Monday, October 24, 2005

Environmental Injustice

The civil rights movement has its roots in the southern United States where racism has deprived the people of color from political rights and social justice. It wasn't until 1980s that environmental discrimination was recognized as a civil rights issue. Similarly, in Canada deadly toxic waste dumps are more likely to be found on aboriginal lands or near the communities of poorer and politically marginalized people. This phenomenon, whether it is Environmental Racism in the case of United States or Environmental Classism in Canada, overall can be classified as Environmental Injustice. In almost all cases, Environmental Injustice has only been fought by grassroots and local agencies. In some, they have been successful to hold their governments accountable, but in some cases their efforts have remained in vain.

In southern United States the underemployed workforce, weak labor unions and lax environmental regulations attracted the industries during 1970s. The population of black people rapidly grew but so did the gap between the rich and the poor, the white and the black. Unlike the white, the black had no experience with environmental problems and saw the environmental movement nothing more than "saving trees", a white man's concern. As the social justice advocates tried to improve the economic condition of their communities by bringing more jobs, they relaxed environmental regulations. Finally, in 1980s environmental equity or the right to a healthy environment was recognized as a struggle against racism and quest for social justice. In 1983 U.S. General Accounting Office conducted a study that observed waste dump sites are not randomly distributed across America and there is a strong relationship between the siting of these sites and the race of surrounding communities. During the next decade, local residents and agencies fought their case until "President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 on February 11, 1994, to establish environmental justice as a national priority. This was the first Presidential effort to direct all federal agencies with a public health or environmental mission to make environmental justice an integral part of their policies and activities".

Unlike the United States, examples of Environmental Injustice is scattered around Canada and go back many decades. The Lubicon First Nation in Alberta experienced dramatic increases in health problems in 1980s, since their reserve was surrounded by sour gas wells. Uranium mining in Deline, Northwest Territories, put this Inuit community in danger during 1940s. Sydney, Nova Scotia, suffered from environmental injustice since 1970 that some health impacts of the Steel Mill were officially recognized by the federal government. In the next 30 years, the local residents of Whitney Pier and Frederick Street fought for clean up and government's help for saving the community from hazardous contamination with almost no luck. Dominion Iron and Steel Company started its operation in 1900 in Sydney. It changed many owners until it was no longer profitable in 1967 and was bought out by a provincial crown corporation. By year 2000, the Steel Mill had soaked up to $30 billion in provincial and federal government support. The pollution catastrophe created by this Steel company is estimated to be 35 times bigger than the Love Canal in the US. For decades, the provincial government denied the claims of hundred of residents who suffered from dramatic illnesses due to contamination and refused to relocate the community or change the zoning of the area. These residents were from working class and financially distressed families. In 1986 the federal and provincial governments allocated the first funding for the clean up of tar ponds, yet after about 20 years, the clean up has not started (CBC).

Although Environmental Injustice is much older in Canada, it hasn't been recognized by our federal government as much as it has been in the United States. Environmental protection has become mainly a provincial responsibility, hence the large gap between the implemented standards in B.C, Quebec and Ontario versus Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories and the prairie provinces. In fact, Environment Canada does not even have a list of all toxic waste sites in the country. It appears that until a grassroots effort is organized by the locals, many of these sites will remain unknown. Since the connection between environmental protection, public health and social justice was established in 1980s, environmentalism is no longer seen as "saving trees" but rather known as "saving people"and protecting civil rights. Environmental Injustice is here to stay as long as it is not fully acknowledged by the system.

P.s. any corrections to this piece is appreciated.


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