Environmental justice: Understanding El Paso’s fight for environmental equity

El Paso News

FILE – In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. Wyoming’s governor is promoting a Trump administration study that says capturing carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants would be an economical way to curtail the pollution — findings questioned by a utility that owns the plants and wants to shift away from the fossil fuel in favor of wind and solar energy. Supporters say carbon capture would save coal by pumping carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas emitted by power plants — underground instead of into the atmosphere. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Environmental justice seeks to ensure equal access for people to live and work in healthy environments when it comes to developing and implementing environmental policies, regardless of race, color, class or income.

Advocates in El Paso, however, say environmental injustices are much too common.

KTSM 9 News spoke with community and environmental advocates who explained the environmental justice issues that they see in the Borderland and ways the community can help combat the climate crisis. 

“It does mean becoming more aware of our individual contributions, while at the same time realizing we cannot lose sight of the fact that decisions are being made on a grander scale,” said Veronica Carbajal, community attorney and advocate. 

The environmental justice movement was launched by people — mostly people of color — to confront the inequality of environmental protections in their communities in the late 1960.

Professor Robert Bullard, who’s considered to be the father of environmental justice, writes on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, “whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets,’ or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.” 

Neighborhoods such as Segundo Barrio and Barrio Chamizal are some of the poorest neighborhoods in El Paso. Segundo Barrio is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, with 59 percent of residents and 70 percent of children in the neighborhood living below the poverty line. 

Bowie High School, inside Segundo Barrio, was “the only public secondary school in the U.S. then dedicated to educating Mexican-Americans” in 1949. 

According to journalist Alexander Wolff, “The people of south and east El Paso dealt every day with two kinds of border. The geographical one at their backs reminded them of their Mesoamerican heritage. The aspirational border just to the north, an east-west highway through downtown, was a tantalizing gateway to their country of choice.” 

For years, the Bowie High School baseball field served as a welcome green space nestled inside the increasingly industrialized neighborhood and an optimistic symbol of progress toward racial equity to come. 

In 2018, the El Paso Independent School District voted to destroy the historic field to make room for a bus hub that residents say is an example of environmental injustice. 

“It’s 300 buses, or 180 to 300 buses at any time. A fueling station. 180 buses, a fueling station and 300 employees working with them,” said Cemelli de Aztlan, Networkweaver for the El Paso Equal Voice Network. “That creates a lot more pollution, and they didn’t have a mechanism to account for how — or compound — with the already existing pollution.”

A 2019 study found that Black and Hispanic populations inhale more pollution than they create. 

Scientists examined exposure to fine particle pollution (which causes about 100,000 deaths a year in the U.S.), as well as how much pollution each race creates by measuring consumer, driving and lifestyle habits.

The study reports that Hispanics inhale 63 percent more pollution that contributes to heart and respiratory issues than they create that environmental advocates in El Paso say is a real problem in the Borderland.

“We do see people with heart problems and more respiratory problems because we live in a community that’s already polluted,” said Carbajal. 

Researchers report the pollution is from gases created by smokestacks, tailpipes and other sources that solidify into tiny particles that can enter a person’s lungs and blood.

“It’s really important for people to understand that nothing is created in a bubble,” she added.  “Someone is always paying for your consumption.”

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