Environmental Justice from a Physicians Perspective

By Representative Donna Christensen

Before coming to Congress, I started my career as a family physician in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).  While justifiably referred to as ‘America’s Paradise,’ a closer look reveals the story of how people and the environment are inextricably linked—and also how industry has impacted the health of both. Comprised of four small islands, the USVI has been impacted by a disproportionate amount of pollution from an oil refinery, two power utilities, and two substantial landfills, which until recently, were poorly managed.

While working in St. Croix, I was able to have a first-hand look at how our community members were affected by various sources of pollution, because they were my patients.  Many had concerns about the incidence of cancer and upper respiratory diseases in communities and their loved ones. It was from these very patients that I learned more about the challenges faced by fenceline communities.  More importantly, I understood my role as a civic leader and how I could use what I learned about the burden of pollution to more effectively advocate on behalf of my constituents.

The case of the Bovoni community on St. Thomas serves as yet another interesting opportunity to examine issues regarding people and pollution.  Poor planning prevailed and a landfill was placed within the midst of a well established residential area.  With smarter planning, this could have been avoided all together.  Local leadership especially has a responsibility to be aware of the impact of dumps, oil refineries, power plants and other possibly polluting industries, as well as the cumulative impacts they can have on communities’ health.  Everyone has a right to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink —and everyone has a role to play in protecting the health of our people and the environment.  The sooner we realize this, the better off we all will be.

About the author: The Honorable Donna M. Christensen is serving her eighth term as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands. She is the first female physician in the history of the U.S. Congress, the first woman to represent an offshore Territory, and the first woman Delegate from the United States Virgin Islands.