Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The EPA's new EJSCREEN layers demographic and environmental information into a single index.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the date when the Union’s Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, at the Civil War’s conclusion, with news that African Americans were freed from slavery. In the years to come, June 19th would be condensed into “Juneteenth,” and the holiday would be celebrated in many cities across the nation.
Most black people didn’t actually enjoy much liberty, of course, despite the emancipation declaration. Instead, they were subjected to oppressive sharecropper labor laws, “black codes,” convict leasing, racial disenfranchisement, and other racist policies that prevented them from pursuing life, liberty, happiness, and other inalienable rights. What this means is that many African Americans have been celebrating this day of freedom while living in communities bound by segregation, impoverished living conditions, and environmental burdens.
A new mapping tool created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, called EJSCREEN, helps illustrate what these burdens looks like. The web application combines demographic and environmental information to form an environmental justice code, or “EJ index,” which can be layered on a map to identify where the confluence of racial minorities, low-income households, and pollution are concentrated. On this Juneteenth holiday, I figured I’d test the application out on Galveston, a city recently hit heavily by Tropical Storm Bill, to get a sense of how they’re living there 150 years after the end of slavery was announced.
In the block of maps below, the top-left quadrant shows where the strongest concentration of low-income, people of color live, shown in red. The grey areas represent whiter, wealthier enclaves. The top-right quadrant shows where the largest concentration of houses built before 1960 are, indicating likely exposure to toxic lead paint. The bottom right shows homes in proximity to National Pollution Elimination Discharge System facilities—buildings that discharge polluted water, tracked by EPA. Finally, the bottom-left map shows areas in closest proximity to facilities that run high risks of having a chemical accident.
The area in Galveston’s center, where low-income, minority households are concentrated, shoulders a heavy burden as far as lead paint exposure, polluted water discharge, and toxic chemical risks go. But those pollution risks also appear pretty spread out across other parts of the city. So people burdened by poverty and segregation are suffering from potentially hazardous living conditions, but they don’t bear that suffering alone.
Hopping over the bay, I decided to also take a look at Port Arthur, Texas, where word of freedom likely traveled next 150 years ago, given that it’s the first land of contact after leaving the Galveston island. In Port Arthur, there’s not only a large African-American population, but also one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical plants and waste facilities in the nation. (This is where the Keystone XL pipeline is slated to end in its run from Canada.) As with the maps above, the first quadrant at the top left shows where the concentration of low-income, minority households are:
When it comes to old housing and lead paint exposure, seen in the top-right quadrant, the burden seems to be spread pretty evenly around the city. Much of the housing has been replaced or mitigated, given that Port Arthur has been hit pretty hard by hurricanes in recent years, including Katrina. The distribution of toxic chemical plants in the bottom-right quadrant appears to fall a bit heavier in low-income, minority areas. And then you get to the map of households in proximity to hazardous waste facilities in the bottom left and you see that poor communities of color are without a doubt catching it the worst.
Galveston and Port Arthur are both small municipalities. So, I used EJSCREEN on the closest large city, Houston, also one of the most racially diverse cities in the nation:
In Houston, segregation by race, income, and environmental burden is far more pronounced no matter the indicator. The red areas in the top-right and both bottom maps show the distribution of concentrated lead paint exposure, hazardous waste facilities, and also Superfund sites—abandoned properties saturated with toxic pollution. They all correspond with the top left map showing where poor people of color live. They all confirm what the environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard has been mapping and documenting for decades: There has been unequal environmental protection for people of color and meager resources.
The same goes for most other major cities, as Fusion captured in a feature on the EJSCREEN mapping tool last week. Which goes to show that while African Americans were granted freedom from slavery 150 years ago, there’s still a long way to go before they become liberated from the legacy of racism.