COVID-19 and Environmental Justice:  A Call to Action

COVID-19 and Environmental Justice: A Call to Action

COVID-19 and Environmental Justice: A Call to Action

Community-Based, Environmental and Civil Rights Activists Across Country Issue Statement and Unified Demands

Racial Inequalities Laid Bare by COVID-19 Pandemic and Response Require Effective Action to Address Race Discrimination and Segregation

New York, NY — A broad alliance of environmental justice groups, activists, allies, and partners from across the country, today released a call to action highlighting that disparities experienced by people of color during the COVID-19 crisis reflect environmental racism and a long history of discrimination and segregation. The statement shows how the confluence of crises in the US has exposed the sacrifice zones to which we relegate communities of color, immigrants, indigenous people and other marginalized groups, and includes specific steps the country must take to begin to rectify the legacy of harm from racist policies and institutions. As the country confronts systemic racial inequality, the alliance is speaking out during this unprecedented time to affirm the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, condemn the epidemic of police killings of people of color, and call for an end to the disproportionate death of people of color resulting from environmental racism.

The call to action can be found here.

“How many times have we heard those advocating for environmental justice and equal protection demand a ‘paradigm shift’ over the past forty years? How many times have we heard these same communities and advocates ask U.S. EPA and other agencies to investigate the cumulative effects of multiple sources of pollution bombarding the places where they live, work, attend school, worship and play? We’ve said over and over that we ‘could not breathe,’ and too many were dying from proximity and exposure to nearby sources of pollution. For the most part our cries and demands for reduction of pollution went unheeded,” said Vernice Miller- Travis, Executive Vice President for Environment and Sustainability, Metropolitan Group, a longtime member of the alliance and one of the statement’s authors. “Today, the syndemic of environmental and racial injustice, and the novel coronavirus have brought into dramatic relief that exposure to fine particle air pollutants is making these same communities the epicenter of illness and disproportionate rates of death from COVID-19. Maybe now, when so many in these communities are dying needlessly, we can finally get them the help they so desperately need and deserve.”

Signed by over 60 groups and individuals who have worked for years on issues of environmental justice, civil rights, and the environment at local, state and national levels, the call to action highlights how the legacy of systemic discrimination contributes to the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color. It calls for eight steps forward to dismantle the structures that perpetuate inequality. These include equal protection under the law to address inequalities in housing and environmental exposures, an end to discriminatory segregation, access to clean water, and stronger enforcement of environmental laws, among others.

The call to action was drafted by the Title VI Alliance, which works to ensure that environmental and land use policies are at the forefront of progress toward justice as the nation confronts a legacy of racial discrimination and grapples with reforms ranging from policing to health care. The Title VI Alliance was formed more than a decade ago as a space to regularly convene local, state, and national advocates and activists across the country to exchange advice, strategize, and draft state and national legislation to advance equal protection under the law. Many activists, individuals, and other groups across the country signed onto the statement in solidarity.

Vincent Martin, a Detroit, Michigan resident and long-time environmental activist, said, “Black communities in Detroit have been hit hardest by COVID, and I’ve lost a number of family members. It’s not surprising because we have been subject to years of unhealthy air and pollution. It’s time for action. We can’t wait another day.”

Marianne Engelman Lado, Director, Environmental Justice Clinic, Vermont Law School, said, “For too long the country has tolerated or even promoted policies that concentrate sources of pollution – everything from refineries to sewage plants, industrial hog facilities to incinerators – in communities of color and low-income communities, and the consequences are more deadly now than ever. We have to change course, recognize that industrial polluters should be held accountable under civil rights laws, and send the message that it is no longer acceptable that whether you get sick and die prematurely is related to race in this country.”

McGregor Smyth, Executive Director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), said, “We are proud to work with such committed community partners across the country at this pivotal moment to shed light on the deep inequality and bias the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have brought to the forefront. Together, we advance solutions that put the lives and welfare of communities of color, indigenous people, immigrants, and frontline workers first. For over forty years NYLPI has fought in community-led campaigns against the systemic problems of environmental racism, xenophobia, disparities in health access, and discrimination against people with disabilities. While our communities have won victories along the way, deeply rooted systemic barriers to equality remain. Our hope is that this moment of recognition of the structural nature of racial discrimination in our society makes us stronger and brings us closer to true equality, progress, and justice.”

Dr. Gayle Dine Chacon, Former Surgeon General of the Navajo Nation, said, “Native people have shown our resilience for centuries. Just as we have used resilient strategies to address the lack of clean water, access to health care, educational inequality, the digital divide, and abandoned uranium piles poisoning our land, we must use resilient strategies to address COVID-19. Until the United States government upholds its treaty obligations to Native people, where we ceded our lands for the right to housing, healthcare, and education, we will rely on our courage, wisdom and resilience to survive this latest threat, just as we have survived all the previous threats to our existence.”

Rosie Bongiovanni, Executive Director of GreenRoots Chelsea, said, “COVID-19 has brought to bear what many of us have been voicing for years: structural racial and classism have saddled brown and Black communities with a disproportionate share of the health and environmental disparities. We’ve seen that our community of Chelsea has gotten sick and is dying in unprecedented numbers. There is no question that this is due in part to decades of racial and environmental injustice. GreenRoots is committed to fight against anti-Blackness, racial, cultural and ethnical biases and discrimination.”

Maya Golden-Krasner, Deputy Director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “COVID-19 has laid bare the pervasiveness of racism in our society— from public health and environmental injustice to unequal education, housing, and workplace conditions. Now is the time for a fundamental restructuring of our economy to stop sacrificing people and start investing in our communities, especially communities of color.”

J. Michael Chavarria, Governor, Santa Clara Pueblo, Chairman of All Pueblo Council of Governors, said, “The All Pueblo Council of Governors continues to advocate for the federal government, our Trustees, to address our urgent needs during this National Health Emergency. The federal government has treaty obligations to protect the health and safety of Pueblo people – obligations that have never been fulfilled, leading to the heavy impact of COVID-19 in some of our Pueblo Nations. Our relationship with the federal government is not based on race but rather based upon our status as political sovereign governments engaged in a government to government relationship, established in the US Constitution, supreme court decisions, treaties, statutes and federal Indian law.”

Amy Laura Cahn, Senior Attorney, Interim Director – Healthy Communities & Environmental Justice, Conservation Law Foundation, said, ““The data is clear: COVID-19 is attacking Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities at astronomical rates. For generations, our legal system has withheld resources and legal protections from these communities while shielding whiter, wealthier areas from environmental harm. Now is the time to create new systems that prioritize the rights, health, and self-determination of those who have been denied these freedoms since before this country’s inception.”

About the Title VI Alliance:
The Title VI Alliance brings together local, regional, and national organizations and activists, many of whom have been working together for more than a decade within and in support of the environmental justice movement. Members have filed civil rights complaints and have substantial experience with the failure at all levels of government to implement and enforce a meaningful civil rights enforcement program that would address deep and scarring racial inequalities in the location of polluting sources, exposure to toxic substances, and environmental enforcement. Many of the participants, including members of environmental justice, civil rights, and environmental groups, have sought enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 across administrations, raising concerns about the utter failure of the government – including but not limited to the EPA – to enforce the law.

Signatories to the statement include:
Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Amigos Bravos
Azul
Center for Biological Diversity
Center for Environmental Health
Children’s Environmental Health Network
Clean Water Action
Conservation Law Foundation
Conservation Voters New Mexico
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice
Earthjustice
Environmental Justice Clinic, Vermont Law School
The Forbes Funds
Great Basin Resource Watch
Gasp
GreenRoots
Multi-Cultural Alliance for a Safe Environment
National Black Environmental Justice Network
Natural Resources Defense Council
New Mexico Environmental Law Center
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
PODER
Rio Grande Indivisible
River Source
Save the South Fork Salmon
Sierra Club
The Sierra Fund
Toxic Free NC
Veterans for Peace
Golden Rule Project
WE ACT for Environmental Justice
West End Revitalization Association
Western Watershed Project
Yale Center on Climate Change and Health, Yale School of Public Health
Mustafa Santiago Ali
Marc Brenman
Rob Brenner
Robert Bullard
Debbie Chizewer
Michael Churchill
Jennifer Clarke
Thomas De Press
Christopher Brady Eaves
Steven Fischbach
Ebony Griffin
Richard Grow
Earl Hatley
Adrienne Hollis
Polly Hoppin
Helen Kang
Marva King
Gregg Macey
Vincent Martin
Dayna Bowen
Matthew Vernice
Miller-Travis
Marisa Perales
Cynthia B. Peurifoy
Michelle Roos
Wyatt G. Sassman
Gerald Torres
Carlton Waterhouse
Ronald H. White
Sacoby Wilson
Katherine Wolf
Beverly L. Wright
Tseming Yang

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Public Service Commission Approves Alabama Power’s $1+ Billion Gas Expansion

Public Service Commission Approves Alabama Power’s $1+ Billion Gas Expansion

Public Service Commission Approves Alabama Power’s $1+ Billion Gas Expansion

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Today the Alabama Public Service Commission voted to approve the single largest capacity increase ever proposed by Alabama Power. The Commission approved the projects, which will cost customers over $1.1 billion, despite significant flaws in the utility’s proposal.

Following the PSC staff’s recommendations filed last Friday to approve the majority of projects that Alabama Power is seeking to build, buy or contract, Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioners Jeremy Oden and Chip Beeker unanimously voted to adopt the staff recommendations in their entirety.

The only resource in the petition the Commission failed to approve is the proposal for solar plus battery storage—by far the most economic option according to Alabama Power’s own analysis.  Instead, the Commissioners signed off on the staff’s recommendation to evaluate the solar and battery proposals in another existing docket.

“Unbelievably, the Public Service Commission did not approve the most cost-effective and most environmentally beneficial options proposed by Alabama Power,” said Daniel Tait, Chief Operating Officer of Energy Alabama. “In spite of the fact that more and more of its customers and businesses are demanding renewable energy options, this is yet another example of the Commission holding Alabama back from a clean energy future and the jobs that go along with it.”

The Commission’s decision follows a significant decline in overall electricity demand due to the global pandemic and resulting economic recession.

“This is the wrong decision by the Commission, and it is the wrong time to approve this excessive and costly natural gas expansion,” said Michael Hansen, Executive Director of Gasp. “The Commission is giving the greenlight for Alabama Power and its shareholders to put the financial risks of this massive investment on customers, many of whom have lost employment as a result of the current public health and economic crisis. This approval will exacerbate those hardships for Alabamians in the form of higher bills for decades to come.”

“Alabama Power has substantially overstated its need for these gas plants given the glaring problems with its analysis—its projected need is even less reliable now due to the pandemic and its economic impacts,” said SELC staff attorney Christina Andreen Tidwell. “It’s disappointing that the Commission did not require updated information from Alabama Power in order to fully assess these impacts on the utility’s request.”

According to the Administrative Law Judge, the Commission is expected to issue a final order on the petition at an undetermined date.

Background:

In early March the Alabama Public Service Commission heard testimony from 15 witnesses concerning Alabama Power’s request to increase its total power-producing capabilities by almost 20%, despite previous assertions it wouldn’t need new generation sources until 2035.

On behalf of Energy Alabama and Gasp, the Southern Environmental Law Center intervened in the docket to advocate for responsible, cost-effective investments, to the extent there was any need for additional capacity on Alabama Power’s system.

Energy Alabama and Gasp’s experts exposed significant flaws in the planning and forecasting methods Alabama Power used to justify its need. In written and oral testimony, the experts pointed to the utility’s long-standing efforts to build rate base and revenue requirements through excessive, unnecessary, and expensive new generation, all of which will increase costs for customers for decades.

The groups also made the case that Alabama Power’s plan lacks significant detail about the cheapest, least cost resources, such as solar and energy efficiency.  Alabama Power’s own analysis shows that solar plus battery storage are the least cost resources in its proposal and provide more value to customers.

The Commission granted an extension for post-hearing briefs in the form of proposed orders to be filed on May 1. The proposed order filed on behalf of Energy Alabama and Gasp details their position based on the record developed during the hearing.

The groups, along with Sierra Club, also filed a motion for permission to file supplemental briefing regarding how the Covid-19 pandemic may impact the need for and timing of the resources proposed in Alabama Power’s petition.

These issues were not addressed during the March hearings, which was limited to cross-examination of written testimony filed long before the pandemic took hold. Nevertheless, Alabama Power included discussion of Covid-19 in its proposed order, claiming that the pandemic does not affect its claimed capacity needs.

The Administrative Law Judge allowed limited supplemental briefing to be filed last Thursday. Energy Alabama and Gasp filed a brief arguing that the Commission should not rush forward with a decision without fully assessing the pandemic’s impacts and resulting economic fallout on the utility’s petition.

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Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy, and collaboration. We strive to reduce exposure to air pollution, educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role models by advocating for clean air and clean energy. Gaspgroup.org

Black Lives Matter: A Statement from Gasp

Black Lives Matter: A Statement from Gasp

Black Lives Matter: A Statement from Gasp

In the United States of America, we are taught from a very early age that “all men are created equal.” We are told that this is the core of what it means to be an American. It’s not until years later that many of us learn that our Founders (many of whom owned slaves) never intended to include black people in the “all” that they wrote about in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or any of our other founding documents. And that is still the case today. 

Some of us never learn these lessons, while others do but pretend otherwise for the sake of their own comfort. But the harsh reality is that this nation has never lived up to the ideals for which it purports to stand. And until it does, we cannot rest. We must be proactively anti-racist in all walks of life. Anti-racism is not a belief system, but rather a deliberate practice. And it begins by telling the truth.

Black Americans are grieving after the callous murder of a handcuffed, submissive George Floyd at the hands of four police officers on the streets of Minneapolis. Councilor Andrea Jenkins, the first black, trans woman elected to public office in the United States, described Floyd’s murder as “a symbol for a knee on the neck of Black America.” She says that she will work to take that knee off the necks of her community. This is a call to action for all of us, though. It is not the responsibility of oppressed people to end oppression. Everyone must play a role. And in particular, white people, who have so much privilege in this society, must step up and help.

We must tell the truth, and the truth for the majority of black, indigenous, and people of color in this nation is what the poet and activist Langston Hughes said: “America has never been America to me.” What we are seeing in cities across our nation right now is an expression of deep pain and sorrow. 

We must tell the truth, and the truth is that it is not just the Founding Fathers who did not include people of color in their vision for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In Alabama, the President of the Constitutional Convention of 1901, John B. Knox, said it plainly: “If we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law — not by force or fraud.” That racist document still governs our state’s laws to this day.

We must tell the truth, and the truth is that our systems are not failing; they are broken by design, having never been intended to protect, care for, and uplift poor people and people of color. At every level of government in this nation — federal, state, county, and municipal — black, indigenous, and people of color have never had the same natural right to freedom, safety and equal justice under the law. Not truly. Not even today. 

We must tell the truth, and the truth is that for decades upon decades, this nation has upheld itself around the globe as a beacon of liberty and justice for all. Yet we have time and again failed to atone for our original sin. This moment calls us to hold a mirror up to our own faces and see the ugly truth staring back at us: America is exceptional all right. We are exceptionally hypocritical. We are exceptionally violent, racist, and cruel. We are exceptionally short-sighted.

George Floyd’s dying words, as he called out for his mother, were “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd should be alive today. That’s the truth. 

We, the staff and board of Gasp, stand in unequivocal solidarity with those who are demanding swift and clear justice for George Floyd, as well as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and for the countless other victims of hate and violence in this nation. 

We, the staff and board of Gasp, echo the call that Black Lives Matter, and in so doing we affirm our support for policies that will make that sentiment meaningfully true not just in word but in deed. To that end, we have heard the calls for “unity” in recent days. And we agree that unity is necessary. We must be united against white supremacy, racism, police brutality, and all systems of oppression. 

This moment calls for action. We need to perform emergency surgery to cut out the cancer of racism that is destroying our body. We join other activists in calling for systemic policy change to stop the racist and inhumane killings of people of color in our communities, and especially of black people at the hands of law enforcement officers.

We must tell the truth, and the truth is we must do more than talk. We must act as if lives depend on it — because they do.

Signed,

Michael Hansen
Executive Director

Kirsten Bryant
Deputy Director

Haley Lewis
Staff Attorney
Nina Morgan
Community Organizer
Charline Whyte
President
Dr. Shauntice Allen
Richard Rice
Vice-President
Nelson Brooke
The Rev. Mark Johnston
Treasurer
Dr. Bertha Hidalgo
William Blackerby
Secretary
Karen Shepard

Gasp, Environmental Defense Alliance Allege Alabama Officials Violated Open Records Act

Gasp, Environmental Defense Alliance Allege Alabama Officials Violated Open Records Act

Gasp, Environmental Defense Alliance Allege Alabama Officials Violated Open Records Act

Complaints stem from federal corruption case related to the North Birmingham Superfund Site

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Gasp and the Environmental Defense Alliance today filed joint complaints against Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) Director Lance LeFleur, Environmental Management Commissioner (EMC) Lanier Brown, and Attorney General (AG) Steve Marshall.

The complaints allege that LeFleur, Brown, and Marshall violated the Alabama Open Records Act by knowingly and without authority withholding public records lawfully requested by the organizations pertaining to the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in the North Birmingham community (35th Avenue Site).

The two organizations requested various records from LeFleur, Brown, and Marshall before, during, and after the 2018 federal trial of former Drummond Company executive David Roberson and former Balch & Bingham partner Joel Gilbert, both of whom were found guilty of multiple corruption charges.

In 2013, Drummond was identified as a “potentially responsible party” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for contamination in the 35th Avenue Site. In 2014, the EPA proposed adding the 35th Avenue Site to the National Priorities List and began investigating potential contamination in the Tarrant and Inglenook communities. Together with Balch & Bingham, Drummond sought to influence public officials — including LeFleur, Brown, and then-AG Luther Strange — to oppose the EPA’s cleanup activities.

“LeFleur, Brown, and Marshall declined to disclose many governmental records that EDA and Gasp believe should be made public,” said EDA attorney David Ludder.  “These records may reveal new evidence of collusion between State government officials and Drummond or its agents to protect Drummond’s wealth at the expense of the community’s health,” Ludder said.

“Gasp has for years been working to ensure that air pollution in the area is reduced and that any cleanup includes long-term remediation that benefits the residents of the impacted neighborhoods,” said Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen. “To that end, we have tried to use every tool in the toolbelt, including the Open Records Act, to make sure residents get a fair shake. Alabamians deserve a government that works to protect them and not wealthy special interests.”

For more information, contact Michael Hansen, ([email protected]) or David Ludder ([email protected]).

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Gasp’s mission is to advance healthy air and environmental justice in the Greater-Birmingham area through education, advocacy and collaboration. gaspgroup.org

The Environmental Defense Alliance strategically uses law and policy to protect human health and the environment. environmentaldefensealliance.org

Alabama PSC’s Unconstitutional Media Policy Must Be Changed

Alabama PSC’s Unconstitutional Media Policy Must Be Changed

Alabama PSC’s Unconstitutional Media Policy Must Be Changed

Alabamians have the right to know what is going on at their Public Service Commission

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — On Friday, May 15, a broad group of advocates filed joint comments challenging the legality — including the constitutionality — of the Alabama Public Service Commission’s proposed Media Coverage Plan, which would grant Alabama Power enormous power to control what the public knows about its operations in the state. The coalition, led by Gasp, Sierra Club, and Energy Alabama, was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, Alabama Arise, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Faith in Action Alabama, among others.

The PSC’s media policy would create severe limitations for public access to hearings and other proceedings before the PSC. It requires five days’ prior consent for any recording of hearings, but also grants the PSC the power to rescind consent for recording at any time, and for any reason. Additionally, the policy mandates that the PSC revoke licenses provided to persons or media outlets upon the request of any party, attorney or witness, giving broad power to special interests. Such restrictions contravene the state’s Open Meetings Act and the U.S. Constitution’s protections for free speech, and are wildly out of step with neighboring states like Georgia and Mississippi, where similar proceedings are open to public recordings and live streamed.

Michael Hansen, executive Director of Gasp, issued the following statement:

“The Alabama Public Service Commission’s mission is right in the name: they serve the people of Alabama, not corporations. Open, transparent, and accessible government is not an option, but a requirement for the Commission to operate in the best interest of all Alabamians. Utility bills are a kitchen table issue, and Alabama’s families deserve to see how the decisions that impact them are made.”

Daniel Tait, Chief Operating Officer at Energy Alabama, issued the following statement:

“Sunshine is good, both for transparency and power production. Alabamians deserve to know how their utility bills will be affected by their elected officials. There’s simply no common sense reason to limit public access to decisions worth billions of dollars.”

Stephen Stetson, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, issued the following statement: 

“Everyone’s got utility bills and everyone should be able to easily observe PSC proceedings. It’s the public’s right to know what decisions are being made that will affect their lives. This policy erects a barrier to entry for information that should be freely available, and topples the scales in favor of powerful entities like Alabama Power at the expense of regular folks.”

For more information, contact Michael Hansen ([email protected]), Emily Bosch ([email protected]), or Daniel Tait ([email protected]).

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