Has "health based" environmentalist activism become passe? The new green movement has called for concerted focus on green jobs as a way to turn economically devastated ghettos into functional neighborhoods. Activism that hopes to hold industrial facilities accountable for pollution that disproportionately impacts the health of vulnerable populations is weak and not worth the trouble, say the new environmentalists.

A read of the "Justice in the Air" report would maybe change that perspective. Using data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory and Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators reports, researchers were able to locate where toxic air pollution from industrial facilities is strongest. They also determined the percentage of racial minorities and low-income families who live in those heavily impacted areas. To no surprise, they found that African-, Latino- and Asian-Americans suffer the worst health risks. For example, 69 percent of those whose health is impacted by ExxonMobil's pollution are minorities.

This is not the first study of its kind, and many have been performed with controls for income and class, with the conclusions that race in many cases is just as significant a factor for this kind of exposure -- if not the most -- as anything else.

So, how exactly can a green-jobs movement alleviate poverty without equal concern for pollution exposure and health consequences? What good is giving a person a job if their frail health from toxic pollution will affect their productivity? Most of the jobs that have been tagged for the poor -- you know, the ones that "can't be exported" and "don't require a diploma" -- are outdoor jobs. So if you're installing a solar panel on a roof, weatherizing a building, cleaning up waste, or doing urban garden work, chances are in America (if you're poor and/or black/Latino) you'll be doing this in an area prone to air pollution.

Health-care reform, of course, would go some ways to address this -- and green-jobs advocates are keen to make this part of the green-jobs definition. But it wouldn't address days missed from work while in the hospital. Nor would it address diminished worker productivity, or women impacted from birth problems and burdened with sick children. And while cap-and-trade regulations and renewable-energy development will hopefully reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many localized contaminants will still be a problem.

All said, it's irresponsible to believe that health-based environmentalism is a wrong or unnecessary plan of attack for activists. Yes, jobs are needed, but that doesn't mean giving industries a free pass to pollute the air at will. Fortunately EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson acted on this by placing stricter enforcement and reporting rules for industrial facilities registering with the Toxic Inventory Report. This rule, signed April 21, strengthens the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which helps communities understand what pollutants they are breathing, or drinking, and can give companies a clue on where they need to clean up their operations. Without this, green jobs simply won't be enough.

-- Brentin Mock

You may also like