Environmental justice for all
The story behind Colorado's haves and have-nots takes an environmental turn.
Monday, November 2, 2009 - 22:18
LOCATION, LOCATION: Polluters such as this Xcel power plant are frequent neighbors in low-income communities like Commerce City. (Photo: Steve Rinker/Flickr)
It's safe to say that the beauty and allure of Colorado's natural environment is the defining factor for the lifestyles and livelihoods of many of its residents. Numerous state and national parks, BLM and Forest Service lands, and regional protected areas contribute to a thriving outdoor recreation industry, providing the local economy with $10 billion on an annual basis. Meanwhile, a keen interest in preserving Colorado's environment has spurred a growing green movement that has established the state as a hotspot for alternative energy innovation, supporting new jobs and furthering a long-held reputation of nature-fixation. For many Coloradans, even these statistics aren't necessary to express the appreciation one gains from being able to live in a place where the splendor of the Rocky Mountains is visible from your doorstep.
Yet the environmental perks so commonly associated with Colorado aren't available for all of the state's residents. Beneath the commonly-touted green reputations of high-income communities like Boulder lie the grimmer tales of Colorado's less-fortunate: individuals and families struggling to make ends meet while suffering from the dredges of historic and current environmental problems. They are the victims of environmental injustice, and theirs is the other half of the story of a state where greening seems to be everywhere -- except, perhaps, where it's needed most.
It's not a coincidence that these low-income residents -- a disproportionate number of whom are minorities -- tend to end up living in the most unhealthy and polluted environments in the state. The trend is common across America, where troubling similarities between such occurrences have earned the pattern the name "environmental racism." According to the UCC Commission for Racial Justice, environmental racism is "the phenomenon of targeting specific communities for the location of environmentally hazardous facilities and waste sites because of their ethnic, racial and socioeconomic composition" (Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, 1987). Although the practice of environmental racism is illegal, it is often difficult to prove that decisions to put polluting factories, dumps and other environmental hazards in a low-income area are driven by racial biases as opposed to inexpensive real estate. Regardless of motivation, however, the threats posed by such hazards to the low-income, largely-minority residents living near them remain a very real problem.
Despite Colorado's reputation for pristine environments, persistent environmental injustices make life difficult for a number of the state's poorer residents -- particularly in the developing Denver Metro region. Home to nearly half of the state's total population, Denver and its suburbs also host a disproportionately significant share of its environmental hazards, including numerous coal-burning power plants, smog-inducing traffic jams and over half of Colorado's Superfund sites. Yet the discrepancies between rich and poor skew the data on who is privy to these hazards and who is spared them. I was shocked to discover recently that Adams County, where my family has lived for the past 11 years, ranks among the top 30-40 percent of polluting counties -- in the entire United States! In the northern regions of the county where we live, open space and parks are abundant, the air (except on days of intense mountain fires) is clear and no operating factories are visible in any direction. Yet on closer inspection, the reason for such a statistic comes to light: in addition to wealthier developments in the north, Adams County encompasses Denver-adjacent municipalities such as Commerce City, where an oil refinery, two interstate highways and a noisome factory for processing dog food are only a few of the environmental hazards that residents must confront on a daily basis. While Adams County's higher-income residents (myself included) are able to afford to live in places far removed from such dangers as these, Commerce City's residents -- whose per capita income is about half the national average -- are not so fortunate. As with so many other locations across the United States, the residents of this municipality are also disproportionately minorities -- in this case, Hispanic (over half of all Commerce City residents interviewed for the 2000 census marked that their ethnicity was "Hispanic" or "Latino"). It was striking to find that the troubling link behind environmental injustice and race was so heavily-emphasized in the very county I have called home for most of my life, and a wake-up call concerning my understanding of who benefits from Colorado's environment and who does not.
A quest for justice
Fortunately, awareness of the issue has grown significantly with the rising national movement encouraging environmental preservation and the insurance of equal access to the outdoors for all Americans. Organizations such as Groundwork Denver have been established throughout Colorado in order to ensure that economically- and politically-disadvantaged communities can still afford to develop parks and green spaces for the benefit of the local populace. Groundwork Denver has even addressed the notion of environmental justice specifically concerning its work: a web site link to a 2004 project encouraging environmental preservation in monolingual Spanish-speaking communities is entitled "Environmental Justice Outreach Partnership." Community leaders in lower-income municipalities such as Westwood (in western Denver) are also undertaking the cause directly, raising political support for the development of parks and environmentally-beneficial amenities for local residents.
Even Colorado's institutions of higher education are taking part. During a recent interview concerning the University of Colorado's response to the Sierra Club's anti-coal initiative with Dave Newport, director of the C.U. Environmental Center, the discussion turned towards a new university project supporting environmental awareness for an economically-disadvantaged local populace. Known as the Boulder Community Energy Connection, the project involves "green-proofing" lower-income student housing around Boulder by replacing old light bulbs with CFLs, donating water heater blankets, and implementing energy-efficient windows, among other initiatives. While the Energy Connection program has obvious environmental benefits, it also connects what Newport considers "a strong social dimension" to the school's energy improvement initiative, increasing minority student participation in particular and ultimately expands the alliance of social constituencies supporting positive environmental developments in the region.
There is still a long way to go before environmental hazards no longer constitute a threat for Americans, but the notion of developing a country whose residents are equally-advantaged concerning environmental privileges coincides with the foundations of a democratic United States. For all of Colorado's citizens -- and indeed those of every state -- to be able to share in the benefits and bounty of the natural world without racial or economic compromise is a critical first step towards ensuring that all will desire to preserve this world for the future: a future that, with luck and through the continued work of individuals, organizations and institutions against environmental injustice, will live up to the intentions of our Founding Fathers as one of true justice for all.
Interested in learning how environmental hazards are distributed near you? Visit Scorecard, the Pollution Information Site, to see whether or not your county is a healthy one to live in -- and how it stacks up to others across the country.
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