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Morning Shift

Study Sheds New Light On Environmental Racism

Black and Hispanic Americans are most at risk from air pollution, but white Americans are the biggest polluters. 

A new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America attributes this disparity to the consumption of goods and services.

Morning Shift talks to two environmental activists in Chicago about what the study means for minority communities in the city.

What does this new study tell us?

Naomi Davis: It’s no news flash. Folks like Kim and I have been out here as frontline community-based, environmental justice, low-income communities really teaching and advocating that those of us who are hit first and worst by the impacts of global warming, pollution, the climate crisis are the ones contributing least to it. 

Jenn White: Now, Kim … what was your initial response to the report?

Kim Wasserman: I think it, first of all, confirmed what our communities have confirmed for a long time but don’t necessarily always have the science in our neighborhood. We’ve been doing truck counting, we’ve been doing air monitoring sponsored by the EPA. We actually had to go out and fundraise to get the tools to prove what we thought was true.

And this report comes at a really come time. Particularly this morning at City Council today, they’re going to be voting on three massive projects, one of which is the Hilco development at the former coal power plant site in Little Village that will become a one-million-square-foot warehouse.

On how consumer consumption affects air pollution 

Wasserman: With the ease of online shopping now, folks definitely don’t have to go to the store — they can just go online and click a button. What they fail to understand is warehouses that were once located out in Joliet, Waukegan, they need to be closer in order for folks to get their delivery in 24 hours, the same day.

So folks are looking for what’s called the last mile of logistics. And in Little Village, we meet that perfectly because we’re the last neighborhood before you go into Cicero. Already as a neighborhood, we’re seeing a huge influx of diesel trucks. We’re already seeing 4.4 diesel trucks a minute on 31st and Pulaski.

On major health, social issues stemming from air pollution

Davis: Big, big, big, big issue is Norfolk Southern … you have social and family harm, you have diesel particulate because the intermodal facility there is connecting with the highway, is connecting with the train system.

These trucks are, as studies have demonstrated, dispensing this diesel particulate. And in the location closest to me, they are separated only by a barbed wire fence from a 900-unit development, Parkway Gardens, owned by Related Midwest, which is the developer of the Sterling Bay Lincoln Yards project.

White: Kim, can you give us a little more details around the health impacts we see?

Davis: One of the things that we know for a fact is that Little Village on the Southwest Side or South Lawndale actually has the second-worst air quality in the entire state of Illinois … and it’s beyond us that even the city’s own data and fact-finding tells them that, and yet they’re still moving forward with more warehouses on the Southwest Side. 

And this is a concern for us because our community already sees a higher burden of asthma, respiratory issues, COPD — different asthma-related issues. But there’s also more and more research that’s finding a link between air quality issues and diabetes, air quality issues and high blood pressure, air quality issues and depression.

And so as a community of color that already does not have access to resources like that, much less health insurance for a lot of our folks, how we mitigate those harms is even a bigger question of this conversation.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Stephanie Kim. Click "play" to hear the full conversation.

GUESTS: Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

Naomi Davis, CEO and founder of Blacks In Green

LEARN MORE: Study Finds Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution And Who Breathes It (NPR 3/12/19)

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