A Toxic Tour Helps Convey What Fenceline Communities Experience

May 19, 2023 | 1:24 pm
daycare center in Kansas CityWe act for environmental justice
Kristie Ellickson
Kendall Fellow

Three colleagues and I from the Union of Concerned Scientists were invited to participate in a Toxics Tour in Kansas City. The experience was extremely valuable and I recommend it, especially if you are someone like me who works on environmental justice issues but doesn’t live in a frontline community. Reading articles and books, or mapping environmental inequities are useful of course, but there is nothing like in-person, trust building experiences to really bring home the realities of living right next to heavily polluting industries, distribution warehouses, busy highways, huge scrapyards, and fossil fuel generating plants.

I acknowledge that I don’t have this lived experience, so being led on a toxics tour by community members who do is a powerful way to keep my work in environmental justice grounded and effective and builds fenceline understanding. Justice40ward Toxic Tours are happening all over the country in an effort to educate folks, including federal government employees, about the Biden Administration Justice40 goal to prioritize 40 percent of federal investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, clean transit, clean water infrastructure, remediation of legacy pollution, etc. in disadvantaged and underserved communities.

The Kansas City Justice40ward Toxics Tour I participated in was a daylong event on April 13, and was facilitated by a member of the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum (EJLF). Here are some reflections from my experience.

The Kansas City toxics tour

Beto Lugo Martinez and Atenas Mena, co-executive directors of CleanAirNow (CAN), provided an intentionally and well-planned experience. CleanAirNow is a local environmental justice organization that works on a variety of issues, including advocating for environmental health protections, writing about their efforts, providing comprehensive recommendations on land use zoning issues, and organizing through community-led research to influence policy. A component of their environmental health education involves deploying and collecting data from air sensors and air monitors. (If you click on the air sensors link and search “Kansas City,” you can find the group’s data.)

The experience started the day before the tour with a reception where the Evening Social Podcast hosted a discussion with environmental justice leaders. Folks from around the country met and talked about what they do and what they care about. The next day, the bus picked us up from the CAN office for the tour itself. Atenas started introductions with, “Toxic tours are educational for regulators and others that may have direct interest in standing alongside in advancing environmental justice efforts, these sites are overburdened by pollution and contamination.” She explained that toxic tours are led by environmental justice activists “to create public awareness of the environmental health exposures that harm local communities.” On our tour, we learned about the history and current injustices experienced by community members living in the Amourdale and Argentine neighborhoods in Kansas City. As Atenas put it, “the ink from redlining practices bleeds deep in our streets, homes, and health.”

On the bus and during conversations with participants, I wrote down several observations to remember and to research further. First, multiple local community members talked about their experiences with apathetic decisionmakers, energy burdens, air pollution, legacy contamination, and the impacts on their respiratory health. Many discussed exacerbations of allergies by air pollution. There is scientific evidence that air pollution has a causal effect on both the exacerbation and development of asthma, exacerbation of allergic rhinitis, and other types of allergies.

Heeding community voices

On one of our stops, we visited a home daycare center. It was located right next to a distribution warehouse with heavy truck traffic and stood across the street from a large railyard that doesn’t prohibit bomb trains and is a big source of harmful diesel pollution. The care provider watches an indoor and outdoor air pollution monitor dashboard to determine when kids can go outside to play.

We were also told that the daycare center is a site of frequent flooding, which brings me to my next takeaway: the ways in which climate change is compounding and exacerbating the impacts of toxic pollution. Beto explained that “CAN leads research, and the data is so alarming that EPA has and continues to take notice. Our air monitors measure black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and other specific site pollutants. But, our organizing efforts are not only about air pollution, we organize because of the cumulative impacts and stressors that compound our communities. This is about environmental racism.” A similar point was made in testimony at an EPA hearing by my colleague Darya Minovi about the need to incorporate planning for natural disasters into environmental protections for hazardous chemical facilities.

On our tour we learned that industries like Certainteed in Kansas City have multiple violations and exceedances of the regulatory limits toxic chemicals such as chromium. These malpractices are all the more concerning given the close proximity of such facilities to impacted communities.

I came away thinking a lot about the need for governmental coordination both in compliance and enforcement and in the growing emphasis on community engagement and community-informed environmental regulatory decisions. As Beto said: “We, as environmental justice activists, have been advocating for policies that protect our communities who are least responsible for environmental and climate injustices. We must have community voices front and center in all decisionmaking.” We need to do better to include communities in environmental decisionmaking, and we also need to be respectful of these community members’ time.

The Justice40 goal

As noted above, the Justice40ward Toxic Tours are happening all over the country in an effort to educate folks about the Biden Administration’s Justice40 goal. It is important for people to recognize that, from 2006 to 2014, the richest 20 percent of our country have received about $10.8 billion in clean energy tax credits while the lower-income 60 percent have received a tenth of that amount: $1.8 billion of those benefits. That’s why the Justice40 goal is so important.

But as vital a step as it is, the University of Michigan Energy Equity Project has shown that, it still won’t fully rectify the inequities. If the floor of this goal is met, it would mean that 29 percent of the population will receive 40 percent of the benefits and 71 percent of the population will still receive 60 percent of the benefits. So, while the distribution is more proportional than previous years, this goal is not entirely restorative. In other words, it will not reconcile the decades of under-resourcing disadvantaged communities. You can read the Energy Equity Project Report to learn more about how long it would take, based on different percentages, to eliminate these historical disparities.

Many environmental justice initiatives are currently underway within the federal government. Even if you can’t get to a Toxic Tour, there are many other ways you can get educated and involved. Among them, I recommend reading up on and telling your legislator to pass the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act, or watching President Biden’s address establishing an Executive Order to Revitalize Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All.

These are exciting times, with a lot of potential for positive change. But it is going to take all of us paying attention and acting on what we learn so that the talk and promises of investments are realized with action and decreased environmental impacts.

@BetolMartinez and @AtenasCAN can be found on Twitter (twitter.com/MoKanCAN) and at www.instagram.com/cleanairnow_ej/ or [email protected]