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Environmental Justice: Protecting Civil Rights Means Fighting for Clean Water, Air, and Food

Posted on 04/23/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Photo Credit: Miriam Wasser, Phoenix New Times

By: Luis Torres, LULAC National Director of Policy and Legislation

In 2009, the LULAC National Assembly passed an environmental justice resolution committing the nation's oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization to fight for access to clean water, air, and food. The resolution, called the Declaration of the Principles of Environmental Justice and Environmental Bill of Rights in Latino Communities in the United States, affirmed LULAC’s support to fight for policies that ensure that Latino communities are protected from nuclear testing and the extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water and food.

LULAC has aggressively participated in various campaigns to protect the air, land, water, and food that are essential to our survival. These efforts have included providing testimony to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council expressing support for the Clean Water Rule , signing on to a legal petition requesting that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ban certain classes of toxic flame retardant chemicals found in everyday household products, pushing to expand solar opportunities in states, and supporting standards to limit methane pollution by the oil and gas industry. LULAC has also engaged significantly with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on various issues, even holding a twitter town hall in 2015. In addition, LULAC has continued its grassroots education campaigns and has disseminated critical information to the Latino community on issues like toxic chamicals, climate change , and air pollution, among others.

Despite all this work, as we enter the full swing of another contested presidential election, the media has once again largely painted the Latino community as single-issue voters who care only about immigration. This portrayal could not be further from the truth.

Latinos have repeatedly indicated that issues like education, health care, the economy, and the environment are critically important. According to research on the topic of the environment, Latinos more than other Americans, see climate change as a consequence of human activity. In fact, this year the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda released its 2016 policy priorities report and included one of the strongest environmental planks in the history of the organization.

The situation in Flint, Michigan is perhaps the latest example of the need for a sense of urgency to elevate environmental issues and advocacy in the Latino community. The water in Flint, Michigan is full of lead, a heavy metal known to be hazardous to humans and yet, many in that community have long been drinking the poisoned water. While, the full extent of the damage is yet to be understood, the impact on the lives of Latinos in Flint, however, is clearly visible. Sources on the ground report that some children have lost their hair and others have developed unexplained rashes. There are also accounts of pregnant women, who unaware of the contamination, continued drinking the water for months despite the known science that points to the harmful effects of lead on the development of unborn children.

A non-responsive state government, problems with emergency water distribution, lack of bilingual material and governmental staff, all contributed to the scale of the water problem which stemmed from a poor decision by politicians to use toxic pipes that leaked lead (presumably as a way to save tax payer money) at the expense of the health of the residents of Flint, Michigan.

Only now have the media, politicians, and federal agencies started looking more closely at what happened in Flint and who is ultimately responsible. But the real question is, how many more people have to be poisoned by contaminated water before our leaders take national action? How many more children have to lose their hair and develop skin rashes before Latinos elevate the environment as a critical issue warranting government accountability?

The fact is that environmental degradation, pollution, and the effects of climate change are arguably the greatest threat to the lives of millions of Latinos across the United States. According to research from the American Lung Association:

• Half of all U.S. Latinos live in the country’s most polluted cities.
• Although Latinos only account for about 16 percent of the labor force, they account for 43 percent of ground/maintenance and construction workers and up to 75 percent of agricultural field occupations that expose workers.
• States such as California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas—where the majority of Latinos live—are experiencing more intense and frequent heat waves and drought.
• Latinos want action to slow the damage and protect nature not just for them but for future generations.

The time has come to link the fight for civil rights with the fight for clean air, water, and food. Achieving environmental justice for our community means opposing efforts to undermine or repeal bedrock environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. It means supporting strong enforcement of existing public health and environmental laws, including civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, expanding research on the long-term impacts of pollutants, pushing for green jobs, and increasing STEM programs that prepare Latinos for opportunities in the energy sector. Most importantly, achieving environmental justice requires all Latinos to hold our government accountable for the meaningful engagement of our community in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies at the local, state, and federal level.

This is the challenge before the Latino community, and the upcoming presidential election will provide Latinos the most powerful tool they have at their disposal—their vote and the ballot box.

Luis Torres is the Director of Policy and Legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens. Prior to LULAC, he served as Legislative Director for Congressman Silvestre Reyes, former-Chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and was one of a handful of Latino Legislative Directors in the U.S. House of Representatives. Additionally, Torres also served as a high school teacher in Washington, D.C. as part of Teach for America. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Government and Sociology from Georgetown University, and a Master of Arts in Teaching from American University.

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