Confronting environmental injustice 

click to enlarge Denise Abdul-Rahman speaks at the Sierra Club's - "Beyond Coal" rally on June 1 in Indianapolis. - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Denise Abdul-Rahman speaks at the Sierra Club's"Beyond Coal" rally on June 1 in Indianapolis.
  • Michelle Craig

Denise Abdul-Rahman's task as the Indiana NAACP's newly appointed Environmental Climate Justice chair is no small order: Empower people within the state's 26 local chapters to confront environmental injustice in their communities.

"Once you become awake, then the awareness of our existence — it becomes a bit overwhelming," Abdul-Rahman said during a recent visit to NUVO. "And then: How do we manage? How do we advocate? How do we create better industrial systems?"

Part of her work is to gauge the level of awareness of and engagement with environmental issues across the state.

"I think it is our responsibility, those that are aware, to make them aware that life is going to be affected: the longevity of your life, the quality of your life is affected, and so there is a fierce urgency that you engage," Abdul-Rahman said.

Her goal "is always to listen and then provide the resources, the tools, the information to persuade and help others understand because, in my opinion, the environmental challenge is No. 1.Your life, our lives are being affected.It is quiet, unspoken, but if you are dying at 35 or 40 É I met people whose brothers and sisters have died at 35 working in toxic types of work environments — and they know it is because they worked in a particular plant."

Abdul-Rahman's work unfolds in tandem with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's campaign to highlight the legacy of environmental injustices associated with coal power. In November, the group outlined its case in "Coal-Blooded: Putting Profits Before People," a report published in cooperation with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The report evaluated the performance of 378 coal-fired power plant based on environmental justice standards, a matrix that considered: sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions; the total population living within three miles — and the percentage of people of color; and the median income of the population. Seventy-five of the plants evaluated received "failing" grades. The authors noted that those plants produced 8 percent of the nation's electricity — and 14 percent of sulfur dioxide and 13 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.

"A total of 4 million people live within three miles of these 75 failing plants," the report's authors wrote, referring to plants that received an "F." "The average per capita income of these 4 million people is just $17,500, and out of these 4 million people, nearly 53 percent are people of color."

Indiana tied for second place with Michigan and Virginia for having the nation's greatest number of plants graded "F" — each state is home to five plants on the NAACP's list. Illinois ranked No. 1 with nine plants.

Of the 12 plants deemed to have the greatest disproportional effects on people of color, two were in Indiana and six more elsewhere were in the Midwest. Dominion's State Line Plant in Hammond, Ind., which ranked No. 5 on the Coal-Blooded worst-offenders list, closed in 2012. Duke Energy's R. Gallagher Generating Station in New Albany, Ind. — No. 8 on the list — is still in operation.

"We are committed to preserving the livelihood of our communities, our country and our climate," Jacqueline Patterson, the NAACP director of Climate Justice Programs, said in an announcement of the report's release. "Old, dirty coal plants are poisoning our environment, and emissions controls are simply not sufficient. We need to transition from coal and replace plants with profitable, clean energy alternatives."

NAACP President and Chief Executive Benjamin Todd Jealous stressed the bottom line: "Coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color. There is no disputing the urgency of this issue. Environmental justice is a civil and human rights issue when our children are getting sick, our grandparents are dying early, and mothers and fathers are missing work."

The Coal-Blooded report, which opens with a retrospective on the environmental justice movement in the United States, positions contemporary activism within a broader framework: "Environmental issues are not isolated instances," the authors wrote. "They are a broad national concern with civil rights implications. Historically, people of color have disproportionately experienced negative outcomes associated with their physical environment."

Abdul-Rahman, who has a master's degree in health care management and is currently studying health informatics, is eager to expand partnerships to document and map such disparities.

Other issues on her radar in Indiana include other states' efforts to store their coal ash here, sewage overflow into surface waters and remediation efforts at existing and proposed Super Fund sites, including groundwater wells near Keystone Avenue and Fall Creek Parkway contaminated with chlorinated solvents.

In addition to supporting grassroots activism and advocacy on environmental justice issues, Abdul-Rahman is also involved with efforts to connect people of color with jobs associated with the movement to more sustainable living.

"People of color — nationally — hold 1 percent of the energy jobs and pay about $49 billion dollars in energy costs," she said, noting the NAACP is currently engaged in a "Bridging the Gap" effort to connect more people of color to jobs in the green economy. The local chapter plans to host a "Bridging the Gap" conference on Oct. 24.

"Everybody should lean into environmental justice," she said.

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Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend served as NUVO news editor from May 2011 to August 2014. During a 20-plus year career, her bylines have appeared in publications ranging from Indiana AgriNews to the Wall Street Journal. Her undergraduate degree is in sociology and anthropology from Earlham College, and her master's is in journalism... more

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