Environmental Justice: An Ongoing Commitment

By Kesha Hagerman

As a chemical engineering undergraduate in my final year, I was well aware of regulatory government agencies before interning with EPA in New York City. I heard all about how they regulate air and water pollution, solid wastes, waste dump sites and chemical spills. These regulations were embedded into the chemical engineering curriculum and were therefore, familiar to me.

Environmental justice (EJ) on the other hand, never came up in the classroom. Well, not in the terms in which EPA defines it. After joining the agency, I have realized that EJ is not just simply “going green” by recycling or not littering; EPA’s commitment to EJ means that all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income receive fair treatment and meaningful involvement with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

I have lived in both Texas and Louisiana; therefore, I have encountered numerous chemical processing plants. Residents have actually nicknamed a city “stink-edina” because of the overwhelming amount of smog. But this is no isolated case; New York has also had issues with poor air quality.

EPA primarily regulates the emissions of plants on an individual basis, but when several companies set up in a small area, the compounding pollution causes the area to have poor living conditions. It has been recorded that the environmental burden caused by industrial operations has historically been concentrated in minority and low-income neighborhoods. I am working on an outreach program to get underrepresented New Yorker’s more involved in the decision making process of EPA regulations and policy making to end this cycle.

Okay. Let’s face it, industrial plants are necessary for Americans to continue to live in the manner that we live today. Without them we would not have air-conditioned homes, clothes, pesticides, or transportation. Still, nobody wants to live near processing plants and the EJ program of EPA in New York is attempting to make sure that it is NOT ALWAYS “you” (whoever “you” are) who has to.

New York’s EJ program is trying to make a difference in assuring that no group bears a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences associated with industrial and commercial operations. They have a ways to go, but they are making strides in the right direction.

Are you aware of any environmental justice issues in your neighborhood? Feel free to comment or if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

About the author: Kesha Hagerman is a senior chemical engineering student attending Prairie View A&M University interning with EPA’s Environmental Justice Department in New York for the summer of 2011. Kesha is originally from the South and has encountered the effects of 4.4 billion barrel oil spills, climate change and catastrophic hurricanes.