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Thoughts On Environmental Injustice in Wisconsin

Posted: 11:20AM August 1st, 2017 | Comments

In January of 2016 The Center for Effective Government (now Project On Government Oversight) released a report called Living in the Shadow of Danger that analyzed the relationship between poverty, race, and living in a fenceline zone in the US. A fenceline zone is the area within one mile of a facility that by law must submit a Risk Management Program
(RMP) plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for responding to chemical disasters because of the large quantities of dangerous chemicals the facility stores.


The study analyzed each state individually and each state received a letter grade based on sixteen metrics such as the likelihood of people of color (POC) or people in poverty to live in a fenceline zone compared to whites and those not in poverty. The study methodology can be found on page 19 of the full report here.


The report concluded that “People of color and people living in poverty, especially poor children of color, are significantly more likely to live near dangerous chemical facilities than whites and people with incomes above the poverty line.” Unfortunately, this is especially true in Wisconsin, as we were one of two states to receive an F. Our individual state scorecard can be found here. Some of the most disturbing findings from the study involve where children of color live in Wisconsin. Children of color under age 12 are two times as likely to live in a fenceline zone compared to white children, while Latino children under age 12 in poverty are three times as likely. The term for this uneven distribution of environmental dangers is environmental injustice.

What can Wisconsin do to alleviate environmental injustices? A recent story from a city in low-income, rural Georgia may help us find the answer. The city of Jesup was slated become one of the largest dumping grounds in the South for coal ash, a waste product from coal mining. But with the awareness that a local newspaper brought to the issue, the community was able to ban together to fight against the coal ash dumping and win: the county landfill didn’t accept the waste. This inspiring story should be used as a model here in Wisconsin. Through spreading awareness, coming together as a community and resisting against perpetrators of environmental injustices Wisconsin can also avoid dangers like these.


There are a variety of non-profits that tackle this issue, from the Clean Water Action Council of Northeastern Wisconsin (CWAC) to the Environmental Justice Organization (MEJO) here in Madison. After looking into what these organizations do I realized that tackling environmental justice and equality in a community gets far more specific than the broad issue of fenceline communities. For example, one of MEJO’s biggest projects was a study on subsistence fishing in Dane County. MEJO found that the majority of respondents were low-income people of color. They worked to spread awareness among the anglers that many of the fish in our lakes contain PCBs, mercury, and other contaminants. They also exposed that the majority of the types of fish eaten by their respondents were not even tested for fish advisories by the DNR. The broader context of this issue lies in what is contaminating the bodies of water in Dane County to make the fish unsafe to eat - but the place to start is with the health of the people in our community. This is a specific environmental justice issue to Dane County, but it illustrates how fenceline communities are a much broader and more complex issue.


Looking forward, I hope Wisconsin makes greater strides towards leveling the uneven distribution of environmental dangers by supporting the efforts of groups like MEJO and CWAC.


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