Environmental racism

Environmental Racism: Standing Rock and Beyond

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Kachina Yeager

22-year old Minnesotan, Bdewakanthuwan Dakota, university student, mother of 2 cats and a dog, aspiring writer, and intersectional feminist.

There is a lot of new terminology being coined in this generation that allows us to discuss issues that have historically been difficult to concretely grasp. Some of it can be confusing, but hopefully I can help clear some of that up and bring into focus the intricacies of Environmental Racism, especially as it’s being experienced today. If you type “Environmental Racism” into Google, it will return a Wikipedia definition to you, saying it is a “type of discrimination where people of low-income or minority communities are forced to live in close proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution, and urban decay”. This is an accurate summation of the issue at hand, but allow me to give you some concrete examples happening right now in 2016.

Perhaps the most relevant issue involving Environmental Racism right now, as in quite literally today, is the continuous battle the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota are fighting against the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, a project by Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. You might be asking; how does this relate to racism? Well, let’s begin with the obvious risks pipelines can pose, which include (but are not limited to): leaks, property damage, injuries, and fatalities. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) labels these “risks” as “Significant Incidents”. According to them, a “significant risk” could include any of the following:

  1. Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization
  2. $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars
  3. Highly volatile liquid releases of 5 barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more
  4. Liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion

Based on this definition, PHMSA has collected data on the number of “Significant Incidents” every calendar year since roughly 1996. In 2015 alone, there were 327 of these incidents, resulting in 10 fatalities and 49 injuries. Clearly, pipelines have their pitfalls.

As noted by ABC News, the original proposed route for the 1,172-mile pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota. After a rejection of this route by the residents of Bismarck, the reroute is to cross the Missouri River south of Bismarck, to where it is now—directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. While the causes of this reroute are still highly debated and contested, the Bismarck Tribune notes that “one reason that route was rejected was its potential threat to Bismarck’s water supply”. So that begs the question: What makes the citizens of Bismarck’s water safety more important than the citizens of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s? U.S. Census data from 2010 shows that the percentage of people who identified as “White alone” was 92.4%, making Bismarck a primarily white city — also making their water, and water safety, protected by the always-present white privilege, and ultimately is the reason for the rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline to the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident of environmental racism in Indian Country. In Southeastern Minnesota, The Prairie Island Indian Community has spent years dealing with more than 39 casks of highly radioactive waste being stored outside of Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant, with the spent fuel lying just 600 yards from tribal homes and businesses. This news has been brought to the larger media sphere due to the news that Prairie Island purchased 112 acres of land in West Lakeland Township, near St. Paul, due to a 2003 agreement approved by Minnesota lawmakers which provided the tribe the opportunity to purchase land away from the nuclear power plant and its radioactive waste. According to Tribal Council President Shelley Buck: “The federal government has failed to fulfill its legal obligation under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act to remove the spent fuel…”. She continues that because of this failure “It is increasingly clear to our Community that neither the federal government nor the state of Minnesota have a plan to deal with an aging nuclear power plant of growing nuclear waste dump…We have no choice but to look for safe land elsewhere.”

Yet another of innumerable instances of environmental racism against Indigenous peoples in the U.S. lies in upstate New York, on the Mohawks’ Akwesasne & St.Regis Reservations, home to roughly 16,000 people. Upstream from there is an abandoned General Motors factory, the producer of tons of toxic waste that continues to be removed and left behind from the site. The main toxins affecting the area are PCBs, otherwise known as polychlorinated biphenyls—known carcinogens. The site is now a federal Superfund site, defined as “any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.” While the clean-up has taken care of the majority of the imminent threat, PCBs can persist in human tissue for years and continues to be found in fish and other animals in the St. Lawrence River, which the Mohawk people have historically eaten fish from for decades.

It’s no secret that Indigenous peoples on this continent (and quite frankly, all over the globe) are continually dealing with the effects of Environmental Racism and colonization. The problem is, it needs to be recognized and discussed more in the mainstream social sphere, and language is a tool that allows that discussion for us. As such, I hope that you, dear reader, have a deeper understanding of the phrase Environmental Racism and can continue to spread awareness through the power of language, engagement, and discussion.

If you’d like to help the water protectors at Standing Rock right now, here’s a link with more info on how to get involved: http://standwithstandingrock.net/

header image: Water Protectors defend against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Environmental Racism.