Beyond Standing Rock: Environmental Justice Suffered Setbacks in 2017

'There is a real war going on and it’s a war against health, against the environment and against human rights.'

People protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline path under the Standing Rock tribe's water supply approach a police barricade. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
During the months-long protest over the Dakota Access pipeline, law enforcement officers manned armed barricades and, at times, used rubber bullets and water cannons on protesters in freezing weather. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Humvees with heavily armed county, state and federal agents rolled into what remained of the Oceti Sakowin protest camp in North Dakota in early 2017. With a U.S. Department of Homeland Security helicopter circling low overhead and heavy machinery preparing to topple anything in their path, the camp’s last few holdouts torched their tipis and fled across the frozen Cannonball River to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

The once-thriving camp had united thousands in their shared opposition to construction of a crude oil pipeline and raised hopes for a new era in tribal sovereignty. Its forced clearing on Feb. 23 came just two weeks after the Trump administration granted a final easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross beneath the nearby Missouri River. It was a dark day in a troubling year that saw setbacks for environmental justice, from the Great Plains to America’s island territories.

2017 Year in Review Series

For many in the environmental justice movement, 2017 served as a wake-up call to a new era where no environmental protections are immune from attack—and where much of the harm is borne by the poor.

“There is a real war going on, and it’s a war against health, against the environment and against human rights,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy and administration of justice at Texas Southern University who is often referred to as the father of environmental justice. “We are reverting to a pre-1970 era where anything goes.”

Among other events that are raising concern about environmental justice:

  • One week after the camp at Standing Rock was cleared, details of the Trump administration’s proposed budget emerged calling for a complete dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of environmental justice, an office with a mandate to ensure air and water pollution does not disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities. Mustafa Ali, the long-time head of the agency’s environmental justice program, resigned in protest.
  • In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suspended new chemical plant safety rules that would have helped prevent and mitigate accidents at petrochemical facilities and protect surrounding communities, where residents are disproportionately low-income and minority. On Aug. 31, a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, was rocked with explosions after being flooded by Hurricane Harvey. About 300 homes were evacuated and more than 30 people hospitalized—including law enforcement officials who suffered serious bodily injuries after inhaling smoke from the blaze while maintaining an evacuation perimeter a mile and a half away.
  • The Trump administration halted a mountaintop mining health risk study by the National Academy of Sciences in August. West Virginia officials had asked for the study after scientists described increased risks of cancer and birth defects near surface coal mining operations.
  • Since November 2016, 27 states have introduced legislation that would restrict the right to protest. Of the 49 bills introduced, eight have passed and 26 are pending, according to the International Center for Not-forProfit Law. Four of the eight laws are in North Dakota and include the mandatory evacuation of a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp, heightened penalties for riot offences, an expanded scope of criminal trespass activity related to protests and demonstrations, and new penalties for protesters who conceal their identity. 

Neglect in the Islands

The federal government’s slow response to damage from Hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands was perhaps the most evident sign of how environmental justice has been pushed aside by Washington, said Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator who served during the Obama administration.

More than three months after the storms, much of the islands remained without electricity. According to federal government figures, nearly one-third of customers in the U.S. Virgin Islands still had no power, and about one-third of the power generation in Puerto Rico had yet to be restored. Power generation does not directly translate to homes having power, however. The governor of Puerto Rico announced last week that nearly half of customers in his U.S. territory—45 percent—were still without electricity 100 days after Hurricane Maria struck.

“Can you image anywhere in the mainland United States being without electricity for [three] months and such a cavalier attitude being taken by federal officials?” Enck said.

A car battery provides power for a Christmas Eve gathering in Puerto Rico. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
A car battery provided power for a Christmas Eve gathering in Puerto Rico, where nearly half of residents were still without electricity as the year drew to a close. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mustafa Ali, now senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization with Hip Hop Caucus, said he’s not surprised that industry groups are becoming increasingly brazen in their targeting of environmental activists and their dismissals of pollution concerns, given their newfound access to federal officials.

It “sends a message that you can begin to blame the victim for some of the impacts that are happening inside their communities,” Ali said.

When State Laws Target Protesters

One of the most worrisome trends of 2017 for Bullard was legislation states passed to limit protests when individuals stand up for clean air and clean water.

“That, for me, harkens back to the `60s when states in Dixie, the southern U.S., passed laws and put their state troopers on the side of Jim Crow, racism and bigotry,” he said. “I lived through it. I don’t want to see that again.”