Environment, Equity & American History: Environmental Justice

Aired: October 30, 2011
Many social, economic, and political decisions impact the environment, but have all of these impacts been felt by all people? Over the last year, NJCH has delved into the topic of environmental justice by examining the environmental decision-making process and considering the perspective of the Environmental Justice Movement. On this episode of Humanities Connection, Dr. Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment of the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy at Thomas Edison State College, and Dr. Ana Baptista, Environmental and Planning Projects Director for the Ironbound Community Corporation, two leader of NJ’s environmental justice movement, talk about key issues facing the Garden State and what the movement means to our state and the future of the planet.

Data collected by government agencies and others show that environmental problems—from poor air quality to toxic waste sites—are often located in areas that are inhabited by low-income and nonwhite populations. Recognizing this, the environmental justice movement, as Dr. Nicky Sheats explains, focuses on reversing and mitigating these burdens. New Jersey, in particular, has an active core of community members who are not only involved in this movement but are leading it.

When scientists dressed in hazmat suits were seen taking samples in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark in the 1980s it demonstrated the city’s deep environmental problems. Located in the heart of New Jersey’s largest city was a chemical nightmare—the legacy of the production of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. As Dr. Ana Baptista describes, diverse community residents banded together to organize a clean-up, leading to the area being named one of the earliest Superfund sites in the nation.

What happens when pollution from multiple sources combine? Is the sum of the parts greater than the problem caused by each separately? As Dr. Sheats explains, current environmental standards measure each pollutant individually, but, he suggests, there might be cumulative impact when multiple pollutants exist. What can be done? Dr. Baptista and Dr. Sheats talk about the necessity of political involvement to make change and to work on reducing the amount of pollution.


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