'They chose us because we were rural and poor': when environmental racism and climate change collide

(The Guardian, 8 Mar 2019) The environmental movement has a long history in America’s south – yet people of color and impoverished communities continue to face dangerous pollution.

It doesn’t surprise me that the environmental justice movement began in the south, a place where, historically, the pressure of injustice builds until it explodes into organized resistance.

The Warren, North Carolina, protests of 1982 are considered one of the earliest examples of the environmental justice movement. A manufacturer of electrical transformers dumped tons of cancer-causing PCB waste along 240 miles of North Carolina’s highways. When it came time for the clean up, the North Carolina government chose Warren – a small, predominantly African American town – for the toxic waste facility.

There were weeks of protests and over 500 arrests. It was an awakening, showing the country that race and class play a part in who has to live near toxic waste.

I spoke with Almena Myles, one of the protesters. Even 30 years later, the incident has left a mark. I learned why we were targeted. They chose us because we were rural and poor and they thought we couldn’t fight it,” she told me. “They thought we wouldn’t understand. It was a crash course in advocacy. We felt we had stepped back in time, like it was the 1960s all over again and we had to fight for our rights as if it was the civil rights movement.”

These are, unfortunately, not just corporate practices of the past. Today, Louisiana’s impoverished river communities are polluted by big oil and companies, creating the so-called “Cancer Alley”. Pahokee, Florida, a town whose population is 56% African-American and 29% Hispanic, has had to confront the sugar industry, which polluted nearby Lake Okeechobee, endangering drinking water, fish safety, and property values. Paper mills have polluted Africatown, Alabama. Burlington Industries dumped cancer-causing PCBs in Cheraw, South Carolina. There’s toxic coal ash in Uniontown, Alabama. The list goes on and on.

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The Guardian, 8 Mar 2019: 'They chose us because we were rural and poor': when environmental racism and climate change collide