OPINION: With liberty and environmental justice for all

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A gray-yellow hazy sky with an city skyline and body of water in front. The entire image shows poor air quality.
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We all know actions speak louder than words, particularly when it comes to issues of equality.

Saying you support equality – in your personal life, corporate decisions or legislative actions — means nothing if your actions prove otherwise.

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Our organization, South Shore Clean Cities, assists our members and partners in applying for grant funding for sustainable transportation and energy projects that reduce harmful air pollutants. Most applications have boxes to check indicating whether the work will take place in the high minority, low-income communities that do not meet federal air quality standards. Those Census tracts are often considered priority areas, meaning the project will have more of a chance of being funded. The idea is to assist in reducing the risk to the already overburdened populations.

The issue is referred to as environmental justice. The U.S. Department of Energy defines environmental justice as, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Fair treatment means that no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state and local laws, regulations and policies. Meaningful involvement requires effective access to decision-makers for all and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves.”

The environmental justice movement was born in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens public housing complex on the Southeast Side, just 5 miles from the Indiana border. Hazel Johnson lived in Altgeld Gardens and became a widow at age 34 in 1969 when her husband died of lung cancer.

Hazel saw a news report saying the Southeast Side had the city’s highest cancer rates and noted many of her neighbors had cancer. Her seven children and many other young neighbors also suffered from skin and respiratory ailments.

People for Community Recovery Logo (blue, green, and black with globe to the left side)

She set out to find out why and in 1979, founded People for Community Recovery. Through determination, investigation and collaboration with city and state agencies, Hazel learned the public housing complex was built on top of a landfill and surrounded by waste and industrial processes, placing a disproportionate burden on her community. She dubbed the neighborhood “The Toxic Doughnut.”

Hazel, who became known as “the mother of the environmental justice movement,” went on to collaborate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and urged President Clinton to take action on environmental justice nationwide. On February 11, 1994, Hazel joined President Clinton at a White House ceremony where he signed the Environmental Justice Executive Order.

But four years later, she told The Times of Northwest Indiana she wasn’t seeing it being enforced, calling it an “environmental injustice.”

Today, 27 after the order was signed and 42 years after Hazel’s work began, disproportionate burdens for bearing the brunt of the impacts of pollution remain in the high minority, low-income communities, not just from industrial operations, but from tailpipe emissions on our roads and highways.

Has our air quality improved and have we made changes for the better? Absolutely, but the work is far from over.

By definition, we need to make sure environmental justice is more than just checking a box when working on a project, considering a location for new business or funding a project that can help lessen that burden. We all need to ensure our neighbors no longer have to suffer from pollution happening to them but rather, have a true voice in working to impact change for the better.

Hazel died in 2011 and her daughter, Cheryl, is continuing her work by leading People for Community Recovery. We are thankful for them and for everyone joining them in their work locally and across the nation to ensure environmental justice for all.

Remember, it’s never too late to being your environmental legacy.

This column originally appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana. Carl Lisek is the executive director of South Shore Clean Cities and vice president of Legacy Environmental Services. The opinions are the writers.

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