As a series of trucks headed toward Warren County, North Carolina, a crowd of residents gathered together to lie down in the middle of the road.
It was September 1982, and as they got down onto the ground, a movement rose up.
The residents were protesting North Carolina’s decision to dump 6,000 truckloads of toxic soil into their poor, predominantly African American community. They cried foul after officials brushed aside concerns that the toxic chemicals could bleed into their drinking water and poison their families.
The state’s decision was part of a larger, nationwide pattern that was just emerging.
Time and time again, the government was putting lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color at greater risk of being exposed to environmental and health hazards.
So, people came together in Warren County. They marched. They spoke out. They blocked the trucks’ path.
They got arrested by the hundreds — peacefully, but relentlessly fighting back against this latest outrageous instance of environmental racism.
Eventually, the government had its way, and the soil was dumped from the trucks into the town.
But those protests sparked something larger. They ignited a movement to recognize every person’s right to a safe, healthy and livable environment and helped launch a new chapter in the fight for civil rights.
A chapter that found early roots on the South Side of Chicago and Newark’s Iron Bound section, led by heroes such as Hazel Johnson and Nancy Vak, who recognized the urgent need for environmental justice.
A chapter that’s still being written today.
Thirty-seven years after the events in Warren County, five decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his War on Poverty and more than a half-century after the Civil Rights Act became law, low-income communities, indigenous communities and communities of color are still suffering from environmental disasters at an alarming rate, while too many in power either profit from this pain or simply look the other way.
Of course, one of the more recent, brazen examples took place in Flint, Michigan. There, the city’s attempt to save a few dollars set off a chain of events that poisoned more than 6,000 kids in 18 months, as elected officials covered their eyes to the crisis at hand.
But while Flint was a tragedy, it was not an anomaly.
There are thousands of communities in the United States with lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of their contamination crisis.
To this day, the Trump administration is sitting idly by as countless more vulnerable Americans are exposed to pollutants whenever they take a breath of air or a sip from their school’s water fountain.
There’s something wrong when black kids on the South and West sides of Chicago are eight times more likely to die from asthma than white children, as industrial fumes from chemical plants nearby fill their lungs while they play at recess.
There’s something wrong when parents in Newark, New Jersey are warned that their toddlers risk brain damage if they drink unfiltered tap water, or when the number one cause of absenteeism in school is asthma brought on by exposure to diesel emissions and air pollution.
There’s something wrong when a light rain in Wilmington, Delaware, inundates the streets of Southbridge with flooding, putting the health and safety of predominately African American and working-class residents at risk.
There’s something wrong when families are still living, still dying, in a stretch of Louisiana nicknamed “Cancer Alley,” where 76-year-old women become activists as they watch their great-grandchildren struggle to breathe in and out.
Every American deserves access to clean air and water. No matter their zip code, the color of their skin or the size of their income.
This isn’t “just” an environmental issue.
It’s a matter of health and safety.
It’s a matter of systemic racism, and of discrimination against those in poorer neighborhoods.
It’s a matter of justice.
That’s why on Earth Day, we officially launched the Senate’s first-ever Environmental Justice Caucus.
We refuse to stay quiet as the Trump administration ignores these crises or as Donald Trump’s EPA hems and haws, then avoids taking proper regulatory action, choosing corporate polluters over American lives time and time again.
We’re going to use this caucus to speak out, and to speak out loudly, for communities that for far too long have been disproportionately impacted by polluting industries.
It’s been more than three decades since research showed that a community’s racial breakdown was the No. 1 predictor of waste facilities locations. Yet disasters in environmental justice communities still don’t get the same attention and assistance as those that take place in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.
This is unconscionable, unfair and un-American. Every day that those in power refuse to act, they become more complicit in the deaths and diagnoses that are decimating our communities.
With this caucus, we’re hoping to continue the movement that those Warren County residents helped usher in as they lay down in their streets — doing everything we can to end these interwoven crises of health, safety and justice.
One bill passed, one water fountain tested, one child saved at a time.
Tammy Duckworth is a Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, Cory Booker is a Democratic senator from New Jersey and Tom Carper is a Democratic senator from Delaware.
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