On Thursday, I testified before the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. I am sharing a significantly shortened version of my oral testimony in this blog, but I urge you to read my written testimony, complete with graphics, here. More importantly, the entire hearing was recorded, and you should watch it here.
The hearing discussed the importance of 11 legislative submissions on environmental justice communities, including Black people, Latinx people, Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples. The legislations included: H.R. 1512, the “Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s Future Act” or the “CLEAN Future Act”; H.R. 501, the “Climate Smart Ports Act”; H.R. 516, the “Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021”; H.R. 861, the “Alerting Localities of Environmental Risks and Threats Act of 2021”; H.R. 862, the “Climate Action Planning for Ports Act of 2021”; H.R. 2021, the “Environmental Justice for All Act”; H.R. 2394, the “Climate Justice Act of 2021”; H.R. 2396, the “Ensuring Safe Disposal of Coal Ash Act”; H.R. 2431, the “Voices for Environmental Justice Act”; H.R. 2434, the “Environmental Justice Act of 2021” ; and H.R. 2397, the “Protection from Cumulative Emissions and Underenforcement of Environmental Law Act of 2021”.
My testimony incorporated the Environmental Justice (EJ) issues addressed by this hearing, which included cumulative exposure, EJ mapping and data collection, strengthening the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), ports, coal ash, emissions and most importantly, the Environmental Justice for All Act.
The point of my testimony was that we are in a syndemic, where two or more health disparities affect the same population of people at the same time, resulting in even worse health effects. It is important to realize that environmental justice communities–Black people, Brown people, Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples–existed in a syndemic long before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, because of systemic racism, environmental injustice and disparities in general in healthcare, healthy food availability, transportation, economic oppression, climate change, and many other challenges. If I had the opportunity, I would have talked about these issues in detail.
Good morning and thank you, Chairman Pallone, Ranking Members Rodgers and McKinley, Subcommittee Chairman Tonko and Members of the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, for providing me the opportunity to testify here today. My name is Dr. Adrienne Hollis and I am the Senior Climate Justice and Health Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I am here to share my perspectives on the impacts of environmental assaults on environmental justice communities.
We are in the midst of a syndemic. A syndemic occurs when a set of two or more linked health problems affect the same group of people at the same time and negatively compound each other’s effects. Environmental justice communities have existed in the middle of a syndemic for decades, facing challenges of structural racism, environmental injustice, and climate change. Any of these on their own is deadly but together the damage is immeasurable. Add that to existing adverse conditions in communities that survive despite the presence of systemic racism, where poverty exists, and incomes have never been healthy-and rarely have the communities.
We must acknowledge that the underlying factor – systemic racism against Black, Brown and Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples — affects every aspect of our lives, from education to employment, from housing to healthcare, from the food we eat and the water we drink to the air we breathe. We contribute the least to environmental pollution, yet we have the most exposure to undrinkable water, and unbreathable air. We contribute the least to climate change yet suffer most from its consequences.
The Syndemic of Lake Charles Louisiana–Systemic Racism, Environmental Injustice, Climate Change and COVID-19
Let me share a perfect illustration of a syndemic. It happened last year in western Lake Charles, Louisiana. First, because of systemic racism, activities like redlining and the practice of NIMBYism, factories and other polluting facilities were placed in communities of color, in this case near the familiar Cancer Alley. Residents have been exposed to toxic chemicals in the air, water and soil for years.
Then Hurricane Laura struck. Laura’s strength at landfall was a borderline Category 5–the strongest since 1856–and it devastated the area. People who could, evacuated, and those who could not–stayed. Remember, this is right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, a chemical fire broke out at a Biolab facility and burned for 3 days, sending what was thought to be chlorine gas into the nearby EJ community and further out. A shelter in place order was issued, and because of that order, and directions to keep windows and doors closed and not use air conditioners, depending on their situations, people may have been at an increased risk of COVID-19 infection and adverse health effects from the chlorine gas, on top of the danger from emissions occurring during facility shutdowns in advance of Hurricane Laura. The temperature was a sweltering 90 degrees. The chemical plant fire put residents at risk of breathing in toxic air—which contributes to the underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 more likely to kill.
Research shows that Black, Latinx, Native Americans and Indigenous communities in high environmental risk areas have higher death rates. And all this is on top of the danger and trauma from a climate-change-fueled storm. Hurricane Laura killed 32 people in Louisiana and was predicted to cause “unsurvivable” storm surges.
This is a perfect example of the confluence of conditions that make up a syndemic. Communities should have been made aware of the presence of dangerous, toxic chemicals and should have been part of any plan to address releases of toxic substances. Furthermore, there is no standardized federal guidance for keeping people safe from COVID-19 transmission during evacuations.
The final challenge with COVID-19 in communities of color is the lack of racial and ethnic data. That data would have been instrumental in developing policy around vaccine administration. In that way, the most impacted would have been vaccinated first. Instead, people in harm’s way have to hope that their local leadership has a plan. It is beyond time for this country to address and alleviate the factors that make up this syndemic. For that reason, I am very pleased that this hearing is occurring.