Who bears the brunt of pollution?

March 10, 2014

Carlos Enriquez is a Chicago activist and member of the System Change Not Climate Change coalition, an ecosocialist coalition fighting for climate justice. Here, we reprint a presentation he gave at a forum organized by community members in South Chicago protesting the dumping of petroleum coke, a toxic byproduct of fracking.

WE ARE no strangers to environmental racism in Chicagoland. In Calumet City, bordering the city's southeast side, BP is refining 6,000 tons of petroleum coke, a byproduct of tar sands oil extraction, every day.

My partner lives in the Southside Chicago neighborhood of La Villita, or Little Village. Two members of her family, her sister and her cousin--both of whom live with her--suffer from pretty serious asthma.

Chicago has some of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the entire country, specifically in Little Village, as well as the Pilsen neighborhood. Those two neighborhoods are pretty close in proximity, and are mainly made up of working-class Latinos--but they have something else in common. Until just a couple years ago, those two neighborhoods were home to a couple coal plants, by the names of Crawford and Fisk. The plants annually released over 3 million tons of carbon dioxide and 1.78 million tons of carbon dioxide respectively. Essentially 5 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Petcoke stored on the banks of the Calumet River south of Chicago
Petcoke stored on the banks of the Calumet River south of Chicago (Josh Mogerman)

As writer and Chicago activist Elizabeth Schulte noted, "The average income in the three-mile radius around the Crawford plant in Little Village is just $11,097 per capita, and 83.9 percent of the population is non-white."

When it comes to the corporate attacks on our climate and our environment, low-income communities and communities of color suffer the consequences at a much higher rate than anyone else.

Thanks to a large movement led by organizations such as Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) those two plants were shut down, but there is now talk of building a metal recycling plant in Pilsen. The plant, Pure Metal Recycling, is being billed as a "green" initiative, with the promises of creating lots of new jobs; however there are widespread concerns about the heavy pollution this plant would undoubtedly add. In a recent poll, 65 percent of the community members surveyed were against it, as opposed to only 29 percent that favored it. There are very serious pollution concerns when it comes to these plants, but the industry is largely unregulated.

This is capitalism in a nutshell: completely ignoring the damage that industrial pollution has already caused in a community, and imposing a profit-driven project--all while claiming it's for the well-being of that community. It's as if those at the top are hoping we fall into some sort of Stockholm Syndrome. And of course, the racial- and class-based discrimination is quite obvious and very patronizing.

A FIGHT against such clear environmental racism has been missing from the mainstream environmental movement. Too often, environmentalists ignore struggles like the one in South Chicago, because the movement has focused on solutions geared toward recycling our way out of the crisis and lifestyle adjustments that are unaffordable for the vast majority of us.

System Change Not Climate Change believes that while fighting for climate justice and environmental rights, we have to fight the system that perpetuates it, and we have to name and fight the racist tactics that this system uses.

Here in Calumet, where we are challenging the dumping of toxic petcoke that is poisoning our town, the struggle against it may seem insurmountable, much less the broader fight against environmental racism. However, several events keep me hopeful.

First, there's the fact that 400 activists braved arrests in Washington, D.C., at the XL Dissent demonstration protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. The XL Dissent actions on March 1-2 brought out masses of people from all over the country. Thousands more have pledged to protest the construction of that pipeline, which, if it goes through, would have a devastating impact on our climate. As Tristan Brosnan commented:

The arrest of 398 in Obama's front yard is just the start. Indigenous communities, youth, ecosocialists, climate activists and communities across North America plan to take part in further mass demonstrations if his administration approves Keystone XL. In the future, they might not be conducting civil disobedience in front of the White House, but in the path of the pipeline.

Then there is the exciting news out of Michigan, where three activists were facing serious prison time for disrupting the expansion of a pipeline that had leaked and poisoned their community. The Mi-CATS 3 as they are known, were given 13 months of probation and avoided further incarceration. The news of the Mi-CATS is a huge victory for our side.

Whether it's South Chicago; Alberta, Canada (where tar sands are extracted); Kalamazoo, Mich.; or West Virginia (where there was recently a state of emergency due to the contamination of their water supply); these issues are connected. It's not just tar sands--it's any form of dirty fuel that they try to sell us as being "clean." To paraphrase the poet Remi Kanazi, coal is clean like McDonald's salads are healthy.

AMERICAN CAPITALISM is rotten to its core. We are talking about a system that thrived on the backs of Black slaves. Its very foundation rests on the corpses of countless indigenous peoples in a genocide that spans three centuries and continues to this day.

Capitalism needs to be replaced.

This is a system that "solves" its perennial economic crises on the backs of working people. That indiscriminately displaces families from their homes and, while doing so, labels them "illegal" or "aliens" to make sure we're made to feel less than human. That finds the murder of youth of color legally permissible--like we saw here in Calumet when Stephon Watts, a 16-year-old, African American boy with autism, was shot in his own house by the police, and the officer who killed him got a paid vacation.

This is a system that gives carte blanche to polluters to poison our air and water, to frack and destroy our lands, to exploit our natural resources, and to set our planet on fire by burning the dirtiest of fossil fuels--all because it makes the 1 percent richer.

I know it may sound abstract to say that we need to replace capitalism, so I caution that we must not miss the forest for trees, and we should fight for reforms that can help mediate the attacks on our environment. We must demand that the Calumet River be cleaned, and any time a polluter contaminates our community, they clean their mess up and actually face serious repercussions.

One way in which local struggles can be connected to a larger picture is through the Global Climate Convergence--10 days of action connecting Earth Day to May Day. Pet coke, fracking, Keystone XL--we need to raise these issues. There is also room for cross-struggle solidarity. We can fight to clean our planet, for a living wage and to stop deportations. Instead of deporting people, how about they deport tar sands instead?

In fighting the current system, we simultaneously fight for one in which the needs of our planet and all of its inhabitants are prioritized. One where we are not dependent on dirty fuels that make our communities sick and one that prioritizes health care and education as human rights. A better world is not only possible, it is necessary.

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