Environmental groups redoubling outreach to people of color

van jones
Van Jones, the co-founder of the the climate justice group Green for All, is seen speaking at the League of Conservation Voters' Chispa campaign rally in Las Vegas in 2017. The group has been advocating for diesel-fueled school buses to be transitioned to electric, a better alternative for the environment. (Michael Lyle photo)

Communities of color are more vulnerable to environmental health hazards, the impacts of climate change and environmental injustices.

National reports continue to confirm the persistence of environmental racism — how racial minorities are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues like pollution.

A study released this year in the American Journal of Public Health  found African Americans are almost twice as likely to be exposed to small particle pollutants than their white counterparts.

The hazards can be attributed to a variety of sources, from industrial facilities and unremediated waste sites to dry cleaners, gas stations, workplace pollutants, and residential proximity to freeways and congestion.

Demographically concentrated environmental risks are commonplace nationwide. For instance, a 2017 study authored by the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force found that black Americans are 75 percent more likely to live near oil and natural gas refineries. The Sierra Club estimates about 80 percent of Latinos live in areas that fail to meet air quality standards.

“Any other issues in the community are exacerbated by environmental issues,” says Leslie Fields, the Director of Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships with Sierra Club. “You can’t expect kids to learn if they have water full of lead or are surrounded by pollution.”

A long-standing rift

“There is a perception that low-income communities or communities of color don’t care” about environmental issues, or the environmental movement, says Eymhy Corpus, an organizer with the Sierra Club. “But we are more vulnerable to environmental issues.”

More than 80 percent of African Americans support states developing clean energy plans, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. GreenLatinos and the Sierra Club found similar support — about 80 percent — from Latinos as well.

Environmental racism has long persisted — and has long been largely ignored by mainstream environmental organizations.

“If you look at the history of the movement, it started about 125 years ago and was about getting wealthy white people accessing national parks,” Fields says.

Environmental justice programs began to take on more significance in the 1990s, and the environmental movement has made more of an effort to incorporate environmental justice into its mission. “You can’t have a meeting and everyone looks the same,” she adds. “If you look around and it’s all white and male, yet the demographics of the community you’re representing aren’t white and all male, you have to start over.”

Long before organizations took on environmental racism, communities of color had recognized the costs of inequity. For some, talking about climate change and environmental issues is built into the culture.

“Most Latinos keep in touch with their countries of origin,” says Javier Sierra, the associate director of Communications for Latino Media with the Sierra Club. “There, climate change isn’t a theory or a Chinese hoax. It’s a reality. Latin America spends upwards of 4.5 percent of its GDP toward the consequences of climate change.”

For many people of color in the United States, they can’t ignore what environmental racism means for them because it continuously impacts their health. The American Journal of Public Health attributed pollutants as factors contributing to medical problems such as heart disease and lung disease.

An organizing effort

The American Lung Association continuously ranks Southern Nevada poorly when it comes to air-quality, which has resulted in higher rates of asthma in general. According to the Nevada Statewide Asthma Control Plan, 30 percent of African American youth reported having asthma compared to about 24 percent of whites and 20 percent of Latinos.

Perhaps the most infamous example of environmental racism in Southern Nevada was the location of the Reid Gardner Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that was retired last year.

For decades, the Moapa Band of Paiutes’ reservation was subjected to pollution caused by the plant. According to the Sierra Club, being constantly bombarded with air pollution and coal ash dust contamination can often result in lung diseases, sinus problems and cardio vascular issues, and members of the tribe have complained of respiratory illnesses, cancer and asthma-related deaths because of living conditions.

In order to be successful in advocating against environmental inequities, Fields says efforts must recognize the challenges faced by communities, whether it’s hectic work schedules from working multiple jobs, or language barriers. “These are the communities who have been fighting for voting rights or against school segregation,” Fields says. “Now you’re telling them they have to fight against environmental issues too.”

The League of Conservation Voters has launched its Chispa program in six states, including Nevada, to organize local Latinos around climate change and public health. Its main campaign, Clean Buses for Health Niños, is working to transition diesel engine school buses to zero emission school buses in order to fight pollution.

Rudy Zamora, program director for the Chispa Nevada campaign, attributes the smog created by these buses as a factor on the higher rates of asthma among youth. “Transitioning these buses will reduce our carbon footprint,” he adds. “Adding one electric (school) bus is the equivalent of taking 27 cars off the road.”

Some communities have made strides toward renewable energy and are reaping the benefits, such as the Moapa Band of Paiutes. 

In 2017, First Solar, Inc., a global solar power project developer, completed the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project, which is the nation’s first solar power plant built on tribal land. Since the tribe is leasing the land for the project. 

Despite the drive for renewable energy, some communities still struggle to be included.

“To help the folks left behind, you have to be intentional,” Fields says. “You can’t just hope people will be nice and do the right thing.”

That means enacting legislation that specifically helps communities most impacted by environmental racism. Field says she has even seen legislation that sets aside renewable energy jobs for those exiting the foster care system or those who are formerly incarcerated.

Nevada is still working on being intentional.

“If you look at certain sections of the city, you can see where the places with solar panels are and aren’t,” says Rev. Leonard Jackson of Faith Organizing Alliance. “If you look at West Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and even the east side, you’re not going to find an abundance of solar programs.”

Faith Organizing Alliance has hosted a variety of town halls as well as smaller discussions for congregations to talk about alternative funding sources if people are interested in purchasing solar panels.

In the last legislative session, the Faith Organizing Alliance supported 11 energy bills it thought would benefit the community — Chispa, along with other environmental groups, joined in support. Nine passed.

“My personal opinion is that the ones that didn’t pass would have enhanced minority communities the most,” he says.

This includes Senate Bill 392, sponsored by state Sen. Pat Spearman. If approved, it would have allowed for the creation of solar gardens in low-income areas.

Jackson says in urban areas with high minority populations, people are less likely to see solar panels partly because of affordability but also because the type of houses, such as apartment complexes, in the area can’t support panels.

He thinks this would have been a solution and give inner city communities an option to choose renewable energy sources.

Though the effort was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, the legislation is being brought back in 2019.

“The good thing is we will have a new governor,” Jackson says. “We have been having conversations with the candidates to see where they stand on energy bills. We are fairly confident they would do the right thing.”

Jackson is hoping failed legislation regarding renewable energy, along with new bills, would advance in the next session.

November is coming

While local groups continue to fight against environmental racism and organize around renewable energy, some of the more immediate efforts involve the November ballot, including the energy initiatives, Question 3 and Question 6. 

Question 6 would require all Nevada electric service providers to generate or acquire at least half its power from renewable sources by 2030. The ballot measure has gained broad support from environmental groups and doesn’t have significant opposition as of yet.

In the hotly contested campaign over Question 3, meantime, both sides are making arguments about how the initiative could impact communities of color.

If passed, the initiative would amend the Nevada constitution to allow companies to sell electricity on an open market. It has heavy financial backing from Switch and Las Vegas Sands. NV Energy, the regulated utility, is bankrolling opposition to the measure.

Sierra Club, along with various other environmental and labor groups, have come out in opposition to the ballot initiative.

“Nevada’s Latino community has the most to lose from continued pollution, and the most to gain from the growth of the new clean energy economy since a greater share of Latinos work in clean energy than other industries,” Corpus says “The best way to continue our clean energy progress, and to support the Latino community, is to vote no on question 3 and yes on question 6.”

Scot Rutledge, a spokesman the supporters of Question 3, says the current system disenfranchises communities of color. Pointing to the utility’s Reid Gardner plant, Rutledge said NV Energy has a long history of opposing policies that benefit communities of color.

Jackson says the Faith Organizing Alliance doesn’t plan to endorse the ballot questions, but will invite organizers to talk with congregations this fall.

“We just want to give our members all the information and let them decide,” he says.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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