With the advent of protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans, racial justice is back in the news. And rightly so.
Calls to reform or rework law enforcement and criminal justice have led to a bigger look at the effects of racism in society. And one of the biggest effects of white supremacy on black and brown Americans is air pollution.
Environmental justice activists have shown how dirty air affects low income communities and communities of color more than it affects the rest of us with higher rates of asthma, cancer and even more vulnerability to Covid-19.
Worry over foul air has given a new meaning to George Floyd’s words “I can’t breathe.”
A new documentary film on the subject, Unbreathable: the Fight for Healthy Air, brings both good news and bad news.
The good news is that many places enjoy much cleaner air than before, thanks to the Clean Air Act passed in 1970 and the subsequent Clean Air Amendments of 1990. Los Angeles, long infamous for smog so thick that the state had to more than 100 “ozone advisories” a year advising citizens to stay inside, now enjoys the cleanest air in decades. Across California, air pollution from cars and trucks has decreased since the 1970s by more than 85 percent.
The bad news is that cleaner air is unequally distributed as the film shows.
“While the Clean Air Act has done a lot of good to a lot of people but it is not equal in terms of how people have benefitted and that is the undone business for the Clean Air Act,” says Myron Arnowitt, an activist fighting a U.S. Steel coke plant outside of Pittsburgh.
As the film’s promotional blurb explains,
Unbreathable: The Fight for Healthy Air spotlights the ongoing struggle for clean air in the United States. Over the past fifty years, there has been major progress in significantly reducing air pollution across the nation thanks to the Clean Air Act. However, asthma continues to be the number one health issue for children and nearly half of all Americans across the country today are still impacted by unhealthy levels of air pollution. This short film shares stories of communities that are fighting for healthier air and the challenges we face to ensure healthy air for all.
The Pennsylvania coke plant is one of half a dozen polluting facilities profiled in Unbreathable. And while activists haven’t yet won their battle to cut the U.S. Steel plant’s pollution, the film shares one story where community activism has prevailed.
When the city of Baltimore wanted to build the nation’s largest trash incinerator in the Curtis Bay neighborhood, only a mile from a high school, the students there were shocked and angry.
“It was hurtful that someone already made a decision about us without having the courtesy to tell us about the decision,” explains Shashawnda Campbell, a student at the time. “That was eye-opening that we did not matter, that we were truly a dumping ground community to the fact that even our voices, our input on things didn’t matter.”
After getting angry, Campbell and other students decided to get active.
In response to feeling ignored and unheard, Campbell co-founded a group called Free Your Voice. After three years of campaigning, activists convinced Baltimore to cancel the Energy Matters incinerator project. Campbell was upbeat about the moral of the story:
“When we come together we can win. There’s no problem that’s bigger than us. Because when we come together we’re pretty big.”
Campbell has gone on to unite with environmental groups to fight another incinerator project in Baltimore. Activists want to convince the city to cancel its contract with the BRESCO Wheelabrator Incinerator when the agreement expires in 2021.
Though BRESCO has been operating since 1985 and burns up to 2,250 tons of trash a day, my money’s on Campbell. Baltimore doesn’t need to burn its trash or even open up new landfills. Instead, the city can slash its trash by low-cost measures like composting.