Vernice Miller-Travis wants everyone to show up for environmental justice – both at the polls (or mailboxes, if you’re voting in Oregon) and at their local planning or zoning commission meetings.
“We’ve just got to expand the number of Democrats that are in the United States Senate, so that we won’t have to get backed into a corner like this again,” she told The Skanner in a nod to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) obstruction of climate action bills.
And the often-ignored local planning meetings? “That’s where a lot of critical decision-making is being made about zoning, about where new facilities are going to go, transportation corridors, health facilities, supermarkets – everything that’s important to a community is happening at the local planning board or zoning board level,” Miller-Travis said.
That’s important, because as Miller-Travis has shown in her research, the most hazardous sites in the country are consistently located near communities of color.
Miller-Travis now serves as executive vice president of the Portland-based Metropolitan Group, a social change agency that offers strategy and engagement services to clients.
Prior to a visit to her organization’s Portland headquarters, she sat down with The Skanner to discuss the hard fight to bring environmental justice into mainstream awareness, and to give her thoughts on the current presidential administration’s handling of the climate crisis.
The Skanner News: How do we see environmental racism in Portland?
Vernice Miller-Travis: The geographic distribution of the Black community in Portland – in Oregon generally, but in Portland specifically – to places that have more challenges than other parts of the city. So lack of tree canopy, near traffic corridors, don’t have the basic natural resource amenities – amenities that most people move to Portland for, that balance between the natural environment and the built environment. It’s so evident in Portland you can reach out and touch it, right? But not everywhere in Portland.
And that is not an accident: who lives where, who has access to what resources, are not an accident.
Who lives in proximity to disamenities is not an accident.
There are real tangible ways that you can see discrimination in the practice of the built environment, transportation corridors, the port itself – everything that you need to live in a modern society, most people have no idea what those infrastructure needs are because they don’t live next to them. Except some people live next to a convergence of all the things nobody wants to live next to. And those people tend to be Black and brown and indigenous.
People like to think that in Portland everyone has an ecological perspective, everyone thinks highly of the natural environment and looks and works and wants to protect it, and that’s all true. But there’s still lots of evidence of environmental injustice. And it’s everywhere, and it’s kind of baked into the design and growth patterns of the city.
TSN: How did you get started in this work?
VMT: I started out as a researcher working for the civil rights division of a small Protestant Church known as United Church of Christ – the remnants of the church established by the pilgrims. It’s a very small Protestant denomination.
This is the 40th anniversary of the struggle of Warren County North Carolina, which was one of the first environmental justice battles to try to keep the state of North Carolina from creating a PCB-contaminated landfill in the middle of this rural, predominantly Black county. The community ultimately lost that battle. But they used old-line civil rights tactics: laying bodies down, children, everyone, to try to keep the trucks from bringing this soil into their community.
But one of the people leading that struggle was a minister in the United Church of Christ, and he called up to the headquarters in New York City and said, look, we need help. Nobody has talked to us, the state has not reached out, there have been no briefings, no hearings, no nothing. We’re just starting to see these trucks create this landfill and now we see what we’re up against and we need help.
And so the national church did all they could to help and bring attention to it, but they thought, this is kind of curious. We need to see if what’s happening in Warren County is endemic of what’s happening in rural North Carolina – is it the southeast? Is it bigger than that? And they hired me as a research assistant to help identify what we would then (categorize) as environmental injustice and environmental racism. And we found that race proved to be the most statistically significant indicator of where hazardous waste sites were located across these United States, not just North Carolina.
I’m 27 years old and I’m doing this research. I remember calling my grandmother, who was a nurse, as were all her sisters and my mother, to say grandma, you would not believe what I’m finding! She says, so how much money did y’all spend on this study? And I said I don’t know, around a quarter of a million dollars? My grandmother said, So y’all spent a quarter of a million dollars of people’s hard-earned money to tell you something that every Black and brown person knows to be true: Wherever we are is where the things are that nobody wants to live next to.
I couldn’t really argue with that. Then I said, but Grandma, you’re a scientist, and you understand this. You could have all the practical knowledge you want of a given set of circumstances, how a community lives, how a community is impacted, but until you get a peer-reviewed report that can replicate those conditions someplace else, it’s like it didn’t happen. And nobody was doing any research around what the lived experience was in terms of environmental impacts on communities of color, on low-income communities, on tribal communities. People were focused on endangered species, endangered water bodies – that was where the environmental community’s head was. They were working on hazardous waste issues, but no one was making the connection between race and the location of environmental threats. We were the first folks to do this.
We published a report in 1987 called Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, published by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice and that set the whole conversation aloft in this country.
TSN: Did this hit home for you, as a New Yorker?
VMT: Halfway through the research, it was recommended I go and meet with some of my neighbors in my community. I lived in Harlem, and I had been resisting going to this meeting – the very first time I walk in the door, they’re talking about this sewage treatment plant that the city of New York and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of New York are building on our waterfront. And it was more than the lightbulbs went off – it was like there was a gong ringing in my head and it wouldn’t stop. The very things that you’re looking at in other places, the phenomenon that we had identified was happening in my own neighborhood, where I lived!
The sewage treatment plant was designed to help clean up the Hudson River. So they build a sewage treatment plant, but they decide to build it in our neighborhood. So it’s designed to treat 180 million gallons of wastewater and raw sewage a day. The entire west side of Manhattan flows into this sewage treatment plant. But there are 100,000 people who live in my neighborhood – 100,000 people cannot generate 180 million gallons of wastewater everyday.
And then they build that sucker with no odor control devices. So every step along the way, the discounting of the value of the lives of people of color happens in almost every environmental circumstance and every infrastructure circumstance and every industrial policy circumstance.
All the bad things are where we live.
TSN: You found racism ingrained in environmental policy decisions everywhere, rural and urban. How was this information received by policy makers?
VMT: Here’s my major intellectual contribution to toxic waste and race: It’s my job to look at all this data, and the data comes from the U.S. EPA’s national priorities list. This is the list that EPA compiles of all the hazardous waste sites in the United States, and they do something called the hazard ranking system and they determine on that list of really awful sites which ones post imminent threat to human health and the environment, and that’s how they determine where they’re going to go to get these sites cleaned up.
You prioritize the ones that are the nastiest. So I’m looking at it, and I said, oh my God, I see a pattern here. And that pattern around the racial composition of who lives in a particular place in proximity to a hazardous waste site is so repetitive that I say, oh my God. It’s not random.
So when local or state government or EPA were challenged about why they were making decisions to permit these facilities near where people of color live, they would be aghast that you had introduced race into the conversation: ‘That’s so inflammatory, that’s so provocative. Are you saying that we’re racist?’ But I’m saying that the policies you continue to utilize have a disequal impact that people of color are always adversely affected, and white people are not.
The degree of pervasiveness of this practice tells us that it is not random, it is intentional. And then we were off to the races.
TSN: Yet it took a while for the conversation around climate action to include voices of color?
VMT: A woman whom I adore who used to be my boss at NDIC said to me one day that she had been at a meeting at the Obama White House with a bunch of green leaders. So I said to her, were there any people of color in that room? And she said, hmm. Not that I can remember, besides the president himself. I said were there any environmental justice advocates, leaders, civil rights leaders, in that room? She said no. And I said, ‘What gave you all the right to brief President Obama about what the national environmental policy agenda should be? You all are so used to being in this insular conversation when speaking to the decision-makers and the power brokers, and you give them an agenda. And they for the most part go out and begin to work on that agenda, and you leave people of color out every single time. You leave poor people out. You leave rural communities out for the most part. You leave immigrant communities out, you leave border communities out.’
And it’s just a really different conversation when you get these other voices in the room.
TSN: You’re headed to the White House tomorrow to attend a briefing on the Inflation Reduction Act, specifically on its environmental justice components. What are your thoughts on this bill?
VMT: In my whole career of working on getting federal policy done, I’ve never had as many mixed emotions as I have about this bill. There are a lot of really good things in there, but there are also some poison pills in there.
The additional oil and gas exploration in Alaska and on the Gulf of Mexico – you cannot expand in that space and reduce carbon emissions. There’s no way. New oil and gas exploration off the gulf of Mexico is how we got to Hurricane Katrina. You cannot do that and also try to advance an agenda that looks to make us more fossil fuel dependent. You can’t do more exploration and somehow pull back at the same time. I’m going to be interested to hear them answer that.
There’s also some technology they’re funding – carbon capture sequestration – that no one has seen work yet. We cannot bank that you’re going to be able to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, which is what carbon capture and sequestration is. There is no singular facility anywhere that is successfully doing this, but there’s $60 billion in this bill for people to research that, and to try and model that. There’s some other things we could do – like not have oil and gas exploration, and expand the opportunity and the availability of green energy. That’s where we should be putting $60 billion.
I get it. I live in the DC Metro area. I’m a former lobbyist for National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). I’ve worked here in this space for 30 years. I get how it works. I’ve gotten a lot of federal legislation passed. But usually, the back and forth does not require that you sign up for things that otherwise undermine the very policy that you’re trying to implement. It’s going to be a very interesting discussion.
I also want to make sure we state on the record there are some real challenges that this bill presents, and how do you align those different agendas? How do you make that happen, so one thing is not undermining another?
TSN: How do you feel about the Biden administration’s efforts regarding environmental justice?
VMT: I want to say this: I don’t agree with everything that this administration has done. This has been the most aggressive White House administration to address environmental injustice and environmental inequities in the history of the United States of America. This is the best it’s ever been.
Does that mean it’s perfect? No. But they have policies, they have objectives, they have staff, they have executive orders specifically about environmental injustice in the climate space, as well as an executive order on addressing systemic racism across the breadth of the federal government. When have you ever heard anybody doing that?
Joe Biden is turning out to be perhaps the most progressive president we’ve had since FDR, including Barack Obama.
Again, they’re not perfect…but we have made so much progress, because we don’t have to debate whether or not this is real, first of all. And they’re marshaling resources to figure out, what are we going to do and how are we going to help these places that have long been overlooked?