The Color of Climate

Even During a Pandemic, Racism Continues

In the midst of the pandemic, a planned demolition sent up clouds of pollution in the ‘Mexico of the Midwest’

Photo illustration. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely affect the future of communities of color.

Thick clouds of dust engulfed the streets of Chicago’s predominantly Latinx Little Village neighborhood on the morning of April 11. The smokestack of a defunct coal-fired power plant had just been demolished, sending a tsunami of dust into Little Village. A local photographer captured the aftermath: As the haze blotted out all buildings in sight, car headlights had to be turned on in broad daylight.

“My lungs started hurting, I’m not going to lie,” the photographer, Maclovio (he prefers only to use his first name), told Mauricio Peña of Block Club Chicago, a local news website.

Many residents and community organizations in Chicago, like the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), were outraged the city allowed the demolition at the former Crawford Coal Plant to take place during the Covid-19 pandemic. They knew that pollution from the demolition would cause respiratory issues, which are linked to severe complications and a higher likelihood of death from Covid-19.

A dust storm engulfs a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in Chicago after part of a defunct coal-fired plant was demolished on April 11. Photo: macnifying_glass/Instagram

Some people, like journalist Lucy Diavolo, wondered on Twitter whether such a demolition would have been allowed to occur in Chicago’s white neighborhoods. Little Village, she pointed out, is called the “Mexico of the Midwest.”

“It’s a very sad and shocking matter that the citizens of Little Village were a victim of what I consider environmental pollution and environmental racism,” said Frank Avila, an attorney representing a group of Little Village residents who plan to sue Hilco, the company responsible for the demolition. Environmental racism is a term to describe the disproportionate effects of environmental hazards on people of color.

Chicago politicians, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Alderman Michael Rodriguez, knew about the demolition several days in advance. Meanwhile, some local residents received less than 24 hours of notice, Block Club Chicago reported. After the demolition and outcry, Lightfoot asserted it “obviously” was not the city’s call to move forward with it during the pandemic and expressed anger about the air pollution it caused. She immediately ordered a halt to the work at the Crawford site, which was originally deemed essential.

The Crawford Coal Plant was one of two century-old power plants located near Little Village that, for decades, caused respiratory issues for the residents of the largely Latinx neighborhood. It was shut down in 2012, together with the nearby Fisk Generating Station, after a decades-long campaign. The plants were two of the worst polluting coal facilities in the country, and shutting them down was a big win for environmental justice groups like LVEJO.

But the community’s work is far from over. For the past two years, LVEJO has lobbied for more transparency about Hilco’s plans to demolish the former coal plant and redevelop the land where Crawford once stood. Now that the demolition caught them unaware, LVEJO is now demanding that the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, and Hilco provide relief to the residents of Little Village.

Instances of environmental racism like this one are happening all over the United States. As the coronavirus epidemic takes center stage, the attention of local and state officials is spread thin, and the Environmental Protection Agency has stopped enforcing most of its environmental protections. The coronavirus has shut down school districts, county courthouses, and entire countries — but the environmental racism underlying its effects on communities of color is proving much more difficult to stop.

The data show that the coronavirus is disproportionately causing severe health outcomes and death among people of color, and in an April 3 tweet, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez asserted that environmental racism is to blame. With almost 2 million positive cases and over 120,000 deaths, it’s understandable that everyone’s mind is on the coronavirus. But keep your head on a swivel — while our attention remains fixed on Covid-19, decisions are being made that will have major ripple effects on marginalized communities in the years to come. These actions are poised to cause decades-long negative repercussions on the environment surrounding marginalized communities, which in turn could have knock-on effects on their health. If nothing changes, the human consequences of the next pandemic will be even worse.

Here are few other instances that have taken place since the White House declared Covid-19 a national emergency on March 13:

  • South Dakota is setting the stage for construction to resume on the Keystone XL pipeline, which indigenous people in the region have lobbied against for over a decade. They fear that construction workers coming to build the pipeline on the edges of their reservations may heighten their exposure to Covid-19.
  • Water shutoffs are continuing in Detroit, the blackest major city in the United States, despite the moratorium the city announced in March. This means that thousands in the city can’t wash their hands to protect themselves from the virus.
  • Similarly, 40% of people are without water in Navajo Nation, where Covid-19 cases are surging. A nearby coal mine closed last year after lobbying from Navajos but not before it drained much of the water from the tribe’s aquifer.
  • Farmworkers, a profession made up largely of Latinx people, across the country are being deemed essential workers, forcing them to report to work during the pandemic and risk being exposed to the virus, with very little protection from it in some instances. At the same time, the White House is trying to lower wages for farmworkers in order to benefit agriculture corporations.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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