Today, certain populations are forced to live in hazardous environments that pose a serious threat to their health and well-being. This unfortunate reality primarily affects marginalized communities, who are often denied fair and equal treatment based on factors such as race, color, national origin or income. The environmental justice movement aims to address these inequities, creating a world where everyone has the right to a safe and healthy environment.

Recently, the CEI Perspectives panel, hosted by CCTS, took a deep dive into environmental justice issues, bringing together a group of experts, including Dr. Veena B. Antony; Katie Fagan, MSc, MA; Abigail Franks; Jilisa Milton, JD, MSW; and Charles Powell. The panel acknowledged that specific communities are disproportionately affected by environmental injustice and identified effective measures to combat the unfair treatment.

With 148 audience members from Birmingham and beyond tuning in, the virtual panel addressed how the world can become a more sustainable, equitable place where everyone can access the same rights and benefits of a healthy and safe environment.

Abigail Franks, the programs and policy manager at the Southeast Climate & Energy Network, noted that the EPA's current definition of environmental justice needs to be more comprehensive, as it mainly focuses on regulation. She prefers a definition by Ben Crump, a justice lawyer specializing in this topic, which states that environmental justice refers to actions that harm the environment and alienate specific groups and communities.

Katie Fagan, outreach coordinator for Black Warrior Riverkeeper, highlighted the issue of environmental injustice in Alabama with a shocking example from Lowndes County. “Due to crumbling infrastructure and a lack of money to fix these problems," she said, "people have had to pipe sewage into their backyards, which has loads of health problems, but also human dignity problems.” Furthermore, Alabama is used by other states across America as a dumping ground — receiving waste from New York and coal ash after the Tennessee Kingston spillage incident, which often seeps into waterways.

Dr. Veena Antony, Principal Investigator and Director at the UAB Superfund Research Program and Professor of Medicine and Environmental Health Science, pointed out the devastating environmental impact that can occur without a community's knowledge or consent, and how it can hamper their ability to leave. ” For example,” she said, “ in the Birmingham Superfund site, people can’t afford to sell their homes, nobody wants to buy their houses. And they are just hanging on there, because that’s the only property they have.” She argued that these communities should not be blamed for something they had no control over creating in the first place.

Charles Powell, president and founding director of PANIC (People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination), shared a deeply personal story to illustrate the importance of Dr. Antony's point: he moved his family to Birmingham in 1963 only for them to receive letters warning not to eat from any gardens they had grown or wash their children’s toys after playing outside due to contamination in the area. Sadly, this was too late for his wife who has since been diagnosed with stage IV cancer — an experience that spurred him on further activism. “All of this is why I formed PANIC,” he said, “people deserve the right to have clean air and soil."

 Jilisa Milton, deputy director of GASP (Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution), discussed pollution's far-reaching effects on legal and political systems. She highlighted how industries could influence decision-makers when seeking permits that often do not include sufficient safety regulations for people in affected areas. “It's really hard to get a point of discussion,” she said, because of how many arguments industry can make and how much influence they have over decision makers."

The conversation shifted to addressing what can be accomplished by individuals and groups regarding creating greater environmental justice.

Milton emphasized the importance of collective action to create greater environmental justice. “The united voice has always been an aspect of social movement,” she says. She highlighted that social movements often involve united communities demanding more from those making decisions about planning and permitting, noting that Dr. Antony's work is invaluable but cannot be done alone — a multifaceted strategy must come into play.

Fagan emphasized the importance of making your voice heard, particularly regarding issues that personal experiences have shaped. She also stresses the value of education and outreach to increase awareness about pressing environmental matters. “There are a lot of people in Birmingham for example,” she said, “that, despite media attention, are unaware that there’s a Superfund site. So talking about issues around your community is helpful.”

Fagan also said that political engagement is a valuable tool for making change. Involvement in the political process can have an impact even beyond voting — commenting on laws, contacting officials and raising awareness of issues all help drive progress. "Politicians are voting on a lot of things," she added, "they may not have knowledge or awareness of an issue, so raising awareness helps them to focus on issues."

Environmental justice is a pressing issue that affects all of us, from global problems such as ocean plastic and overflowing trash to local ones like the Moody landfill fire. Now is the time for action - find out more about air quality in Birmingham and beyond at GASP; get educated on water contamination issues affecting Black Warrior River Basin by visiting Black Warrior Riverkeeper; learn about environmental initiatives in Southeast via Southeast Climate & Energy Network or discover information regarding the Birmingham Superfund site through the UAB Superfund Research Center or PANIC Facebook group.

Our Environmental Justice panel was filled with thought-provoking questions and engaging discourse. We are grateful for everyone's participation in this event - be sure to watch the full talk here.

Written by Robert Brown, April 28, 2023.