24: The United States: the cradle of environmental justice against environmental racism
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Environmental conflicts arise against environmental racism in pollution cases in Cancer Alley or lead contamination of the water supply at Flint and Marathon Oil in Detroit. The chapter also explores complaints against pipelines and Blockadia movements, the Deep Horizon disaster, and the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. Then the injustice of uranium mining in Navajo territory, nuclear waste dumping in Hanford in Washington state, and the conflict on Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In several of these complaints, both Afro-Americans and Indigenous and Hispanic communities take the leading roles. Dangerous chemicals, agricultural pesticides, the oil and gas industry and its refineries and pipelines, the coal-burning sector, metal and uranium mining, nuclear waste, land grabbing, water use, and claims for urban space for pedestrians and cyclists are at the centre of the conflicts. Conflicts show disparate valuing languages that are not commensurate.


Over one hundred years ago there was a so-called Age of Empire(s) (as Hobsbawm titled the period 1875‒1914) with the Austrian empire, the French and British empires, the Russian empire, the Ottoman empire and the attempts at a German empire in Africa until 1918. The United States became undoubtedly the main imperialist country since 1918. The Japanese empire was defeated in China and the Pacific in 1945. It seems that now a new Age of Empires arrives with China, Russia (again) and the United States‒NATO empire. And India, a growing empire based on Hindu religion. To the geopolitics of Empire, we can sadly apply Randolph Bourne's dictum in 1918, “War is the health of the State” as we see in Russia's war in 2022 against Ukraine and in the last 30 years in the American and NATO wars in Iraq and Libya ‒ oil was in question but search for naked power and revenge sufficed.

Despite being the top imperialist country, with an abundance of military interventions overseas and also military installations and nuclear tests (some of which are recorded in the EJAtlas), the United States was nevertheless and paradoxically the cradle of the environmental justice movement against environmental racism with the famous meeting in Washington D.C. in 1991 of “people of colour” proclaiming the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice which are totally relevant worldwide 30 years afterwards. This was a movement of social “minorities” with origins in coloniality and slavery and later in the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King and other militants. Crucial concepts such as “environmental racism”, “popular epidemiology” and “sacrifice zones” were introduced by the US environmental justice movement. It has been an inspiration for the rest of the world by linking anti-racism with the environmental cause. Authors such as Robert Bullard, Paul Mohai, Laura Pulido, David Pellow and Giovanna Di Chiro have had worldwide influence.

However, this US movement has not fulfilled its universal, cosmopolitan promise of environmental justice and it failed to extend its anti-racist agenda outside the US. It focused on minorities inside the United States instead of the world BIPOC majority. It was to some extent co-opted into the work of the EPA and the application of CERCLA in internal environmental conflicts. Several cases in this chapter mention the US federal Superfund law, whose official name is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. It is administered by the US EPA. It does not apply to damages by US companies done abroad. Over the years, in case after case, damages from US companies were brought to US courts under the ATCA (Alien Tort Claims Act) and regularly dismissed (Chevron Texaco, Dow Chemical and Dole ‒ the DBCP cases, Drummond, ExxonMobil, Freeport-McMoran, Southern Peru Copper Co., Union Carbide, Unocal). The US environmental justice movement was silent or impotent to help. Meanwhile, the US p. 535government also systematically refused liability for climate change, leading the rich countries in this position at the COPs (Chapter 16). The US Environmental Justice movement was unconcerned. Be that as it may, the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice stand with their universal validity.

BIPOC communities inside and outside the United States are protagonists of a political ecology which is not mainly about international relations and the geopolitics between states of access to fossil fuels, water and renewable energies, or to their disputes on the disposal of GHG in the COPs. Their political ecology is more closely connected to industrial ecology, to Warenkunde ‒ the science of commodities (Chapter 26). In this chapter we study the access to commodities and to places for waste disposal, and the local resistances arising against states and business companies in sites such as Warren County, Mossville, Africatown, Richmond and Yucca Mountain. I start with cases of waste dumping and threats to human health. Entering the USA from Mexico and California, it is easier to remember Rachel Carson's Silent Spring of 1962, which gave strength to the environmental movement in the country and elsewhere. We start then with the agricultural labourers in California and the United Farm Workers (UFW). After that, we continue with two other most famous historical episodes of what we now call “environmental justice”. One with Lois Gibbs in Love Canal in upstate New York. Another one, more influential because of its social protagonists, is the non-violent protest in Warren County, North Carolina, against a waste dump in 1982, overlapping with the Civil Rights struggle of Afro American people in the US.

I have lived three years of my long life in the US: one year at Stanford in my early twenties; another year when I was already an ecological economist (1988‒89) in Washington D.C. at the World Bank with Herman Daly and Robert Goodland, and in Stanford and the University of California (Davis); and the third year in New Haven at Yale University invited by James C. Scott to write my book The Environmentalism of the Poor in 1999‒2000. I always learnt a lot. This chapter owes much to Paul Mohai and his students at the University of Michigan.


In Chapter 21, I mentioned McFarland as a cancer cluster. The story links up a famous Mexican bracero, pesticide use in agriculture, working-class environmentalism, environmental racism, and scientific uncertainty in risk assessment. After the first case of childhood cancer in 1978, McFarland was deemed a cancer cluster by Kern County in 1985. In a seven-year span, the town of 6,200 had 13 cases of childhood cancer. The concerns were focused on exposure to pesticides and hazardous wastes, potentially contaminated drinking water. Kern County investigated four particular pesticides that were heavily used in farming practices where many of these migrant workers were employed.

Since the late 1960s, César Chávez of the UFW (United Farm Workers) had been concerned about braceros’ pesticide exposure. In 1969, César Chávez said that “pesticide poisoning is more important today than even wages”. In 1988, 12 million pounds of pesticides were used on grapes in California, some of which were known to cause cancer. In 1988, César Chavez went on a water-only “fast for life” hunger strike and started a campaign to urge growers to stop the use of four pesticides. As part of that effort, the United Farm Workers started a grape boycott to force growers to agree to their demands.p. 536

As R. Gordon (1999) explained, the contract signed at the height of the UFW boycott of California table grapes increased wages but also established regulations regarding the use of pesticides. Later on, in 1995, a group of McFarland residents, a poor Hispanic community, petitioned the EPA Region 9 for assistance in evaluating the community's environment. The US EPA investigation spanned from 1997 to 2002, ruled the area not eligible to be on the Superfund National Priorities List for reparations and said that the town was similar to other towns in California. A direct cause of this childhood cancer cluster remained officially undetermined. Uncertainty prevailed.


This is an even more famous case of environmental injustice in the US, in which houses and schools were built upon a dump site and incidence of diseases and respiratory illnesses took residents to reclaim justice. Back in the nineteenth century, Modeltown Development Corporation, under William T. Love, planned to construct a hydropower canal that would open up business opportunities. The canal was started in 1884, but before its completion, the United States fell into an economic depression that halted funding sources. The loss of funding and potential business support led to the downfall of Love's company leaving only a partially dug canal left. In the 1920s, the canal was bought by Hooker Chemical Company and used as a site for chemical and municipal disposal for several chemical companies and the City of Niagara Falls until 1953, when it was bought by the local community and completely covered with dirt. In the late 1950s, this land became the new site of over 100 homes and an elementary school. In the late 1970s, the chemical waste began making its way to the surface causing bad odours and oozing waste.

On 2 August 1978, Lois Gibbs, a local mother belonging to the Love Canal Homeowners’ Association, began to rally homeowners (1981, 1995). There was severe pollution by dioxin ‒ a word which then started its march through many environmental conflicts around the world. This led to grave health effects, especially a high percentage of birth defects in the Love Canal area and required all residents to be vacated and the risks to be mitigated. However, the health and environmental consequences had already affected many of the residents. There was also a contested participation of Afro American women in this struggle (Blum 2008).

The EPA did clean-up, and the site was removed from the Superfund priorities list and determined to be usable land again. The Love Canal is still subject to maintenance and monitoring activities. New residents still deal with the chemicals that wreaked havoc decades ago. In lawsuits, residents claim they were swayed to purchase homes in the area with low property values and assurances that waste was contained.


Warren County was one of the first cases giving birth to the US Environmental Justice Movement. It was an emblematic struggle, connected to the Civil Rights movement. In 1973, Ward Transformers Company dumped 31,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) along more than 220 miles of roadways in the state of North Carolina. PCBs are highly p. 537toxic persistent organic pollutants, whose production has been banned by the United States Congress since 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention in 2001. High concentrations of these pollutants are associated with the development of skin conditions, ocular lesions, lower immune responses and cancer. The State of North Carolina responded to the dumping of PCBs with the decision to build a landfill to deposit all the contaminated soil. The location chosen was Shocco, a rural town in Warren County, one of the poorest counties and whose population was 75 per cent Afro American (Figure 24.1).

Afraid of the possibility of toxic materials contaminating their groundwater supplies, in 1979 local residents formed Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs to fight the siting and construction of the landfill. They held rallies and protests inspired by the forms of mobilization of the Civil Rights movement. On 24 September 1982, more than 50 people out of 500 protesters were arrested by state highways patrol when the first truckloads of contaminated soils arrived. The protests and arrests continued for the next six weeks. They attracted support from the Civil Rights movement across the nation, and the media began to relate this environmental conflict with issues of institutionalized “environmental racism” (a term invented by Ben Chavis). After weeks of protests, North Carolina Governor James Hunt promised to detoxify the landfill. Three months after capping the landfill in 1982, gas leakages started to occur, and the state proposed to construct a drainage system to remove the contaminated water.

After waiting more than two decades, efforts to detoxify the dump began in June 2001 and lasted until December 2003. The neutralization work at the landfill had a total cost of $18 million, paid by state and federal sources. A private contractor hired by the state dug up and burned 81,500 tons of oil-laced soil to remove the PCBs. However, detoxifying the landfill does not bring the community back to its pre-1982 PCB-free environmental condition. p. 538Allegedly, soil still containing small PCB levels is buried at least 15 feet below the surface in the dump.

Civic resistance against the Warren County landfill, NC, 1982 (Jenny Labalme, A road to walk – a struggle for environmental justice, 1987 / Martinez-Alier et al, 2014, with permission).
Figure 24.1

Civic resistance against the Warren County landfill, NC, 1982

Source:  Jenny Labalme, A road to walk – a struggle for environmental justice, 1987/Martinez-Alier et al., 2014, with permission


I now continue with Hinkley Point in California and Woburn in Massachusetts which are also cases of toxic waste, before describing the conflict in Mossville, Louisiana which is clearly a struggle against “environmental racism”.

Residents of the town of Hinkley, California, alleged that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) knowingly dumped wastewater contaminated with chromium-6, a known carcinogen, into the region's groundwater. In 1952, PG&E installed a compressor station near Hinkley in San Bernardino County, part of a gas pipeline system linking Texas to California. The company used a carcinogenic chemical compound named chromium-6 as a corrosion inhibitor in its cooling system. Under ideal circumstances, such a dangerous heavy metal would have been filtered out, but the contaminated water was discharged into unlined pools, thus leaking to the aquifer serving Hinkley's residents’ water needs. The leakage occurred from 1952 to 1972. It was not until 1977 that California regulated by law the use of chromium-6.

Chromium-6 is known for causing damage to several organs and cancer. Moreover, the compound also modifies human DNA, which can prolong the effects to future generations. Local residents experienced several symptoms including prostate, cervical, breast and stomach cancers and respiratory problems. In 1987, PG&E officials informed the state of California of high levels of chromium-6 in underground water. The levels were ten times greater than the limits established. At that time, PG&E started buying properties affected by pollution. Yet, company officials told citizens the water was suitable for both drinking and agriculture.

Erin Brockovich, a clerk at ‘Masry and Vititoe’ Law firm, came across records on PG&E's offers to buy Hinkley's citizens’ properties while filing them. The fact that these documents were mixed with residents’ medical records raised Brockovich's attention. The clerk decided to investigate the case and ended up convincing some of the people affected by contamination to start legal action against PG&E in 1993. The number of plaintiffs rose to 648. While PG&E lawyers tried to de-link people's health problems from exposure to chromium-6, the plaintiffs showed that the company knew of the contamination at least since 1965. PG&E eventually managed to take the case out of court and reach a settlement through mediation. In 1996, PG&E agreed to pay the plaintiffs a total of US$ 333 million, to end the use of chromium-6 and clean up the environment. After several unsuccessful attempts to clean up the contaminated aquifer, PG&E started buying and destroying people's houses in 2012 to avoid squatting. Two-thirds of the residents in the affected area agreed and moved elsewhere. Later studies by the California Cancer Registry stated that cancer figures in Hinkley were not abnormal in the period 1988‒2006. However, the Centre for Public Integrity questioned the validity of the findings.

In July 2014, California established a maximum chromium-6 contaminant level (MCL) of 10 parts per billion (ppb). The case ended up in monetary compensation for the plaintiffs but several people died before 1996, and many victims weren’t included in the settlement. PG&E was unable to contain the plume of polluted water, forcing an exodus from the exposed areas. By 2013, PG&E had spent over $750 million on remediation. Hinkley became a ghost town. p. 539As in other cases of “slow violence” (or “slow murder”), what has been done cannot be now amended. Money cannot resurrect people.


This is again a Superfund (CERCLA) case involving Grace and other chemical companies which polluted drinking water. Rapid economic growth in the 1950s caused a chronic shortage of drinking water. Wells G & H were the two municipal groundwater wells developed in 1964 and 1967 to supplement the water supply of the city of Woburn. Despite warnings by an engineering study that the groundwater was too polluted, the town went ahead and drilled the new wells on the east bank of the Aberjona River. These wells would supply about 30 per cent of the city's drinking water. Almost immediately, residents began to complain about the water, suspecting that it was responsible for the occurrence of childhood leukaemia and the increase in birth defects. Ten years after the development, an analysis determined that those wells were contaminated, and the wells were shut down. The extensive contamination of groundwater was the result of decades of industrial water pollution. According to a report by the US EPA, the groundwater was contaminated with industrial solvents, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides. Sediments in the Aberjona River were contaminated with PAHs and heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, mercury and arsenic. In fact, the safety of Woburn's drinking water had long been a contentious issue. Woburn had been home to industry for over 150 years. Tanneries used toxic compounds to cure leather, and other factories sent numerous toxic chemicals down the Aberjona River.

In 1973, a little boy was diagnosed with leukaemia. He and seven other children died, and many became seriously ill before any action was taken, despite residents complaining that the water smelled and tasted bad and that it corroded the pipes. Residents discovered that there were eight cases of leukaemia in east Woburn over a 15-year period. The illness was concentrated among families that had drawn most heavily from the two polluted wells. In 1979, several barrels of chemicals were found dumped near the Aberjona River. When state investigators tested Wells G & H, they found that they were contaminated with TCE and other industrial by-products.

The wells were shut down and in 1982 the Wells G & H Superfund Site was placed on the National Priority List to receive federal money for clean-up. At the same time, a formal complaint against W.R. Grace, Beatrice Foods (formerly Riley Tannery) and UniFirst was filed by several plaintiffs through Jan Schlichtmann, a lawyer. The defendants denied that they had caused the pollution of the wells. During the trial, one of the defendants allegedly perjured himself; the defence attorneys hid critical evidence of a secret clean-up of contaminated soil that would have strengthened Schlichtmann's argument, and the case was assigned to an allegedly biased judge. The jury agreed that there was not a “preponderance of evidence” that Beatrice Foods had polluted the wells and only Grace was found responsible. The judge, however, threw out the verdict against Grace on the grounds that the jury's written decision was contradictory. Schlichtmann settled with Grace for $8,000,000, providing the victims’ families with a few thousand dollars each, but no admission of guilt, no apology, and no clean-up. Despite this settlement out of court, the Centre for Disease Control and the US EPA took p. 540notice. Declared a Superfund Site, the EPA forced Grace and Beatrice as property owners to pay for one expensive clean-up, over US$ 68 million. Woburn was the inspiration for a book and a movie called “A Civil Action”, documenting water contamination, subsequent health impacts and the legal battle for restitution.


Mossville was one early settlement of free Black people in 1790. After the 1940s, Mossville became surrounded by industrial plants. As summarized in a CNN report in 2010: “Gather current and former Mossville residents (in Louisiana's ‘cancer alley’) in a room and you’re likely to hear a litany of health problems and a list of friends and relatives who died young”. There is an obvious intersectionality between health issues, human rights, the environmentalism of the poor and anti-racism. Located in Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish, the rural community of Mossville is surrounded by industrial facilities that each year spew millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment. The pollution includes dioxin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, solvents like xylene and toluene, and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Mossville was featured in the 2002 documentary film “Blue Vinyl”. The area has the largest concentration of vinyl plastic manufacturers in the US, as well as a coal-fired power plant, oil refineries and chemical production facilities.

In 2014, an article in Mother Jones explained that in 1790, a freed slave named Jim Moss found a place to settle down on a bend in the Houston River in the bayous of southwest Louisiana. Although never formally incorporated, the village of Mossville became one of the first settlements of free Black people in the South. But over the last half-century, Mossville was surrounded by over a dozen industrial plants, making it quite possibly the most polluted corner of the most polluted region in one of the most polluted states in the United States. Here one could indeed find “multidimensional poverty”: low money incomes coupled to soil, air and water pollution.

Serious health impacts from the pollution were documented among Mossville residents by the University of Texas at Galveston Medical Branch and the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In the late 1990s, Mossville area residents began collecting air samples that revealed violations of state standards for pollutants. The EPA confirmed violations, fining some facilities. The effort spread to communities throughout Louisiana's so-called “Cancer Alley” and led to the formation of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a grassroots pollution monitoring project. In 2014, a proposal to build the largest chemical plant of its kind in the western hemisphere would all but wipe Mossville off the map. The project, from the South African chemical giant SASOL, would cost as much as $21 billion. In 2015, Christian representatives, using the language of “environmental justice”, reported that a new chemical plant would be built in the small African American settlement of Mossville. The company offered to pay Mossville residents to move out of their homes and sell their churches. The company thought it was generous, but some long-time residents and religious leaders felt they were being forced out. “The church is the hub of the community, as far as relationships and as far as love and caring for one another”, said the chairman of the deacon board at Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Chemical pollutants in the hamlet's air were 100 times greater than the national standard, according to an EPA investigation from 1998. Another study found that 84 per cent of p. 541residents had some sort of central nervous system disorder. Its residents at one point mobilized an unusual level of environmental justice in the US because they appealed to an international court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on the grounds that the continued pollution of the neighbourhood constituted environmental racism. Indeed, in 2010, the IACHR agreed to review this case. It heard a complaint filed by the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) on behalf of the people of Mossville. An autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR along with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights comprise the inter-American system for protecting human rights. The review would consider whether the US government had violated the predominantly African American community's residents’ human rights to life, health, equality, freedom from racial discrimination and “privacy as it relates to the inviolability of the home” by allowing numerous industrial facilities to locate there and emit highly toxic chemicals.

“I am grateful that the Commission decided to take our human rights case”, said petitioner Dorothy Felix, volunteer vice president of Mossville Environmental Action Now, MEAN. The petition to IACHR from Mossville residents alleged that the US government and local political subdivisions ignored their obligation to protect human rights. In its response, the US government asserted that the IACHR “does not have authority to request that the United States adopt precautionary measures”. Then, attorney Nathalie Walker, the New Orleans AEHR's co-director, replied: “Our government is a member of the OAS and has also ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which create clear obligations to protect our human right to freedom from racial discrimination”. Monique Harden, AEHR's other co-director, noted that Mossville is one of a number of communities of colour across the US that are disproportionately burdened with toxic pollution as a result of government decisions.

In October 2009, Environmental Justice leaders representing more than a dozen polluted communities had met with EPA leaders and asked them to act to better protect the health of the region's low-income communities and communities of colour. That meeting came after environmental justice leaders urged the EPA to address historic problems covering eight states in the Deep South, with its legacy of racism and unequal environmental protection.


Africatown is another old settlement of mostly Black, low-income people, fighting past and future toxic pollution. Reputed to be the site of the last slave ship to come to the United States in 1860, Africatown was formed as a small community by a group of 32 West Africans after slavery was abolished. Freedmen bought land from their previous owners, shaping a self-governing community drawn from African traditions, what would be a palenque in Colombia or a quilombola in Brazil. However, it was also a good site for industrial plants and mills because of its location along the water; a paper plant was built on the edge of Africatown in 1928 on land first owned by a former slave trader and slave owner A. Meaher Jr. By the 1970s, industrial factories surrounded Africatown. After decades of the paper plant's operation, the town began to experience abnormally high rates of cancer. As of 2020, two of the five largest industrial polluters in Mobile County are adjacent to Africatown. What was once a town of nearly 12,000 residents has now become a mostly abandoned ghost town of just 2,000. Most p. 542major industries have left Africatown, including the paper mill, leaving behind polluted air, polluted water and an unemployment crisis. In 2017, a group of about 1,200 residents filed a lawsuit against the company International Paper claiming that its improper waste management over the decades had led to contaminated land and water, resulting in a high prevalence of cancer in Africatown. However, International Paper denied the allegations and the lawsuit is still open, making the future of Africatown uncertain. Africatown's plight has, however, garnered the attention of Senator Cory Booker and former EPA officer, Mustafa Santiago Ali, who now works for the non-profit human and civil rights group Hip Hop Caucus. Residents of Africatown met with these environmental justice leaders to discuss the problem and possible solutions. The threat of major industry in the surrounding area is still a concern, as much of the land surrounding Africatown is zoned for heavy industry use, increasing the threat of pollution as well as the loss of local businesses.

Another major industry that poses a threat to Africatown is chemical water treatment plants. One such company is Kemira Water Solutions, which has proposed an expansion project on a chemical plant located in Chickasaw. The expansion, aimed to be completed in 2020, would include a new chemical production unit which would make Bio-Acrylamide, a toxic chemical used in the production of paper, dye, plastics, and in the treatment of drinking water and wastewater. Exposure to high amounts of acrylamide is known to cause nerve damage and cancer. Members of an environmental group from Africatown, C.H.E.S.S., have confronted state environmental regulators to voice their distrust. CHESS means “clean”, “healthy”, “educated”, “safe” and “sustainable”. On their side, Kemira argued that emissions will not be increased, but residents are sceptical. As of 2021, the fight for environmental justice and against environmental racism in Africatown continued Next, we go from Alabama to Michigan (Figure 24.2).

Environmental conflicts in the United States in the EJAtlas and those selected for this chapter (A. Grimaldos).
Figure 24.2

Environmental conflicts in the United States in the EJAtlas and those selected for this chapter

Source:  A. Grimaldos


Flint's Lead Poisoning and Water Management Crisis 8

Thousands of Flint's residents (mainly poor and Black) have been exposed to lead and other pollutants in their drinking water. This is another case of “environmental racism”, with Black communities disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks. In April 2014, the Government of Michigan ‒ Richard Snyder as governor from the Republican party ‒ switched the main city's water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Flint River. The main reason was that Flint city terminated its water service contract with the city of Detroit, and in order to reduce costs, the city had a project to build a new pipeline to deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint. But as the construction of the pipeline was delayed, the water source switched to the Flint River, a contaminated river that in the past was a repository for industrial waste.

Since 2014, the corrosive water from the Flint River leached lead from the old water pipes, mixing in the water supply high levels of lead. According to an analysis in 2015, Flint River water had ten times more lead compared to the same system using Detroit water. Since 2014, Flint River water consumption created a public health threat. In February 2015, a Flint resident contacted the EPA regarding the high levels of lead in her water. The EPA told water personnel that a programme should be in place in June of the same year. In September, a doctor from Hurley Hospital found high lead levels in children. In order to face the crisis, in 2015 the p. 543 p. 544Governor created the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, and on 14 December 2015 Flint declared a state of emergency. In January 2016, a crowd of 150 protesters circled through the hallways of the Michigan state capitol calling for action in the drinking water crisis.

Protests and lawsuits against the city were carried out by activists and clergy groups. After the cases were dismissed, in April 2016, 514 residents filed class action suits. The plaintiffs alleged negligence and demanded more than $220 million in damages for the EPA's role in the water crisis. Moreover, Flint activists announced the formation of the Community Development Organization, which assists and shares information with those affected by the Flint River water switch. As a temporary action, water filters, bottled water and at-home water test kits were provided to Flint residents. Four government officials resigned due to their mismanagement of the water crisis, and Governor Snyder issued an apology to citizens while promising money to Flint residents for medical care and infrastructure improvement.

The programme implemented by the city in March 2016 replaced the thousands of lead and galvanized steel service lines that connect Flint water mains to city homes by 2020. But only a little more than 7,500 pipes were upgraded. The slow pace of progress drew the group of residents working with NRDC (Natural Resources Defence Council) back to court to demand that Flint comply with its obligations to identify and replace lead pipes and supply filters to residents after each pipe replacement.

By April 2020, journalist Zahra Ahmad reported that “No charges have yet resulted from a renewed investigation. No high-ranking members of former Gov. Rick Snyder's administration – […] were ever convicted. And the statute of limitations on any misconduct in office charges may have run out Saturday, April 25, 2020 … It's been 5 years, and Flint still doesn’t trust the water”.

Marathon Oil Refinery in Detroit 9

Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC) has a long history of inflicting environmental injustice on a neighbourhood next to their refinery. Zip code area 48217 along the Rouge and Detroit Rivers in Southwest Detroit is known as the most polluted zip code in Michigan. This part of Detroit has had a long history of environmental racism, starting with its primarily African American residents’ ancestors who migrated there after the end of slavery to work in dirty industries promising a good working-class life to those fleeing racial traumas and poverty in the South. 48217 quickly became a “sacrifice zone” or a “pollution hotspot” that rapidly industrialized thanks to “people of colour” taking on the burdens of industrial pollution. The population today consists of 82 per cent African Americans and a rising population of Hispanics. Thirty-eight per cent of locals live below the money poverty line from which, moreover, lack of clean air must be subtracted. Only 41 of the refinery's 524 employees live in Detroit.

The largest polluter in this community is the MPC, but within a four-mile radius there are more than 27 other industrial facilities. Marathon's Detroit tar sands oil processing facility, merely a few blocks from people's homes, has a history of noncompliance and excessive emissions. The refinery failed three EPA inspections since 2016 and received nine environmental violations from the state in 2018. In 2019, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued at least nine violations to Marathon for noxious odours and exceeding the limits on toxic emissions. Toxicity levels in 48217 are alleged to be more p. 545than 45 times higher than the state average, designating this a “non-attainment zone” greatly exceeding what the EPA permits under the Clean Air Act.

The air smells very strongly of rotten eggs, burnt plastic and gasoline. Residents cannot sleep well because they choke and cough all night and feel nauseous even at home with their windows closed and with face masks on. Locals suffer disproportionately from high rates of asthma, cancer, brain, heart and respiratory disease, miscarriages, birth defects and infertility; and cognitive impairments all linked to the intense pollution. The University of Michigan School of Public Health estimates that air pollution kills more than 650 Detroiters yearly, more than twice the number of residents killed by gun violence. Thousands more are hospitalized, and children miss days at school. Moreover, the higher the concentration of contaminants in children's blood, the worse their performance was.

In 2006, despite years of local resistance and pollution complaints as well as penalties for persistently violating environmental regulations, the City of Detroit gave company Marathon Petroleum Corporation $175 million in tax breaks to expand the refinery to be able to process high-sulphur tar sands from Alberta, Canada. MPC promised to create many jobs for a city which suffers badly from the nation's highest unemployment rates and bankruptcy. However, the refinery only hired 15 additional Detroiters as a result of the expansion. Only a year later, a cancer epidemic swept 48,217, and almost every home had cancer victims or deaths. Local residents were dying at rates far higher than the state average.

To prepare for a $2.2 billion expansion, in 2012 MPC offered to buy homes in Oakwood Heights for $50‒60,000 so that the residents would have enough money to move out to nicer homes in less contaminated areas. Oakwood Heights is a predominantly white neighbourhood in northern 48217. However, the mostly Black neighbourhood of Boynton in southern 48217 did not get any housing buyout offers, leaving its poor residents no choice but to suffer from pollution. Hundreds of complaints were filed against Marathon, but the company refused to extend their buyout programme to the African American neighbourhood. It was around this time that Emma Lockridge, a 66-year-old former radio news programme reporter and grandmother, began taking care of her mother who became gravely ill from Marathon's pollution. Emma herself also had kidney failure and lymphoma. Her house used to be worth almost $100,000 before economic crises and bad publicity over the toxicity in the neighbourhood sank the value to only $10,000. She and many of her neighbours could not afford to move without the buyout programme's help. Enraged by this unfair turn of events, she began mobilizing people into action to push MPC towards finally relocating everyone. Not only did she organize protests and marches, but she also gathered evidence against Marathon by going up close to its facilities to collect data.

In 2016, tired of continuously being ignored, Emma and the people of zip code 48217 then secured funding from the Sierra Club to partner with the University of Michigan for a yearlong study monitoring air quality. The results, unsurprisingly, indicated excessive levels of a wide variety of deadly carcinogens. Their report indicated each chemical, which companies used that chemical, how much of that chemical they were releasing, and the resulting health impacts. Another incident occurred in February 2019, when a fog smelling powerfully of rotten cabbage descended on 48217. Locals began experiencing intense nausea, breathing problems, eye and throat irritation, and vomiting to the point that some of them called 911. What happened was that a gas flare malfunctioned while workers were decommissioning some equipment, causing a propane line to rupture and release hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide. The unit was quickly shut down, and workers knocked the vapours down with water. The p. 546Toxic Substances & Disease Registry added that the smell was likely from methyl mercaptan. Citizens were outraged that the City of Detroit and the Detroit Police Department did not warn anyone about the incident or about the potential dangers of living in the area, and did not evacuate residents, and many filed complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

During the chemical flare investigations, there was also a congressional hearing convened by US Representative Rashida Tlaib attended by approximately 200 people. Environmental justice advocates, residents and academic experts testified about hazards that disproportionately affect communities of colour and low-income areas. The leak at the Marathon refinery was just the latest of many cases. They demanded better infrastructure, green buffers to offset the amount of pollutants reaching homes, cumulative impact analyses, structural legal changes, real accountability and permitting processes giving residents a say in whether to issue permits to polluting companies such as Marathon. Another topic brought up was how a lot of white people were talking for frontline communities, but residents’ voices and perspectives themselves were often crowded out. Marathon still does not want to buy out Boynton homes, and the neighbourhood continues to be exposed to gas and oil leaks without much progress in getting MPC to relocate people. Yet the community continues to be actively protesting for a buy-out and working on a federal class-action lawsuit filed by over a thousand locals against MPC.


Northern Access Pipeline, Pennsylvania and New York: Water Is Life 10

Indigenous groups and local EJOs fight the proposed Northern Access Pipeline (NAPL) by National Fuel Gas Supply Corporation & Empire Pipeline, from Pennsylvania to New York state and Canada. This case has a parallel with the Kinder Morgan Natural Gas Pipeline and the fights against the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that we saw in Chapter 16 on LFFU movements belonging to the kind of grassroots resistance that Naomi Klein called Blockadia when Indigenous peoples complain against oil or gas pipelines.

On 17 March 2015, National Fuel Gas Supply Corporation (“Supply”), a vertically integrated natural gas company whose holdings include a regional natural gas utility, a transmission pipeline company and an oil and gas driller, and Empire Pipeline, Inc. (“Empire”) applied for authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to construct an approximately 96-mile pipeline, called the Northern Access Pipeline (NAPL), from Northern Pennsylvania through Western New York. According to Supply's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) report, NAPL would provide gas to markets in the north-eastern United States and Canada. NAPL would stretch from Sergeant Township, McKean County, Pennsylvania, under the Allegheny River, through part of the Allegany County town of Genesee and Cattaraugus County towns, and it would cross under Cattaraugus Creek into Erie County, New York. NAPL is proposed to cross 206 bodies of water and impact 389 wetlands and to include a new 22,000 horsepower compressor station and an expansion of an existing compressor station. Empire also seeks to construct a natural gas dehydration plant to export gas from Supply's Western Pennsylvania fracking sites to what the company calls “premium markets” in Canada. All propositions in this project were valued as a US$ 500 million investment.p. 547

Due to the imminent threat posed by the pipeline to the streams and wetlands it is meant to cross, the threat of impaired air quality from compressor and dehydration station emissions and of continued global climate change posed by increased fossil fuel infrastructure, the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI), local governments and several environmental groups actively opposed NAPL. SNI president elect Todd Gates feared the danger from the natural gas pipeline to his own people, the souls of his ancestors and his human and nonhuman relatives. In a statement to a local television station, Todd Gates reiterated the ‘Water is Life’ sentiment, popularized by the NoDAPL movement in North Dakota. Furthermore, according to Dr Jason Corwin, the Executive Director of Seneca Media and Communications Centre, the pipeline corridor is set to run throughout the ancestral territory, burial grounds and sustenance-providing water bodies. Nevertheless, FERC has had little if any consultation with SNI as per federal regulations.

NAPL presents multiple threats to the environmental health of the Upper Lake Erie and Niagara River Watersheds. It requires the crossings of protected trout streams. Upwards of 100 acres of wetland and 350 acres of forest can be disrupted and/or permanently impacted; due to the necessity to maintain accessible “Right of Way”, ensuing revegetation will take substantial time to replace. The stream trenching during installation can destabilize the stream bed, and such conditions can result in increasing water temperatures, decreasing water quality, turbidity and impacting downstream aquatic life. Construction of NAPL could also have negative impacts on the Cattaraugus Creek Basin Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for 20,000 citizens.

Owing to these potential threats posed by NAPL, the resistance movement grew from the grassroots, community-based local level to a regional and progressively broader audience. NoNAPL opposition was born out of public hearings held by Supply dating back to 2014. The company was immediately met with a fight from local residents, landowners and the Seneca Nation of Indians. Concerned citizens and environmental organizations joined forces to increase awareness of the issue through letter and postcard campaigns to state and local representatives. The resistance took to the streets of Albany and to National Fuel's headquarters in Buffalo, demanding that their human rights be valued over those of the company and its profits. A number of local landowners resisted NAPL in court. Another medium of mobilization took the form of film, in a moving documentary entitled “Denying Access: NoDAPL to NoNAPL”. As of 2021, the future of NAPL was still unknown. The NYSDEC denied Supply its water quality permit, which the company desperately needs if it is to start construction. This and other regulatory delays forced Supply as of December 2018 to file for an extension to meet their 2022 in-service target for NAPL. In 2022, the FERC approved Supply's request for a 35-month extension to build the project by December 2024.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico 11

The British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, in US territorial waters, caused deaths and extensive damage; this was one of the rare cases where the responsible company recognized liability. The oil spill is known as one of the largest oil spills in marine waters. Beyond the compensation paid, international activists called for recognition of the Rights of Nature under universal jurisdiction. In 2010, this disaster was news all over the world because it affected the coast of a rich and powerful country. On the other hand, in many impoverished countries similar pollution cases have occurred for decades without meriting p. 548so much media attention. Here, British Petroleum was forced to face the liabilities. Other memorable gas/oil platform accidents were Ixtoc in Campeche, Mexico, 1979, and the Piper Alpha explosions in 1988 in Scotland. As oil becomes scarcer, and demand for gas increases rapidly, accidents and spills are likely to increase. We are perhaps on the downward slope of the Hubbert curve (peak oil). The industry will strive to extract oil of poorer quality and in increasingly remote and difficult locations such as the Amazon or the Arctic. Extraction costs will increase, and there might be a tendency to reduce safety expenses.

On 20 April 2010, the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire. Eleven workers were killed in the explosion and 17 injured. The rig was owned by Transocean on lease to BP, with Anadarko Petroleum and MOEX Offshore (part of Mitsui Oil Exploration) as minority co-owners. Work on the well had been performed just before the explosion by Halliburton. The ‘blowout preventer’ was built by Cameron International. On 22 April, the rig sank. Oil leaked from the ruptured wellhead until 15 July, when it was temporarily stopped; approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil had leaked into the Gulf. On 19 September 2010, the US government declared the well “effectively dead”. Oil directly affected coastal areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas. People dependent on fishing and tourism were affected. Concerns were also raised in relation to health hazards for clean-up workers and coastal residents. Because the damage was done in US territorial waters, environmental liability was acknowledged in practice. BP agreed to pay almost US$20 billion in settlements resulting from lawsuits. This money was to be funnelled into restoration efforts which have the potential to help restore a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico which is also damaged from water from the Mississippi River tainted by industrial agriculture. BP committed US$ 500 million to fund the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, allowing scientists to study and understand the impact of the spill.

In an international parallel event in late November 2010, activists filed a lawsuit against BP in Ecuador, citing universal jurisdiction before the country's Constitutional Court and appealing to the country's recognition of Rights of Nature in art. 71 of the Constitution of 2008. Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva spoke to the claim, saying

This morning we filed this lawsuit to defend the Rights of Nature […]. It's about universal jurisdiction beyond the boundaries of Ecuador because Nature has rights everywhere, and that is why we are the first signatories of a global coalition and say: we as citizens of the earth have a duty to protect Nature everywhere.

Often applied in Human Rights cases, universal jurisdiction allows a country to prosecute crimes committed by nationals or foreigners anywhere in the world. Diana Murcia, the plaintiff's lawyer, said the case aimed to bring Nature to the table as a rights-bearing entity. For the time being, nothing came out of this.

Chevron Refinery Richmond, California 12

The Chevron company appears in many conflicts in the EJAtlas. Chapter 27 has a section on the disaster in Ecuador caused by Texaco-Chevron. Here we focus on a smaller conflict, in Richmond, California where the company is domiciled and owns a controversial refinery. The case falls squarely into the history of the environmental justice movement in the US since the 1980s and 1990s. The refinery processes approximately 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The company had 304 accidents between 1989 and 1995 ‒ major fires, spills, leaks, explosions, p. 549toxic gas releases, flaring and air contamination. Since 1902, Chevron has been refining crude oil in order to manufacture petroleum products and other chemicals in Richmond, a poor and mostly African American community in Contra Costa County, CA. Today, the company employs 1,200 people and processes crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and lubricants.

Negative health outcomes have been associated with the disproportionate burden of industrial contamination in this area. A health study reported that the prevalence of asthma among children in Richmond (17 per cent) was double the national average (7 per cent). The prevalence of asthma among adults who have lived in Richmond for more than 15 years (34.9 per cent) was significantly higher than those more recent residents (9.2 per cent). Other acute health problems related to air pollution, such as headaches, eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory allergies, have been identified within these communities.

One local leader was Henry Clark (Figure 24.3), who became executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition. He was among the delegates to the first People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit held in 1991 in Washington D.C. This coalition was also a founding member of both the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.

Henry Clark helping carry the “Occupy Chevron” banner to the refinery gates (Sara Bernard, Richmond Confidential).
Figure 24.3

Henry Clark helping carry the “Occupy Chevron” banner to the refinery gates

Source:  Sara Bernard, Richmond Confidential

The controversy sparked in 1993, when Chevron made plans to increase its chemical storage and the number of hazardous chemicals in the Richmond area. Local residents tried to lobby public officials to force the company to invest $50 million into community development. The West County Toxics Coalition was able to successfully lobby the planning commission in Richmond. Legal advice from the Golden Gate Law Clinic also helped this community group interpret laws like the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and thus provide powerful evidence that the reformulated fuel plan would have detrimental impacts on children and other vulnerable residents. Chevron ended up paying $5 million.p. 550

In the 2008 elections, residents of Richmond approved the Richmond Business License Tax (Measure T), an initiative to bring $10 million in additional annual revenue for the city from Chevron to expand community programmes. However, in February 2009 Chevron filed a lawsuit in Contra Costa County Superior Court that was ruled in its favour, proclaiming Measure T unconstitutional.

Since the plant started operating, hundreds of accidents have occurred. There was a large explosion and fire on 6 August 2012 causing over 15,000 residents to seek treatment at area hospitals. After this accident and mass protests, the city of Richmond filed a lawsuit against Chevron over the fire. In response, Chevron pleaded no contest to six criminal charges and agreed to implement extra oversight of its operation, paying $2 million in fines and restitution.

CFPP in Chicago: An Alliance of Local Environmental Justice and “Big Green” Organizations 13

In August 2012, the Fisk and Crawford Power Plants closed their doors after the “marriage” of community organizations and larger “big green” organizations in their campaign against coal. This was after more than a decade of conflict with local residents, grassroots community groups and national environmental organizations. The two power plants, located in the predominantly Hispanic neighbourhoods of Pilsen and Little Village, had some of the worst environmental compliance records in the country. The emissions cost neighbouring communities more than $120 million a year in hidden health damages, according to an analysis by the National Research Council. In 2011, two Chicago aldermen responded to growing community resistance to the coal plants by reintroducing an ordinance to regulate particulate matter and carbon dioxide emissions. Shortly afterwards, Midwest Generation announced that the Fisk and Crawford Plants would be permanently closed.

The grassroots groups had realized that if they wanted the plants closed, they needed to work with these larger Big Green organizations. About 12 groups came together and formed the Chicago Clean Power Coalition. Despite mounting evidence of coal burning power plants contributing to climate change and health issues in the community, the City Council wouldn’t put pressure on the company who owned the Fisk and Crawford Plants (Midwest Generation). Activists made their frustration with the City Council known by painting “Quit Coal” in large vertical letters on the 450-foot smokestacks. Activists also made sure that the coal plants were on the agenda for a mayoral forum held that year 2011. It became public that one of the aldermen was allegedly receiving funds from Midwest Generation. The Coalition was able to get one-third of the city's aldermen in support of their campaign to close down the plants.

On 28 February 2012, the news broke that the plants would be closed. However, since the closure of the Fisk and Crawford power plants, there have been proposed site redevelopments that have the potential to perpetuate disproportionate environmental and health burdens. This site is located adjacent to an existing public park, and in 2017 the city put forth a proposal to expand this park to include 1.5 acres of the Fisk site. The city committed $40,000 in Open Space Impact Fees to “study the potential for creating the park”. Planning was set to be completed by the end of 2017, but thus far no other public announcements have been made. The Fisk site is owned by NRG Energy, who took ownership of both the Fisk and Crawford sites after Midwest Generation closed the coal-fired plants and operates the remaining natural gas-fired plants.p. 551

In early 2018, the Crawford plant was scheduled to be demolished, and the property was used as an industrial warehouse/distribution centre for online retailers. The Hilco Redevelopment Partners purchased the site for one hundred million dollars. Hilco began promoting and discussing these developments without involvement from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). While Little Village residents hoped for some form of redevelopment for the Crawford site, they have concerns with the proposed distribution centre and the effect that increased traffic and diesel truck idling will have on health and air quality. The LVEJO has been particularly vocal in their concerns surrounding environmental quality, public health, and a lack of citizen representation in the process so far.


Uranium Mining in Navajo Territory 14

As of 2005, the Navajo nation banned uranium mining on their land. However, due to the large supply of uranium under the Navajo Reservation, companies have been trying to re-open mines. Liabilities remain. The lands of the Navajo Nation include 27,000 square miles spread over Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The geology of these lands makes them rich in uranium, a radioactive ore in demand. From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Many Navajo people worked the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills.

Today, the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination remains, including over 500 abandoned uranium mines as well as homes and drinking water sources with elevated levels of radiation. Potential health effects include lung cancer as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function. The Navajo people, due to a language barrier, were largely isolated from the flow of knowledge about radiation and its hazards. Mobilization began in reaction to several mill spills and continuing health effects from mine tailings, but those affected were not listened to and did not have adequate resources to create a large opposition. As journalist Judy Pasternak recounts, a few outstanding individuals ‒ among them Navajo schoolteacher Lorissa Jackson, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, his son Tom (now Sen. Udall, D-N.M.) and US Rep. Henry Waxman ‒ helped raise awareness and made a stand against one of the grossest cases of betrayal and wilful oversight in the history of the country. Another voice in the fight against this injustice was Harry Tome, a tribal council member and later employee of the minerals department of the tribe. In 1973, the Albuquerque Tribune ran a cover story that led to the first legislation in the US Congress aimed at compensation for uranium miners. The bill never passed, but in 1978 Harry Tome began working with Udall, who filed two lawsuits in 1979.

After a 30-year fight, with multiple dismissed class-action lawsuits, Congress responded by developing a programme allowing partial restitution to individuals who developed serious illnesses after exposure to radiation released during the atmospheric nuclear tests or employment in the uranium industry: the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed in October 1990. Navajo members continued to push for compensation that would allow them to pay medical bills and provide comfort following the loss of family members. The US p. 552Justice Department announced on 2 March 2015 that it had awarded more than $2 billion in compassionate compensation to eligible claimants under RECA.

EPA's clean-up work continued under a second 5-year plan developed in 2014. In 2015, Federal and Navajo agencies formed the Community Outreach Network as part of the Five-Year Plan. The Community Outreach Network includes representatives from EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, the Indian Health Service, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, the Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Lands/Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Program and the Navajo Nation Department of Health. The Community Outreach Network plans and coordinates outreach events to enhance community understanding of the work agencies are doing to address uranium contamination on Navajo Nation. Companies such as Hydro Resources, Inc (HRI), have been trying to re-open mines.

On 15 December 2015, the State of New Mexico Environment Department terminated HRI's groundwater discharge permit 558 because it did not comply with groundwater permitting regulations of the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC). HRI was encouraged to apply for a new permit in accordance with the new lowered water quality standards. A lot was at stake in this ongoing case, namely the quality of millions of gallons of drinking water that would most likely be contaminated as a result of HRI's proposed in-situ mine. Navajo members continue the fight to protect their land, their water, their health and their future.

Plutonium in Hanford, Washington State 15

A related case is that of Hanford near Native American Reservations. In response to security uncertainties and to increase the defence capabilities of the United States, the US government chose Hanford, Washington, as the home to the first full-scale plutonium production facility as part of the Manhattan Project. Due to the size of the facility more than 1,500 people were told to evacuate their homes, and infrastructure ‒ including 554 new buildings ‒ replaced them. The production of plutonium and eventual modification into a waste storage facility continued until the late 1980s. In 1988, the facility was put on the National Priorities List for the Superfund Clean Up. What was most concerning was the proximity of the contamination to the Columbia River, the water source for millions of people.

Another aspect of this conflict is that there were a number of Native American tribes living on this land that had rights granted through treaties to use the resources in the now polluted area. Their rights were removed, and this took away part of their ability to follow traditional ways of living. The intensity of the mobilization increased in the late 1980s as organizations began to push for clean-up due to the heightened threat of groundwater contamination leading to contamination of the river. There has been steady mobilization by organizations and the government to clean up the large area completely. The site has been in remediation since 1989 and continues to be cleaned up. Annually, a very high sum is spent on remediation. There are many decades ahead of decontamination, at enormous cost.

The US Department of Energy estimated that radioactive and chemical contamination included 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel (stored in two ageing basins just 400 yards from the Columbia River), 12 tons of plutonium, 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste, 1,400 waste sites, 500 contaminated facilities, 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater and 53 million gallons of high-level nuclear waste in 177 ageing underground storage tanks.p. 553

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Storage, Nevada 16

This can be deemed to be an environmental justice success because the organized opposition, successful litigation and environmental analysis was able to prevent the storage of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain for many years. Due to the lack of health precautions and regard for Native American culture, the implications of Yucca Mountain could have been disastrous.

In 1982, the US government passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which requires deep geological repositories for nuclear waste. In 1983, Yucca Mountain was named as a potential site for a nuclear waste repository. In 1996, Yucca Mountain was found to be lacking the natural geological and hydrological qualities that are needed to be the crucial first barrier of the waste. In 2001, several environmental organizations as well as the state of Nevada filed lawsuits against the US EPA. Nevada also filed lawsuits against the US government, the Department of Energy and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), challenging the Yucca Mountain project. In August 2013, a federal appeals court ruled to resume the licensing process for the project.

Throughout this conflict, one main actor has been the Western Shoshone tribe. Yucca Mountain contains traditional and cultural sites and there has been debate with the US Department of Energy over their rights and access ability to these communities. So, here we have a case in the USA with Indigenous populations as protagonists. Clearly, Indigenous peoples are located as internal “refugees” both at the frontiers of commodity extraction and of waste disposal.

Highly intense resistance has produced constant litigation, new environmental assessments and appeals. The United States government removed funding to the Yucca Mountain project but under the Nuclear Waste Repository Act the US is required to find a more permanent holding place for nuclear waste. Therefore, although funding has been removed there is still the potential to refund the repository. Former President Barack Obama convened the so-called Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future that was tasked with “establishing a nuclear waste administration and creating a consent-based process for siting nuclear waste facilities”. The Blue Ribbon Commission had really no clue on how to achieve this. Debate continues. On 20 May 2020, it was reported that Donald Trump and his administration had no plans to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository.


Car and oil industries helped to shape the city of San Francisco around private vehicles. Within this context, in the early 1990s a world-famous form of cycling protests was born: the “Critical Mass”. This conflict is on the use of urban space and on the means of urban transport. By 1930 in San Francisco, car-based transportation benefitted from giant public expenditures, though they were used by an affluent minority of the population. The investment on car infrastructure was far greater than the investment in public transportation. Also, the electric street cars were left aside and the streets were taken over by private vehicles.

One graduate student, Miller McClintock, became a prominent traffic researcher. In his 1925 thesis “Street Traffic Control” he wrote that “the automobile is a waste of space compared to the streetcar”, and described the automobile as “the greatest public destroyer of p. 554human life”. But two years later his perspective changed after being hired by Studebaker's Vice President to direct the new “Albert Russel Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research”. After, he wrote an article called “Curing the Ills of San Francisco Traffic” where he wrote: “it is recognized that an ultimate requirement for the solution of street and highway congestion is to be found in the creation of a more ample street area”. He became a recognized authority on traffic planning, now with a pro-automobile vision.

By that time, Ford was already a growing business. A fair in New York City in 1934 “The World of Tomorrow”, built by General Motors, exhibited a vision of “San Francisco in 1999”, to redesign San Francisco as a Corbuserian city, with elevated roadways and highways. In the spring of 1937, Shell oil company combined McClintock`s traffic expertise with the stage designer Norman Bed Geddes to build a scale model of “the automobile city of tomorrow”, to promote Shell Oil Company's new “motor-digestible gasoline”.

In 1955, the newspaper San Francisco Chronicle published a map of proposed routes of the freeways which helped to promote the opposition known as the “Highway revolts”, where 30,000 citizens mobilized to stop freeway building in San Francisco. These protests took place between 1950 and 1970. By 1991, established activist cycling groups protested against the oil industry; this year, around 100,000 citizens participated in anti-Gulf War demonstrations, often on bicycles. Within this context, where the car and oil industries helped to shape the city around private vehicles, and with growing protests from activist groups and a noticeable bicycle messenger community, one of today's best world-wide known cycling protests appeared: the “Critical Mass”. This anarchic type of protest and celebration today takes place in more than 300 cities around the world, usually every last Friday of the month.

By 1992, a group of around 60 cyclists in San Francisco, which included bicycle messengers and activists, started to ride once a month, increasing their visibility and reclaiming the public space by making a “social use of the streets”. It was initially called “the commute clot”, an “experiment in urban anarchy”. Many interesting questions started to come up with these ridings: “Why is there so little open space in our cities where people can relax and interact, free from the incessant buying and selling? Why are people compelled to organize their lives around having a car? What would an alternative future look like?” Over time, the concept and movement started to take shape and the name evolved to Critical Mass. With a double purpose: on one side “to celebrate bicycles” and on the other to “dominate the streets for a change”. It also has the purpose to allow people to experience what it is like “to be the majority” or “to be safe”.

One of the tools of the decentralized network of Critical Mass is “Xerography”. The word “Xerography” comes from “Xerocracia”, a Greek word meaning the “government of the foreigners”. With “Xerography” anyone is free to make copies of their ideas and pass them around. The mission of the ride is not set by a few people, people are there to promote “human powered transportation as a viable alternative, others seek the respect of motorists and city planners, and some take part simply because they like riding bikes”. Critical Mass has received many titles; an “organized coincidence”, “a revolutionary act”, “just a bike ride”. The several names reflect the fact that the Critical Mass is to be interpreted, shaped, and redefined by the participants in each context; it has a decentralized structure.

Traffic tactics evolved in order to maintain the mass together throughout the city. Nowadays, the route and starting point is agreed on social networks, and the departure point is the same every Friday. One of the most important characteristics is that the mass should not split. That is the main idea, to be a mass. “We are not blocking the traffic; we are the traffic”. Therefore, p. 555in the intersections “corks” stop the motorized traffic until the last of the bicycle riders pass. San Francisco has become a place of honour in what has become a world movement.


Of the four or five cases of environmental conflict collected so far in Hawaii in the EJAtlas, I select one that was first uploaded in 2020. In Hawaii, there was a demographic collapse after 1778, when British Capt. James Cook arrived, as had happened nearly three centuries before in the Americas when Spaniards and Portuguese first arrived. Nowadays, there are sometimes clashes of opinion between the remaining Indigenous population and the US population. In 2019, Hawaiians stopped the building of a telescope that, to them, symbolized Western colonization on Mauna Kea Mountain. To Native Hawaiians, it also interfered with cultural practices related to the mountain. The project was stopped after five months of protests.

Mauna Kea, the tallest peak in Hawaii, provides a unique place in the Northern Hemisphere for observing the heavens. It is here, at nearly 14,000 feet, that a consortium led by Caltech and the TMT International Observatory including the University of California wanted to place a 30-m-tall telescope that would serve for celestial observations and research and give astronomers the ability to “peer through space-time to the beginning of the universe 13 billion years ago”, according to a UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist and Thirty Meter Telescope board member.

Native Hawaiians agree that Mauna Kea connects humanity to the universe – as an umbilical cord between Earth and space. The peak at Mauna Kea is the “highest point where land touches the sky – where the two deities, Sky Father and Earth Mother, meet”, said an elder in the fight against the telescope. Thus, to Native Hawaiians, putting a giant telescope on their sacred mountain is a form of “pollution”. Thirteen much smaller telescopes, many built without Native Hawaiian approval, already stand on Mauna Kea. Opponents argue that they are not anti-science but that they don’t want a telescope on their sacred mountain. “We have a belief system that is based in nature and our environment, not on churches and buildings”, a Native Hawaiian stated. In 2018, a coalition of activists led by Kealoha Pisciotta filed a legal challenge in the Third Circuit Court of Hawaii against the telescope's construction. The TMT International Observatory, the activists said, had failed to post a security bond that is required under a 1977 plan that governs the management of the mountain. The constructors, however, promised that the full cost of the project would cover the cost of restoring the site to its natural state once the telescope had finished its “mission”. The Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled that the telescope did not violate environmental laws, nor Native Hawaiian rights to engage in traditional and customary practices.

Direct action was called for. On 15 July 2019, five days after Hawaii Governor David Ige announced that the construction on Mauna Kea was about to happen, Native Hawaiians, activists and neighbours mobilized. They occupied the Mauna Kea access road, blocking equipment trucks from ascending to the summit and drawing massive support via social media. At the base of Mauna Kea 2,000 people were protesting. On 17 July 2019, state police arrested 38 Native Hawaiian elders (kupuna) for blocking the road. They had decided to put themselves on the front line, to protect the younger leaders from arrest. They were quickly released and returned to protest on the highway. The governor issued an emergency proclamation and warned that he would send the National Guard. At the heart of the resistance to the telescope p. 556is said to be the concept of kapu aloha, a Native Hawaiian moral philosophy grounded in compassion, respect, self-discipline and non-violence.

The struggle for Mauna Kea continues. “Every piece of machinery you try to bring up on this mountain, we’re gonna fight you”, a protester stated. After five months of widespread and active protests, the project temporarily stopped on 20 December 2019. The Hawaii Governor also announced that police enforcement would be removed from the site; the project “would not be proceeding with construction at this time”. By 2022, the issue is still open.


Environmental justice, as born in the USA in the 1980s, was a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) movement born from the awareness that the environmental crisis was a racial issue. There was dumping of toxic and nuclear waste upon racialized communities. The same also applies on a global scale. In the 1980s, the Afro American liberation movement gave the world from the USA the watchword “environmental justice” to fight “environmental racism”. It deserves gratitude.

The US environmental justice movement, focusing on minorities, has done enough inside the country but very little outside. On occasion, as in Mossville, Louisiana, it managed to appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. However, damages from the US companies in the rest of the world have been neglected, and this is to be lamented because the US is an imperialist power with an economic and military presence everywhere.

Around the world, Indigenous movements have fought for over five hundred years. Ecofeminism realizes how ecological degradation and extinction are deeply imbricated with patriarchy. Peasant movements claim their right to food sovereignty as a way to ‘cool down the earth’. Socio-ecological movements are thus of worldwide significance. In this chapter we focus only on the US, selecting a sample within the 180 socio-ecological conflicts registered by 2022 in the EJAtlas for the US. Many had disastrous outcomes. The two last ones are more hopeful: the internationally successful San Francisco critical mass movement for cyclist rights and the recent conflict in Hawaii showing signs of the world Indigenous revival. This revival is the main theme of the next chapter, which begins with a mining conflict in Santa Rita Mountains, in Arizona in the “copper belt” shared with Sonora, Mexico. Keywords of this chapter have been environmental justice, environmental racism and the CERCLA legislation. Another keyword could be “corporatocracy”, defined as “a society or a system that is controlled by ‘business corporations’”, what the Russian people spontaneously called in Greek after 1990 the “oligarchy”. But, of course, this is combined with the violence of the state.

The US territory covers from Massachusetts to Louisiana and Alabama, and then to California and Hawaii. It also includes Alaska, Puerto Rico and some Pacific islands, which appear in other chapters. Any social movement lives on its successes although it might also learn from its failures, as the Warren County case teaches because the plan for a PCB depository was not stopped. The cases in this “sample within a sample” are slightly on the “optimistic” side: about six could be seen as successes (projects cancelled, important liabilities acknowledged or a change in urban traffic norms imposed), about five would be “not sure”, and eight would be failures in environmental justice.p. 557

We have revised lead pollution in the supply water at Flint and Marathon Oil in Detroit, bad cases of “environmental racism”. In Chapter 21, we saw a major CAFO conflict in Lenawee County also in Michigan. We have also seen complaints against pipelines and Blockadia movements; the Deep Horizon disaster, the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California; a CFPP in Chicago. Then the injustice of uranium mining in Navajo territory, nuclear waste dumping in Hanford in Washington state, and the conflict on Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Indigenous populations appear as protagonists in some of these cases and of course Afro American people. The industries and commodities involved in the conflicts are dangerous chemicals, agricultural pesticides, the oil and gas industry and its refineries and pipelines, the coal burning industry, metal and uranium mining, nuclear waste, land grabbing threats to beautiful and sacred landscapes, water use and claims for urban space for pedestrians and cyclists. The values in dispute range from monetary compensation for damages to the preservation of landscape or water sources which are deemed sacred and priceless. We know that the different valuation languages displayed in the conflicts are not commensurate.

We identify some general themes. For instance, the McFarland conflict in California showed the role of César Chavez, founder of the UFW, overlapping protests on pesticide use that killed birds and damaged human health with immigrant working-class activism. In the US perhaps there is an environmentalism of the “subaltern classes” of different colours, but this terminology would weaken the force that the US Environmental Justice movement has obtained by fighting against “environmental racism”. Racism is indeed present in the social constitution of the US, and “environmental racism” against Black, Hispanic and Indigenous populations appears in our sample. But also “poor white” protagonists of struggles as in Hinkley, California, Love Canal NY and Woburn Mass. Together with the presence of leading women activists in many cases (Tran 2021).

When the Environmental Justice movements started in the US in the 1980s a frequent complaint was a lack of support from the Big Green organizations; they were green but exclusively white in their leadership and membership. However, there are some confluences between grassroots local movements and national environmental organizations such as Earth Justice or the Sierra Club which are normally distant from the environmentalism of the BIPOC. Meanwhile, EPA and its rules, the courts of justice and the CERCLA's Superfund inevitably appear in many cases. I am reminded of India and the legislation on Forests Rights and the National Green Tribunal (Roy 2018) which are sometimes effective. Among the protagonists, there are agricultural labourers but not peasants. This is different from many other countries in the world. There are however Indigenous people who complain about potential or actual environmental damages.

Most environmental conflicts everywhere have public cultural expressions, from humble cardboard placards and cloth banners to collectively shouted slogans and songs to street theatre, amateur documentaries, many academic or newspaper articles and heavy books, and even US Hollywood movies. In the US, the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident had been anticipated in the fanciful movie The China Syndrome. The cinema industry is also powerful in India but there are not yet movies (I think) on the Chipko movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the opposition to the Kudankulam NPP.

Finally, there is less open violence against environmentalists in these cases and in the US as a whole than in some countries of Latin America or the Philippines, which rank high in the Global Witness statistics of killed environmentalists. The homicide rate is high in the US, but not against environmentalists. But we have seen other types of violence like persistent p. 558contamination provoking cancer. These are cases of “slow murder” (a term from Sunita Narain of the CSE, Delhi) or “slow violence” (Nixon 2013). In fact, “environmental racism” can itself be seen as another type of violence, “structural violence” (Navas et al. 2018). And, of course, US firms abroad have been very violent, as also the US Army with nuclear bomb testing in inhabited Pacific islands, “depleted uranium” bombs in Iraq, and the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War (that led to the introduction of the neologism “ecocide”).



Pesticides and Childhood Cancer, California, USA (Sara Orvis), EJAtlas.


Love Canal dump site at Niagara Falls, USA (Sara Orvis, UMich), EJAtlas.

Gibbs, L.M. (1981). Love Canal: My Story, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Gibbs, L.M. (1995). Dying from Dioxin: a citizens’ guide to reclaiming our health and rebuilding democracy, South End Press, Boston.


PCB Contamination in Warren County, USA (Alejandro Colsa, UMich), EJAtlas.

Fears, D. and Dennis, B. (2021). How a protest in a Black N.C. farming town nearly 40 years ago sparked a national movement, Washington Post, April 6.

Labalme, J. (1987). A road to walk: A struggle for environmental justice, Durham, NC: The Regulator.


Erin Brockovich (2000). Directed by Soderbergh, S., written by Grant S [Film] Universal Pictures.

Groundwater Contamination with Chromium-6 in Hinkley, California, EJAtlas.


A Civil Action (1998). Directed by Zaillian, S. [Film], based on the book by Harr J. Buena Vista Pictures.

Water contamination and environmental liabilities from chemical companies, Woburn, USA (Bernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai), EJAtlas.


Mossville, Louisiana: environmental racism in “Cancer Alley”, United States (Joan Martínez-Alier), EJAtlas.

Martin, D.S. (2010). Toxic towns: People of Mossville ‘are like an experiment’, CNN, 26 February.


Highly polluting paper factories in Africatown, Alabama, US (Bryce Mather, Arielle Landau, Grettel Navas), EJAtlas.


Water Management in Flint, Michigan, USA (Grettel Navas), EJAtlas.

Milman, O. (2016). Michigan removes ‘pre-flushing’ practice from state water testing rules, The Guardian, 26 January.

Erickson, J. and Mohai, P. (2018). Flint water crisis: most egregious example of environmental injustice, says U-M researcher, University of Michigan News, 19 October.

Fonger, R. (2022). NRDC blasts Flint for failing to complete water service line work by September deadline, Michigan Live, 21 September.


Marathon Oil Refinery in Detroit, Michigan, USA (Dalena Tran), EJAtlas.

Lockridge, E. (2021). They just don’t care: Environmental racism and Detroit, Left Voice, July.


Northern Access Pipeline, Pennsylvania and New York, USA (Sabrina T. Dabakarov, Skidmore), EJAtlas.

Seneca Media & Communications Centre (2016). Denying Access: NoDAPL to NoNAPL [Film], 28 October.

Sierra Club Group of Western New York. No Northern Access Pipeline.

Reuters (2022). U.S. gives NFG more time to build Northern Access natgas pipeline, 1 July.


Deepwater Horizon oil spill, USA (Elodie Aba), EJAtlas.

Ixtoc gigantic marine oil spill, Campeche, Mexico (Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.

Piper Alpha oil and gas platform disaster in central North Sea, Scotland (Nina Limacher and Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.


Chevron Refinery in Richmond, CA, USA (Alejandro Colsa UMich), EJAtlas.


Coal Fired Power Plants in Chicago, USA (Bernadette Grafton UMich), EJAtlas.p. 559


Uranium Mining in the Southwest in Navajo Nation, USA (Bernadette Grafton and Paul Mohai), EJAtlas.


Plutonium Production at Hanford near Native American Reservations, USA (Sara Orvis UMich), EJAtlas.


Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage, USA (Sara Orvis, UMich), EJAtlas.


San Francisco first Critical Mass as a challenge to pro-automobile urban planning, USA (Sandra La Rota), EJAtlas.


Hawaiians stop the telescope symbolizing Western colonization on Mauna Kea Mountain. USA (Ksenija Hanacek), EJAtlas.

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