An interview with Peggy Shepard executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action Inc.
Racism is a word that seldom comes up in a discussion of environmental protection. Clean air, water and soil are universal human values that transcend ethnic identity or the color of one’s skin. But in metropolitan centers around the United States minority communities are being inundated with a disproportionate burden of pollution. Industrial waste, municipal garbage and sewage treatment plants are routinely deposited in areas predominately populated by low income African Americans and Hispanics.
In 1988 a community organizer named Peggy Shepard was asked to help address concerns around the creation of one such sewage treatment plant. A facility built in the New York City burrow of Harlem.
” It’s interesting how you can walk by things everyday or they can be in your community and it just never registers what they are,” Shepard said. “And so we began to organize around getting people jobs there because we thought that was the issue. But once it fully began operating we realized that emissions and odors were making people sick. And we began an eight-year organizing campaign to get the city to fix the plant and we were successful.”
By bringing people in the community together Shepherd’s organization compelled the City of New York to commit $55 million to clean up the facility. They were also successful in creating environmental safety policies that would prevent further contamination at this and other sites in the future. With a lawsuit settlement of $1.1million Shepherd create a new organization called West Harlem Environmental Action Inc. And today known as WEACT the group fights to prevent minority communities from suffering illness and premature death due to acts of environmental injustice.
“When we look at the glaring health disparities that we have between communities you’ve got to wonder about the contributing factors to that illness and excess mortality,” Shepard said. “And we believe that it’s housing conditions and the desperate burden of pollution.”
For those of us who care deeply about protecting the environment we should take a real close around at the world in which live. Clean air, water and soil aren’t only at risk in the distant wild and scenic places of our national parks, but in the spaces where we work, play and make our homes. And in these places segments of our society, often still segregated by race are being unfairly targeted with more than their share of our pollution. We’re not just talking about environmental protection. The issue now is environmental justice. In this edition of the Joy Trip Project we talk to Peggy Shepard the executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action Inc.
Music this week by Brett Dennen
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