Putting the Justice Back in Environmental Issues

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:

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.