Monday, January 23, 2012

Environmental Justice in Phoenix

Approximately a week ago, Phoenix held a panel discussion on the sustainability of the valley. The panel was organized in response to "Bird on Fire" and the author, Andrew Ross, was one of the panel members. Inspired by excellent timing, I decided to attend and see if I could get any new insights on "Bird on Fire."

I found the panel to be quite eye opening. After the experts on stage gave opening remarks about topics ranging from how to plan your landscaping for maximum environmental benefit to historical preservation in the city, the audience was given a chance to ask questions. Much to my surprise, the audience proceeded to drastically shift the course of discussion. By the end, I decided the audience was the most memorable and educational aspect of the event. A number of audience members told about their neighborhoods and how unsustainable practices in Phoenix are harming not only their future, but their present survival. The epicenter for these issues is South Phoenix. Fortunately for me, I was in the middle of reading the equivalent section in "Bird on Fire" so I will now try and give you a quick summary of the problems South Phoenix faces.

South Phoenix was not originally settled by pioneers because it is prone to flooding by the unpredictable rivers that run through the valley. As the city of Phoenix expanded, however, groups began to settle in the area. These groups were either those that could not afford land or were barred from buying in the more affluent northern areas of Phoenix. This began with Mexican farmers and diversified as new groups were brought into Phoenix as a source of inexpensive labor. This included African Americans, Native American, various Asian populations, and recently Latinos. This resulted in a large low income and politically under-represented area of the city. Because of their lack of political and economic muscle, South Phoenix has become the Valley's (and sometimes even California's) dumping ground for pollutants and toxins. Here are a few examples:

-An asphalt mine was built in a residential neighborhood in South Phoenix and released arsenic and formaldehyde for 4 years without a valid permit before being shut down by the city.
-The city's first sewage plant was placed in South Phoenix in 1921 despite the fact that neighborhoods in the area lacked indoor plumbing.
-40% of all toxins released by industries in Phoenix occur in one zip code in South Phoenix (85040). This zip code is known as one of the dirtiest zip codes in the nation.
-In 1992, a factory caught fire in South Phoenix and burned for twelve hours, burning off thousands of pounds of sulfuric acid. Over a year later, houses nearby were tested and found to have elevated levels of toxins circulating through the indoor air.
-In 2000, a warehouse caught fire and burned for 2 days. None of the authorities were aware of what was in the facility. Multiple deaths occurred because of noxious gasses. A month later, water tests in the area revealed arsenic levels 100 times higher than allowable drinking levels.
-Death from heatstroke, asthma, and cancer are most likely to occur in South Phoenix compared to more northern areas.
-As a side note, your neighborhood is also more likely to get bulldozed if you live in South Phoenix (see Golden Gate Barrio).

Nor does this history of lax environmental laws and enforcement limit itself to South Phoenix. South Phoenix is where it is the most obvious and uneven. In the rest of Phoenix, modern industry has been leaving it's mark. Even our community garden is a stone-throw away from multiple polluted sites that are currently being cleaned up by the government. I should note that these sites are under control now and no longer pose a threat to the nearby neighborhoods.

I hope that this panel changed the way many residents of the Valley look at environmental issues. Since the economy has been doing badly, many see environmental laws and restrictions as a luxury that can be curtailed in hard times. However, for some neighborhoods, environmental laws are not luxuries. They are the last barrier between their family and asthma attacks, poisoned water, and sick children.

In our neighborhood, where the soil is safe and the water is clean, it is easy to forget that environmental damage does not distribute itself evenly and our choices can damage the well being of those who have to live near industry.

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