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Environmental Injustice And Failed Community Involvement

South Phoenix is a classic example of environmental racism. The city's white leaders spent a century shoving its dirty industry and "dirty people" into the south part of the city. And while the kind of racism that people own up to began to fade in the 70s, the continuing neglect of the area, and its continued lack of effective zoning and construction of polluting transportation infrastructure (two major interstate highways and the airport) has not improved matters (For more of the historical background, see this article (pdf) in Human Ecology Review.)

The authorities recently had a chance to start to put things right, but it looks like they failed:

Five years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality a grant to clean up toxics in a 12-square-mile swath of south Phoenix. That largely low-income area has a high concentration of pollution-producing industrial facilities.

The DEQ set up a panel of community members and asked them to offer ideas on how they'd like to see toxic pollution reduced in their neighborhoods.

The community board spent more than a year crafting a list of 10 major steps they wanted regulators to take.

Most of the things they asked for - a study of the health risks posed to their neighborhoods, stricter enforcement at polluting facilities, better zoning to prevent industries from locating next to homes - never materialized.

DEQ's response is that on the one hand, they are doing things to improve the environment, and on the other hand, they don't have the authority to do some of the things the community wanted (like changing zoning laws).

What this situation looks like is a clear failure of community involvement. DEQ created the form of a community involvement process by creating the community panel. Unfortunately, the substance of community involvement appears to have been lacking. A successful community involvement process requires engagement from all of the responsible parties. The community has to be at the table with DEQ, as well as with the city's zoning board, and any other entity with power over an aspect of the issue.

The reasoning here is effectively entailed by the reasoning for involving the community. The cleanup is being done for the benefit of the community, so the people doing it need to hear what the community thinks will benefit it. On the other hand, the community's proposals need to be shaped by the context of who has the ability to do what. This is more than just recognizing the limits of an agency's power and thus not asking for unreasonable things -- it's about getting committments from the various stakeholders to do their parts.

What appears to have happened in the South Phoenix case is a disjuncture between the planning and implementation. Without engagement and buy-in from the responsible parties, the community ended up making two kinds of recommendations -- those that DEQ can't implement, and those that they won't. The ones they can't implement are a result of the community involvement process's failure to enable the community to address their concerns to the right people (e.g. the zoning board). The ones they won't implement are the result of a lack of buy-in that allows DEQ to say they've "considered" the community's proposals, but does not create the sense of ownership or mechanisms of accountability that would give the community's plan any teeth. The key fact that encapsulates the failure here is that after the community made its recommendations, DEQ went on to write its own toxics reduction plan with the community plan as just one input. DEQ effectively distracted the community with some play-acting while sheltering itself from any commitment to substantive involvement.

Ultimately, the situation in South Phoenix is doubly racist. It's racist at the distributive justice level because the city's black and Latino neighborhoods are bearing a disproportionate share of toxic pollution. And it's racist at the democratic justice level because DEQ, EPA, and the city are failing to respect those communities' right to determine their own fate.


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