GREENBELT — To raise awareness of environmental justice issues and empower organizations to take action, Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor at the University Of Maryland School of Public Health and director of the school’s program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health (CEEJH), gave a presentation on the importance of environmental justice in Prince George’s County on Aug. 24.
Hosted by the Prince George’s County Peace and Justice Coalition, the Greenbelt Climate Action Network, the Greenbelt Racial Equality Alliance and the Prince George’s County Sierra Club, the event took place at the Greenbelt Community Center in front of a group of county residents and members of the organizations.
“We are really pleased that he (Wilson) is here not only because of his great expertise in analyzing the differences and the impact that we have on our communities. He is not only an expert analyst but dedicated activist in trying to get us folks organized to undo some of that environmental injustice in our own neighborhoods,” said Lucy Duff of the Peace and Justice Coalition.
The CEEJH was created by Wilson in 2011 to provide engagement to highly and differentially exposed populations and underserved communities.
The group has been involved in creating partnerships with environmental advocacy groups, health practitioners and policymakers to reduce contamination in their community improve environmental quality, and enhance community health.
At the event, Wilson presented CEEJH’s “Prince George’s County Environmental Justice Plan 2025.” The report details racial and economic health disparities in Prince George’s County that are caused by the county’s environmental problems. Although not officially adopted by the county government, the report details solutions and ways for community groups and the county at large to get involved in environmental justice.
“In my experience, being in this state since 2011, everyone wants to redefine environmental justice,” Wilson said. “I really find it bothersome. You want to make everything environmental justice, and everything is not environmental justice.”
Defined as people realizing their potential without experiencing “isms,” environmental justice has to do with where people live, work, play and learn concerning various environmental hazards such as power plants and factories, Wilson said.
People experience injustice where they are exposed to a high concentration of psychosocial stressors such as crime and poverty, differential burdens and exposure to environmental hazards and lack of access to high quality, health-promoting infrastructures such as food deserts, health care and recreational space.
Wilson called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the grandfather of environmental justice as an essential aspect of the movement is to undo the structural racism and structural oppression that impacts the environment where underserved people live. With that, environmental justice takes people using their voices to make a change.
“We are where we are because many of us who have voices have not used our voices, many of us who have privilege have not used our privilege,” Wilson said. “It’s time to wake up and stand up and be vocal and be active.”
Climate change will have a significant impact on environmental justice going forward, Wilson said, as it will reveal the most vulnerable populations who will be impacted the most. For example, heat waves will negatively impact the poor and elderly, especially because they are least likely to have access to good heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units (HVAC) or insulation. They will also be most susceptible to heat-related illness.
Not only do greenhouse gases hurt public health, but the co-pollutants associated with them only exacerbate the problem.
According to Wilson, 60 million Americans live within three miles of a coal power plant and are disproportionately low-income people and people of color.
With that comes increased particulate matter in the air. No level of particulate matter is safe as it can absorb other toxins and cause asthma, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the CEEJH report, health disparities in Prince George’s County are pervasive. The county was listed as 14th among the 24 counties in Maryland for overall quality of health by the County Health Rankings and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2016. The leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and accidents. Also, the country’s rate of death from chronic disease is highest in the state.
Additionally, the county contains disparities within its social and environmental determinants of health as 71% of the county is fast food and lead exposure and air pollution are a major threat to the health of county residents.
Wilson detailed two areas in Prince George’s County that are particularly affected. Brandywine contains five power plants within a 13-mile radius with more projected to be built in the future. It has a population consisting of 72% African American residents with elementary schools and parks located near the plants. Also, the fossil fuel power plant capacity is more than the capacity of 99.9% of the country.
“The differential burden of power plants on black residents is a major issue for Brandywine, MD, a community that hosts multiple power plants in the Southwestern portion of the state. This high concentration of power plants in Brandywine is not only an example of environmental injustice but also environmental racism, environmental classism and environmental slavery,” the CEEJH report says.
Another negatively affected area in the county is Bladensburg. A port town with a largely African American and Hispanic population, the town recently fought against a concrete batching plant attempting to come into the town.
Bladensburg already contains a concrete block plant which causes concrete dust emissions, flies ash and particulate matter. Bladensburg is in the 90 to 95th percentile in the United States for National Air Toxics Assessment cancer risk.
The CEEJH report highlights five areas that should be a priority for Prince George’s County: lead, water quality, food disparities, air quality, zoning and equitable development.
They also highlight themes that will be essential to implementing their plan, such as integrating environmental justice into county-wide policies, collaboration and partnerships and promoting evidence-based decision making.
As far as action that residents and organizations can take, Wilson recommended building trust and relationships within communities they want to work in, connect issues to what is important to that community, be transparent, spread the knowledge and science of the environmental problems and follow the 17 principles of environmental justice which include mutual respect for people, building a sustainable planet and creating equitable policies.
“You have to build trust, and you have to build relationships, and that’s hard work to do engagement. If we’re really going to advance environmental justice as a county and in the state, we have to do authentic community engagement,” Wilson said.