… & The Effects On Its Most Powerless Residents
By D.L. Chandler | ecoWURD Correspondent
Philadelphia is a city battling with several environmental issues all at once.
One day it’s drinking lead in the water, the next day and every day thereafter it’s breathing poor air. These add to a mountain of issues already affecting the city’s most powerless: Black and Brown communities of color.
And in recent studies, published this year, newly uncovered dangers give Philly the unwelcome distinction of being one of the most toxic towns in America.
At least that’s according to University of Texas-El Paso Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Sara Grineski and University of Utah Department of Geography Professor Dr. Timothy Collins in their seminal February 2018 study “Geographic and social disparities in exposure to air neurotoxicants at U.S. public schools” in the journal Environmental Research.
Grineski and Collins examined air neurotoxicant exposure data from the Environmental Protection Agency and compared it with 85,000 public schools nationwide.
Across racial lines, five of the 10 worst-polluted school counties listed non-White populations over 20 percent. And yes, Philadelphia is counted among this number. Sitting at number five in the study findings, per The Guardian, Allegheny County in the Commonwealth sits at number one, with Camden County, N.J. sitting at number three.
The Commonwealth’s most populous cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where many communities of color are attempting to thrive, have issues with lasting effects on the developing minds and bodies of children in each jurisdiction. The suspected culprit: legacy pollutants.
DECADES OF DESTRUCTIONPollution is one thing. But what are legacy pollutants?
In short, these are industrial chemicals or products that remain ingrained in the environment well after they were outlawed or no longer produced. At the time of their usage, they were considered the standard, even when safety testing was an afterthought.
While lead and mercury are among the typical heavy contaminant metals known to plague the environment, the main grouping of legacy pollutants is PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. These are a group of over 200 chemicals manufactured in labs and used throughout the country from the late 1920s until the late 1970s when they were officially banned.
One of the hidden impacts of PCBs is that they build up in animal tissue – in particular, river fish that feed near the bottom of waterways, places where much of the chemicals settle. Individuals fishing in the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers “are often unaware of the dangers present in consuming their catch,” veteran environmentalist Maya K. von Rossum, Executive Direction of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network tells ecoWURD. And, alarmingly enough, there many fisher folks who aren’t doing it just as a sport – some are eating their catch for basic survival.
“For years, nutrient pollution made [each] river so contaminated that you could smell it from a plane and dockworkers became ill from coming into contact with the water,” Rossum describes. “Over time the nutrient pollution was cleaned up, but serious contaminants like PCBs, PFCs, DDT, and heavy metals like mercury remained, contaminating the water column but also the fish.”
“As a result, there are many species of fish that are the subject of fish advisories,” she adds. “But you can’t eat them or should limit how much you eat because they contain these dangerous contaminants that can have serious health consequences.”
For example, PCBs are a known carcinogen. PCBs can affect child development – both their motor skills and mental development. They are associated with an array of disorders and disruptions: from immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine system damage to depression and fatigue.
When asked about PCBs’ effects and impact on communities of color, Rossum agrees Philly’s large Black population possibly faces the worst of it. To fight those conditions, residents could exercise a state constitutional right to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment.
But many within city limits don’t enjoy these protections. Either they don’t know about them or they don’t understand how to tilt them in their favor.
“The Green Amendment is a right that belongs to all Pennsylvanians, and belongs to them equally,” Rossum argues. “Government has an obligation to treat all people in Pennsylvania equitably, and not heap the pollution on one community, turning them into a sacrifice zone so the richer and Whiter parts of the state don’t have to be so impacted.” That provision in the state constitution was actually “ignored for over 40 years” until Rossum’s Network revived interest through a series of citizen-driven lawsuits in 2013.
To date, only Pennsylvania and Montana have this constitutional right. However, according to Rossum, the Network is inching New Jersey closer to passing one, too.
This summer, Dr. Scott Frickel, professor of sociology and environment and society at Brown University, and Dr. James Elliott, professor of sociology at Rice University, published their findings in a paperback release titled Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities. The sociologists studied data from four major cities: New Orleans, LA; Minneapolis, MN; Portland, OR; and, yes, Philly.
Examining thousands of locations, such as plastic factories and machine shops from the 1950s and onward, Frickel and Elliot discovered 90 percent of these locations have been converted into parks, homes, and storefronts without any local governments testing whether or not their environmentally safe.
In a city like Philadelphia, where gentrification’s tendrils slowly spread into neighborhoods that retained a charming rustic veneer, constant building on top of sites with hidden hazards not only impacted the poor but also younger middle-class Whites.
But make no mistake: Frickel and Elliot reveal that Black neighborhoods and working-class neighborhoods have higher rates of attracting hazardous manufacturers. They also suggest that state and local agencies would put polluted sites high on their lists of priorities if the issue is visible enough.
Or in the words of the professors: “politically expedient.”
Frickel and Elliot call for new municipal databases that cover “previously undocumented manufacturing sites as potential environmental hazards” while also proposing new policies that will limit the reach of urban sprawl. The hope is to dramatically reduce hazardous materials traveling outside boundaries.
They also found that the current databases City Hall usually touts as evidence of progress don’t exactly underscore the true nature of things. In one instance, the EPA’s official Toxic Release Inventory for 2008 listed just 19 active manufactures in Philadelphia operating in major hazardous sectors – but the professors discovered, using the same available data, that it was actually 364 manufacturers operating in these sectors in 2008 and almost 4,000 total since the 1950s.
A sobering reality is this disproportionately hits Black low income Philly residents the hardest. Many are living in neighborhoods that could be killing them slowly. These are individuals and families who won’t have the financial means or political clout to either move away from it or have those concerns addressed.
Given that much of Philly sits in a potential dead zone of environmental despair, the toxic town could feel like a trap.
TOXIC BLACK LIVES
It might be difficult for some to see environmental racism as an actual thing because it’s still a developing concept in the national lexicon.
But the evidence clearly points to state and government neglect in addressing crucial environmental issues. At the least, there is limited effort to illuminate the issues Black residents in Philly and other cities with large people-of-color populations face on a daily basis.
Adding to this, economically vulnerable districts have cheap rent, which invites industries to set up shop and pump out hazardous environmental waste. Meanwhile, residents toil in the background unable to fight back … and with the city doing little about it.
Philadelphia’s River Wards, neighborhoods straddled east of the Market-Frankford subway “El” line, were once homes to several large factories and industries that have since moved on. Of the three neighborhoods – Kensington, Port Richmond, and Fishtown – Kensington has traditionally been known as a working-class Black section of the city. As reported by the Legal Intelligencer, these neighborhoods were home to lead production plants known as “lead smelters,” and the soil upon which these places once stood has been contaminated for some time.
Children in Philadelphia remain the most vulnerable targets of the clandestine toxicity that stews and oozes through the city, as evidenced in the Philly Inquirer/Daily News joint investigative series “Toxic City.” Responding to that series, a $15.6 million state government emergency fund plan was announced to support lead, mold, and asbestos remediation efforts across 57 city schools, with $7.6 million of those funds specifically earmarked for lead paint removal in 40 of those locations. It’s the first time state money has been used in this fashion.
What the Inquirer/Daily News investigation revealed was that School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. only rushed to action to remediate lead issues after a 6-year-old boy fell severely ill in November 2017 from eating lead paint chips. Hite then hired a company to service 18 schools to cover lead paint and plaster at a cost of $350,000.
Instead of remediation, however, crews reportedly ended up making matters worse. Toxic debris was left behind while parents and teachers were never informed of the school district’s plans. The district then spent $288,182 on eight schools, seven of which had to be repainted. ecoWURD contacted School District Spokesperson Lee Whack, but there was no response by the filing of this piece. The question still remains: How do you repair all 339 schools and where do you get the $5 billion in estimated costs to do just that?
IS THERE HOPE FOR A TURNAROUND?
The city has constructed the framework, through existing services, for an environmental health response system as seen here.
Yet, there’s no sense that engagement is any better than it’s been: information and data may be plentiful, but it’s not streamlined. How coordinated agencies really are is somewhat of a mystery. The city’s Office of Sustainability, which hadn’t responded to ecoWURD by filing time, has put in place a Greenworks initiative, but it doesn’t appear to have much traction. And the city’s streamlined Clean PHL site is viewed by some activists as not effective enough in spotlighting attention on potential home and soil dangers
Going beyond the city and learning more about the EPA’s Corrective Action Facilities, spaces designed to address the impact hazardous materials have on the environment, it’s an even murkier portrait of how the state plans to remedy its toxic legacy. Through its Corrective Action programs, the EPA and states work with facilities that house and treat hazardous materials to follow state and federal safety requirements. If the EPA determines a state program is equivalent to the federal program, they are authorized to “lead” the program. The EPA then spearheads those cleanup efforts if it is determined necessary at the federal level or at the state’s request.
If all of that seems confusing, that’s because it probably is. There is really no unified or direct response to toxic materials in the soil, water, or air, especially during a period of great political uncertainty and the fate of a federal EPA that’s lost its way under the current Trump administration. Meanwhile, Philadelphians might suffer in perpetuity. Wordy missives and government data sets won’t be near enough to clear this problem up.