SFR Elements

A look at disproportionate environmental impacts

April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the beginning of what came to be known as the environmental movement. With stay-at-home orders in effect across the world, Earth Day celebrations went virtual.

While it can seem like environmental concerns have fallen to the wayside in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has also shown us how intimately everything is connected. Across the globe, air quality in urban areas has improved dramatically as people stop driving and flying. Even though pollution is likely to go back to up again to previous levels after restrictions are lifted, just the fact that they have gone down is proof that we actually can do what it takes to lower our CO2 emissions to safe levels if we act collectively. We take this as hopeful news.

But the last month has also revealed a dark side to the link between the environment and COVID-19.

Across the country, communities of color are experiencing disproportionate impacts of COVID-19. In New York City, Latinos are dying at twice the rate of white people, and in Chicago, black people account for 72% of fatalities even though they make up less than a third of the population. In New Mexico, Native communities have been hit hardest by the virus.

These disparities came as no surprise to Professor Robert Bullard, whose research showing that polluting factories and power plants are disproportionately placed in poor communities of color helped launch the environmental justice movement in the 1970's. In an interview with the Texas MonthlyBullard explains how a long history of environmental racism puts communities of color at much higher risk from COVID-19.

Of course, there are many other factors that help explain racial disparities in infection and mortality rates, including the fact that in many cities people of color make up the majority of front-line workers, for example. But we need to also take a harder look at the health and economic impacts of past environmental policies and decisions.

A study recently released by Harvard School of Public Health found that exposure to air pollution increases the mortality rate for COVID-19. Across the country, non-white communities experience more air pollution than neighboring white communities and are more likely to be located close to coal fired power plants,  factories, sewage processing plants and extractive industries that can cause a host of other chronic ailments.

"We didn't ask for uranium mining to destroy our communities. We didn't ask for the arsenic contamination. We didn't ask for the limitations on our economic development or the limitations on our ability to build, or our access to water. There are the real things that need to be looked at," says Bijiibah Begaye, the executive director of the COVID-19 relief group, the Tsé Ko Community Development Corporation, in a recent interview on the podcast Diné Situation

As we quietly celebrate Earth Day this year, it is time to ask ourselves: How can we confront the cycle of environmental injustice in our own communities? If someone comes along and proposes to build a cement factory, or a mine, or a nuclear facility in our own backyard, and if we fight it and we win, where will that facility ultimately be built and who will suffer the consequences?

If you love our environment newsletter, we'd love your help spreading the word! If you've got a story about something happening on the local environmental front that we should know about, write

Regional News

  • Despite major events being cancelled, New Mexicans found many create ways to celebrate Earth Day anyway.
    • In Albuquerque residents stayed 6 feet apart and wore masks while picking up trash.
    • Santa Fe youth climate activists with YUCCA/Earthcare live streamed a discussion about “the relationship between resistance, resilience and revolution in the age of COVID-19 and the climate crisis” on Facebook. You can watch the recording of the discussion here.
    • Thousands of people participated in a virtual Earth Day celebration in Las Cruces that included local musicians and giveaways from local outdoors businesses.
  • This week, the Public Regulation Commission postponed a decision on new energy projects that will replace the San Juan Generating Station after it closes. In response to concerns that San Juan County will suffer economically after the coal fired power plant closes, Commissioner Stephen Fischmann proposed a new round of bidding to look for projects that would be located in the county. The decision has been rescheduled for the April 29 meeting.
  • This month a report by the American Lung Association found air quality in New Mexico has gotten worse in the last year. NM Political Report looks at how climate change, wildfires and increased oil and gas production all contribute to the problem. In addition, satellite data showed that this year, methane emissions from the Permian Basin were the highest ever recorded in the US. That’s partly because of a true increase in emissions, and partly because of advances in recording technologies.
  • Water levels in the Rio Grande are expected to be lower than average this summer due to lower than usual early spring snowpack in Colorado.
  • In the southern part of the state, companies are going forward with plans to reuse waste water from oil and gas production in agriculture. This “produced water” will be cleaned of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, but some environmental advocates say it could still pose a risk to public health and the environment.

Around the Web

  • The company behind the Keystone XL pipeline is going forward with construction, even as oil prices plummet.
  • Microbiologists have figured out how to inoculate poplar trees with naturally occurring microbes and bacteria that allow the trees to thrive in contaminated water and soil. The trees process the pollutants into harmless elements such as CO2 and salt. This is pretty much one of the coolest things we’ve heard of in a long time. What’s even better? Some Superfund sites across the US are beginning to use trees and other plants to clean up groundwater at superfund sites.
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