended the citizen testimonials. There were a number of unscheduled testimonials that were great to hear, but I didn’t take adequate notes (being somewhat sleepy) and can’t put down a good record of them here. We heard from a number of legislators and some citizens that largely echoed the statements already made, but it was great hearing other voices making a contribution.
After this we would have stuck around for the student organizing session afterward, but it took a bit too long to really get stuff started and we had to go. We did at least put our names and contact information down on the sign-up sheet, and I’m confident that we’ll stay in touch with Dr. Jenkins and Mary Clare (of Ohioans for Health, Environment, and Justice- OHEJ, one of the organizers of the townhall) in the future. Overall it was a great experience, and I’ll try posting a succinct summary of my reflections tomorrow.
Next Up: Final Reflections, And What You Can Do!