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Black leaders raising voices on environmental justice

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On Friday, March 31, the IU McKinney School of Law, in collaboration with the state chapter of the NAACP, the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and other groups, will host the Protecting the Urban Environment Symposium. This event, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 8:15 a.m.

Event organizer Dr. Carlton Waterhouse said the event has been held annually at the school for nearly a decade, but this year’s focus on urban environments was an intentional choice based on current issues surrounding places like Flint, East Chicago and Indianapolis.

Topics of discussion will include lead contamination, access to clean drinking water and the steps involved in getting assistance from state agencies.

“The environmental conversation is one that needs to be at the top of list for the African-American community, because they have a disproportionate exposure to pollution all over the country. Their failure to pay attention to it means they are on the menu as opposed to at the table,” said Waterhouse, who serves as director of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Environmental, Energy and Natural Resources Law program. “They will still be affected by it and be exposed to it, but they will not be aware. It also means that they won’t be involved in the decision-making that could resolve what these problems are.”

Jaqueline Patterson, the national Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said it was important for them to be involved in this awareness effort given the fact that in Black communities, environmental hazards from coal fire power plants, incinerators and the presence of lead or cement result in clusters of the population becoming infected with cancer and respiratory illnesses. Other consequences include losses in property values and intellectual barriers for those in school, as exposure to pollution can impair one’s cognitive ability.

“We see it as intersectional with our civil rights agenda,” Patterson said.

The event will feature four panel discussions throughout the day, one of which is titled “The Legacy of Lead in Indiana — East Chicago and Beyond.” Last month, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb declared a state of emergency in East Chicago, a disaster declaration that former Gov. Mike Pence failed to approve. The emergency status, which was initially for 30 days, has been extended to allow more time for state and federal agencies to work together on solutions. Additionally, residents of the West Calumet housing projects, which are slated to be demolished, are still in the process of relocating, many of them seeking to leave at the end of the school year in late May.

Last week, however, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill joined 16 other state attorneys general and two governors in calling for an end to what they describe as “unlawful federal overreach” by the Environmental Protection Agency in a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. In the correspondence, Hill stated that in Indiana, federal agencies have far too much power to interfere in Hoosiers’ lives. “As attorney general, I work daily to make sure our state complies with federal law while at the same time protecting state prerogatives from the overreach of the federal government. I am eager to work with my fellow state attorneys general who share my concerns,” he went on to say.

Activists like Denise Abdul-Rahman, the NAACP’s state Environmental Climate Justice Chair, and Waterhouse both shared that they felt the statement was in poor taste, particularly given the state’s current issues.

“I’m very disheartened that our African-American attorney general is supporting policies that are not going to be beneficial to the most vulnerable communities,” said Abdul-Rahman.

Waterhouse, a former EPA attorney, sees the attorney general’s request as an attempt to create a scenario in which there is little regulation or penalty if something goes wrong.

“(EPA attorneys) aren’t influenced by the size of the company they’re investigating or who their friends are. They make choices based on what’s best for the environment. However, when state agencies are involved, they don’t have the same level of distance, so a very powerful company is able to influence the local leadership of the state, and that impacts the significance of the enforcement actions that they take against those states,” he said. 

“The reason people don’t want the EPA involved is it allows the economic players in the state to have lower fines and less significant enforcement actions against them when they violate the rules. The rules are there for the protection of the people. The decision to have a less protective environment is a decision to have fewer people involved in keeping it safe and keeping it clean. I don’t see how members of the state could think it’s a good idea to have fewer people help keep them safe and healthy.” 

Despite these potential barriers, community members involved in this fight soldier on. 

“We helped to sign on to a petition with other national organizations because it has been found now that their water has been impacted by lead. They’ve had lead smelters and arsenic and the children’s blood levels were seven times what the CDC’s reference level is,” said Abdul-Rahman. “From an Indianapolis perspective, these are lessons we need to heed, because we have the community of Martindale-Brightwood that has hosted lead for several years.” 

Abdul-Rahman, who has been closely involved with initiatives in both East Chicago and Indianapolis, shared that in East Chicago, residents are asking for a complete repair to the lead piping infrastructure as well as tax exemptions for their homes. “They are still paying property taxes on places that are worthless,” she said. “Some are asking to even be bought out.”

Recently, the NAACP and other organizations have begun collecting water bottles, filters and other supplies. 

On April 5, they will host a listening session and crisis tour featuring Patterson with the Twin City Ministerial Alliance. The plan is to also distribute water filters at this time. 


For more information on how to donate, contact Denise Abdul-Rahman at (317) 331-0815 or inecjnaacp@att.net.

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