Latinos and the Environment: A Conversation on Pollution, Toxic Chemicals, and Conservation Efforts

Posted on 06/02/2016 @ 12:45 AM

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

By: Mark Salay, LULAC National Communications Intern

For two years Juana Olivares and residents of Flint, Michigan saw brown water gush from their sinks. Olivares is one of the many victims of the Flint water crisis, an environmental tragedy that has brought national attention to environmental discrimination affecting communities of color across the country.

Olivares spoke last week on Capitol Hill at a LULAC and NHLA policy panel about the challenges Latinos in Flint have endured as part of a broader discussion with representatives from leading advocacy organizations regarding environmental policy issues of importance to Hispanics.

By now, the Flint case has been widely reported on by the media, however, the plight of Flint’s east side, where most of the city’s Latino residents reside, has often gone unnoticed.

In 2014, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder switched Flint’s water source from the Detroit system to the corrosive Flint River water, a move made to save the financially-strapped city money but ended up creating an environmental catastrophe as residents were exposed to lead through the city’s drinking water. Lead levels in children spiked and 12 people died due to Legionnaire’s disease allegedly caused by the poisoned water.

The crisis was particularly hard on the city’s Latino undocumented population, which may include upwards of 1,000 people by Olivares’s estimates. According to Olivares, many were barred treatment from lead-testing centers because of their unauthorized status, and many didn’t even know they were drinking poisoned water because there was no outreach in Spanish to the community.

“Our (Latino) population is not as big as Detroit or Grand Rapids, so we unfortunately don’t have a Spanish television channel or a Spanish radio station at all,” Olivares said. “Nothing in Spanish was being produced by the state or city.”

Olivares spoke of one young girl with a lead level of over 50, but because she is undocumented, she does not qualify for a recent Medicaid expansion given to Flint residents affected by the lead poisoning. Another baby did not recover her vision until she was six-months-old because her mother was not notified by city officials of the crisis since no bilingual materials were distributed through the airwaves or on paper.

The lack of environmental protection given to low-income minority communities like Flint is nothing new. A report by the Center of Public Integrity published last year found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has never filed an environmental discrimination violation in a minority community in 22 years.

Representative Raul Grijalva (D AZ-3rd District) opened the panel and highlighted the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda’s (NHLA) new environmental public policy platform concerning Latinos. The NHLA is a coalition of 40 national Latino civil rights and public policy organizations that investigate some of the most serious issues facing the Latino community and recommends meaningful policy solutions.

The NHLA policy agenda explicitly advocates for effective solutions to climate change such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable power. Pollution is a serious problem for Latinos as half in the U.S. live in the country’s most polluted cities, and Latinos who live in urban areas next to plants, roadways, and factories are at an increased risk of developing asthma.

The EPA earlier this month limited the amount of methane emissions from new oil and gas development and vowed to monitor the output of existing sources, but as Director of National Advocacy for the Hispanic Federation Laura Esquivel, noted, the new rule does not include limits on existing developments.

“You learn to adapt to it,” said Mark Magaña, President and CEO of GreenLatinos, a non-profit that works to address environmental and conservation issues in Latino communities. “But we have to push back; we need to get the renewable energy so we don’t have to suffer like this.”

Another policy recommendation from NHLA’s agenda emphasized during the discussion was the importance of promoting more national parks and monuments dedicated to Latinos. Esquivel pointed out how of the 460 national parks and monuments, a mere 24 percent are dedicated to diverse peoples and cultures.

As national monuments are designated protection for many years, it is important not to overlook their significance.

“Monuments may not be one of the first things that we think about as something important to Latinos or other communities, but there are a lot of ways that they can protect our communities and our history,” Esquivel added.

Along with more conservation efforts like promoting diverse national parks and monuments, supporting programs and policies that address environmental issues most important to U.S. Latinos will be needed to combat environmental discrimination and avoid another Flint crisis.

Mark Salay is the Communications Intern at the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. He is a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in communication with minors in history and professional writing, and will be graduating in the Spring of 2016.

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