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Putting the Justice Back in Environmental Issues

2013 March 14

By Jessica Knoblauch

“Every little victory, a life is saved. Every big victory is a major advance for our society and for our planet.” During my interview with Vernice Miller Travis, I was reminded that fighting to clean up air or water pollution in your neighborhood is no easy task; and it’s even more difficult in communities already plagued by rundown housing, unemployment and other societal ills.

WE ACT co-Founders Peggy Shepard (right) and Vernice (left)

Environmental justice advocates like Vernice Miller-Travis have fought to end this injustice for years. Working with communities, environmental organizations and government agencies, Vernice has spent her life spreading awareness about environmental justice and helping build strong, sustained grassroots advocacy led by the people most impacted by environmental and public health threats.

This month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Vernice about her environmental justice work, which began in her own backyard of West Harlem, NY, in the 1980s. There, Vernice and her neighbors banded together after a giant sewage treatment plant was sited near their community, an area already plagued by a dirty industry, diesel bus depots and highways that fouled the air. The result was WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the first environmental justice organization in New York City, which successfully argued in court that the North River Sewage Treatment Plant was a public and private nuisance. As a result, New York City was forced to fix the plant, and a $1.1 million fund was established to address community concerns related to health, environment and service delivery.

Since that first struggle, Vernice has worked with many communities on environmental justice issues, from fugitive dust from coal ash plants in Maryland to toxic air pollution from hazardous waste recycling across the country. In addition to empowering communities to be their own best advocates on environmental health threats, Vernice believes that working with agencies like the EPA and environmental groups like Earthjustice to actively address environmental injustices is crucial to making progress on this issue.

Today, race continues to play a statistically significant role in the location of toxic waste sites and other hazardous facilities near low-income communities and communities of color. But, Vernice does not get bogged down by the difficulty of solving these complex issues because she has seen how informing, educating, training and mobilizing people on environmental justice issues can achieve astonishing results.  She told me,  “People can absorb information, can learn it, and can become extraordinarily sophisticated advocates on their own behalf once they realize what the challenge is and what information is being brought to the community.”

To hear Vernice’s entire interview, check out: http://earthjustice.org/features/ourwork/down-to-earth-ecology-without-equality

Also, if you missed it, here is Vernice’s contribution to EPA’s 20th Anniversary of Environmental Justice Video Series:

YouTube Preview Image

About the author: Jessica A. Knoblauch is a Content Producer/Associate Editor at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. Each month, Jessica interviews Earthjustice attorneys, clients and environmental experts on Down to Earth, an Earthjustice podcast, about pressing environmental issues. Previously, Jessica wrote about environmental issues for several online and print publications. Her work can be seen at jessicaknoblauch.org.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Jimmy permalink
    March 14, 2013

    Vernice thank you and Peggy for your contribution to making communities a safer place to live, work play and pray! Your words on zoning and how it can impact communities is such a significant component of addressing those impacts that can happen when we fail to plan correctly.

    Loved the blog, audio cast and video, very educational.

  2. Deborah permalink
    March 14, 2013

    I love coming back to this blog you always have such interesting stories. You are helping to create real cogent understanding of these complex issues.

  3. Gudrun Scott RN permalink
    March 14, 2013

    very timely for our community. We applied and received environmental justice status as a very poor rural area but the question this: we received the status in December 2012 but pollutant oil and gas industry is planning a toxicsludge and liquid waste treatment plant in about September 2012 and now on February 2013 they refused to give a meaningful public hearing to the public before they asked a small townboard in Ulysses Pa to vote on accepting this plant at a site were three river systems meet together, one of them being Pine Creek that flows into Chesapeake , another flows into the Ohio and the third is the Genessee that flows into Rochestr NY the Great Lake of Ontareo.

    This is timely and we want to know if we are entitled to a real public hearing with meaningful nptice and documentation>

    In case you don’t know this, the waste product includes radioactive radium that will show up in drinking water, causes cancer but it is clear , no odor or taste and relies on testing only to prove the radium is in the drinking water which could pollute an entire river which was formerly not contaminated because it relies on surface water and the radium salts do not evaporate into clouds to rain down on a watershed.

    – again the question is if the industry argues they were two month earlier with their application than the community was with their application for environmental justice then do they get to ignore a cry for a public hearing? I doubt that anybody knew that they even applied in the first place in those two ore thereabout earlier months.

    sincerely Gudrun Scott RN – please get back to me thanks.

    • kolp permalink*
      March 14, 2013

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for sharing your story. Please forward your question with your contact information and a detailed account of the situation to environmental-justice@epa.gov, and a representative from the Office of Environmental Justice will follow up with you shortly and help you get in touch with the people that can get you the answers you need.

  4. Kim permalink
    March 15, 2013

    I loved the line, “People can absorb information, can learn it, and can become extraordinarily sophisticated advocates on their own behalf once they realize what the challenge is and what information is being brought to the community.” Keep sharing these useful blogs.

  5. Robert permalink
    March 16, 2013

    Great Video and Blog.

  6. José Luis Martinez permalink
    March 18, 2013

    YES! Kim I totally agree with you on “People can absorb information, can learn it, …” Our communities are resilient in the full extend of the word.

  7. Jane permalink
    March 23, 2013

    I hope everyone reads this blog and watches this video. Amazing how much pollution surrounds us and how many people now have asthma and other conditions.

  8. Liam permalink
    April 11, 2013

    I’m digging this blog site – great information here.

  9. Marvin S. Robinson, II permalink
    September 5, 2013

    This honorably discharged U.S. Navy veteran “SALUTES” this organizer, this jewel, this VOICE in spiritual intelligence with the greatest of ‘clarity’ is adored, revered and appreciated for serving her community with genuine self-less “LOVE”.
    THANK YOU, and do NOT stop, TRYING: so many of us, look to examples of of your endeavors and attempts to correct wrongs and injustices and have the nerve to think we can do just like yaLL: if we keep “trying” !!!

    Marvin S. Robinson, II
    Quindaro Ruins / Underground Railroad- Exercise 2103

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