‘The Father of Environmental Justice’ Isn’t Surprised by COVID-19 Health Disparities – Texas Monthly

As the coronavirus keeps large swaths of Texas shut down, from the economy to the education system and social life, it has become common to note that the disease “doesn’t discriminate.” But Robert Bullard, a professor and former dean at Texas Southern University’s Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, has spent the past four decades researching the opposite: how natural disasters and crises wreak havoc on society unequally. Low-income communities of color often have far fewer resources to address disaster and, as a result, face far greater risks than whiter, wealthier neighborhoods in times of crisis.

Indeed, across the nation, evidence suggests that people of color are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 than are white people. Though Texas’s Department of State Health Services has so far reported incomplete racial data, some counties are following the national trend. In Harris County, for example, 40 percent of those who died from COVID-19 were black, though black people account for only 20 percent of the county’s population.

A number of factors could be responsible for the disparity. In Texas, black and Latino communities have higher rates of preexisting conditions that make the coronavirus deadly, like asthma and high blood pressure. When it comes to health care, black, Hispanic, and Native Americans in the state are more likely to be uninsured than white residents, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Testing for COVID-19 is also far from equally accessible: in the city of Dallas, testing is concentrated in high-income areas. And people of color might also be more likely to be employed in sectors that preclude social distancing: black and Latino workers are the least likely to report being able to work from home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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While COVID-19 is a new phenomenon, racial disparities in health outcomes are not. In the seventies, Bullard’s research in Houston demonstrated that toxin-releasing facilities like waste and sewage plants were disproportionately placed in the city’s black neighborhoods, leading to a higher concentration of health problems. To this day, the pattern holds true.

Bullard’s work catalyzed the American environmental justice movement, which argues that environmental problems disproportionately affect communities of color and the poor, and that race and class should be accounted for in their potential solutions. Texas Monthly spoke with Bullard about how the pandemic intersects with environmental issues and why people of color are more vulnerable to the disease.

[This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

Texas Monthly: In your book The Wrong Complexion for Protection you write, “When societal resources are distributed unequally by class and race, it should be no surprise that population health is distributed along those lines as well.” Were you at all surprised by the racial disparities many counties are reporting with COVID-19?

Robert Bullard: No. When it comes to who gets in line first, and who has priority [for resources like health care], a lot of that is predetermined by the power structures, politically and economic. Oftentimes privilege aligns with race, with white people getting the first and the best protection. And so it’s not surprising when you look at how structural and institutional racism has given privileges for some and disadvantaged others. And when you have poverty, lack of access to health care, [high rates of] uninsured, many who have no private automobiles and are dependent on the buses and public transportation, and neighborhoods in pollution sacrifice zones—and then you pile on top of that the stress of racism—you’re going to get people who are vulnerable. It’s not rocket science. These social determinants of health have been known for many years.

And so the coronavirus is basically taking advantage of those vulnerabilities, and you’re seeing it play out in the deaths. And that’s more than sad. It’s unacceptable.

TM: The coronavirus seems to be a public health disaster that’s layering on top of existing disparities in environmental and social determinants of health. How do you see these things as interconnected, and how are environmental vulnerabilities making the coronavirus worse in certain communities?

RB: We know that if communities are saturated with all kinds of polluting facilities—landfills, incinerators, petrochemical plants and refineries, and coal power plants—and the air quality is bad, you’ll find high rates of ill health: asthma, respiratory illnesses, and other kinds of diseases that are elevated among people of color and poor people, like diabetes and hypertension.

We’re not even dealing with the coronavirus yet: we’re talking about studies that have shown that areas that have high concentration of polluting facilities also have high concentration of health disparities.

So when you apply that to this virus that appears to be attacking the respiratory system … and the cardiovascular system, it’s already hard to breathe in some of these neighborhoods. The coronavirus will make it even harder. It will kill you.

The idea is that if a community is located physically on the wrong side of the levee, the wrong side of the river, on the wrong side of the tracks, it receives less protection than those who are on the right side. Communities of color are disproportionately more vulnerable.

You tell me your zip code, and I can tell you how healthy you are. And so when you talk about trying to map out those social, economic, and racial vulnerabilities, and then overlay health, you can see that there’s a big disparity. You can go from one census tract or one zip code to another, and life expectancy changes by more than fifteen or twenty years by just crossing that line.

TM: Has Texas’s response failed to acknowledge preexisting health disparities?

RB: Texas has the second lowest percentage of testing but that doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is that it doesn’t have the worst.

This virus does not does not look at your race, or your color. It looks at vulnerability. You can try and look at geographic areas the virus is hitting and not look at race. But then if you put race back in, you will see that there is a discernible pattern. Oftentimes, lax enforcement of environmental law means that communities on the frontline suffer. And that goes hand in hand with lax civil rights enforcement. Texas has the highest rates of uninsurance in the nation, and it has resisted expanding Medicaid, for example. So these policies have created vulnerabilities and it disadvantages communities.

If you talk to people in those neighborhoods on the streets, they can tell you without mapping that they’re most likely to get flooded. Most likely to get polluted. Most likely to suffer from extended unemployment. Or they don’t have the benefit of working from home or a safety net for sick days and paid leave. The medical folks call it comorbidity. Folks on the frontline have always known that’s how things are connected. It’s the cumulative impact of all these things coming at you at one time.

TM: What sort of public policies do you think that Texas, or the United States more generally, should implement to close these racial disparities?

RB: There are some obvious things that need to happen like strengthening people’s access to health care and health insurance. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen attempts to weaken both access to health care and environmental standards with federal rollbacks of specific provisions of the Clean Air Act and tailpipe pollution, and even today with mercury emissions.

So for many of us who have been advocates of environmental justice and health equity, that’s the wrong direction. Other states have taken the high road, and expanded Medicare and access to health insurance. And we should also acknowledge that climate change will make it even more difficult in the future for Texans with hotter days and more bad air-quality days. There will be more outbreaks [because of climate change], as health professionals and scientists have said. We can’t wait to address these issues. We need a real emergency plan for disasters, especially as our population is growing in Texas, to make our cities and rural areas more resilient.

TM: Low income communities are also more likely to live in environmentally vulnerable areas, particularly those at risk of flooding. Do you have concerns about hurricane season coming up and how that might put a double strain on some communities?

RB: The communities that are hit hardest and take the longest to recover, those are the same communities that I’m worried about. On June 1, if we have an active hurricane season in communities that are already suffering from COVID-19, how can you shelter in place when you have to evacuate? Where do people go? If you go to a shelter, it’s going to be hard to social distance. So you’re talking about disasters compounding. That should be worrisome for FEMA and the state government. I’m hoping there is planning for that, so that we don’t get caught flat-footed. I would hope that the smartest people in government are working on the areas that have historically had these severe weather events.

People are stressed about the virus, and people who live on the Gulf Coast, April and May is when they start getting stressed about hurricane season. How are we going to respond to another Harvey or Imelda? In many cases, community groups are the first line of defense. People aren’t going to wait on the government for [immediate aid], because if we do, it will be too late. It’s important to lift up organizations and institutions that have built up that trust in communities. We have to make sure that these organizations are funded and positioned in a way that can address what’s happening.

EPA Victims Ask: Who Will Protect Us From Our Protectors?

EPA Victims Ask: Who Will Protect Us From Our Protectors?

 09/17/2013 – 17:19

 from OUR COMMON GROUND Voice, Dr. Marsha Coleman

by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

The public need protection from the Environmental Protection Agency, a “rogue” department of government that ruthlessly suppresses the truth about its actual activities. “The EPA’s Office of General Counsel, Office of Civil Rights and the Office of the Administrator have all been complicit in crimes against the people and environment they are charged with protecting.”

EPA Victims Ask: Who Will Protect Us From Our Protectors?

by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

It is imperative to those with the power for the whistleblower to be destroyed.

The EPA is in the news again. Not for taking credit for a substantive decline in the neurotoxic levels of lead in the brains of young African-American children or imposing major pesticide rules against chemical companies that are poisoning our food and water but for its vicious and malicious retaliation against a courageous EPA employee who blew the whistle on Agency lies and corruption with its purposeful misleading of the public on health risk of dust at the World Trade Center cleanup after 9/11.

The EPA’s dismal record of discrimination and intolerance gives the Agency the odious distinction of having had its retaliatory and intimidating policies cited in the first whistleblower protective legislation of the 21st century when Congress and the Executive in 2002 took the first tentative steps toward reigning in this rogue agency that has come to symbolize institutionalized governmental coercion and systematic fear tactics applied by criminal elements within the upper ranks of government against lower level, conscientious workers.

The EPA is an Agency that has historically neglected economically-disadvantaged communities and allowed poor children to disproportionately suffer from asthma and other chronic upper-respiratory diseases, sometimes leading to death. The bulk of these children are Black, Hispanic and others who have nowhere else to go, but remain in toxic dumping grounds throughout the United States. The present controversy represents just the latest example of an Agency still out of control. Because sunlight is a disinfectant, Democratic and Republican presidents have dared not select an administrator from outside the EPA’s cloaked walls. The last three EPA Administrators have been insiders who have learned the ropes from the very same culprits the No FEAR Act sought to restrain.

She sounded the alarm about the health risks for them and residents near the WTC buildings, resulting in her being thrown into the abyss of EPA retaliation.”

The latest target of their corruption is Dr. Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist who ran into the same “green” stonewall that all EPA employees hit when they make the decision to warn the public about environmental dangers the Agency has a hidden agenda about. Dr. Jenkins raised concerns about the health risks and dangers to the 911 emergency first responders after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.

Former New Jersey Governor and EPA administrator Christine Whitman said the air quality immediately following the 911 explosions was “safe to breathe,” leaving firefighters, police and citizens comforted by her statement but actually exposed to life and quality of life threatening toxins. Dr. Jenkins, a seasoned scientist with an impressive resume, professionally disagreed with the “official” line of the EPA and other political leaders. Concerned for the lives of the responders, she sounded the alarm about the health risks for them and residents near the WTC buildings, resulting in her being thrown into the abyss of EPA retaliation.

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Dr. Jenkins “received a proposed removal more than a year after a federal civil service court ordered her returned to work…EPA re-filed the same charges from 2010 which had been thrown out for violations of her constitutional due process rights.”Further, she had “publicly charged that due to falsified EPA standards, First Responders waded into dust so corrosive that it caused chemical burns deep within their respiratory systems. After raising the issue to the EPA Inspector General, Congress and the FBI, Dr. Jenkins was isolated, harassed and ultimately removed from her position on December 30, 2010 by EPA, based upon an un-witnessed and contested claim that the soft-spoken, petite childhood polio survivor threatened her 6-foot male supervisor.” While the EPA allegations seem laughable, Dr. Jenkin’s EPA career has been destroyed. She follows hundreds of other EPA employees of conscience who have raised “green flags” about EPA corruption continuing unabated.

First Responders waded into dust so corrosive that it caused chemical burns deep within their respiratory systems.”

Susan Morris, an Assistant Director in the Office of Civil Rights, blew the whistle on the violations of civil rights, dishonesty, and misuse of federal resources that were ignored by the Administrators, the EPA Inspector General and the legal office. After a lengthy investigation, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the agency responsible for these violations, found that EPA had retaliated against Morris for whistle blowing and said she should be reinstated with full benefits. Instead, in line with their continued abuse and retaliation of employees, administrator Lisa Jackson ignored the OSC, forcing Ms. Morris to file a complaint that will be heard by a jury in Federal District Court.

In discussing Dr. Jenkin’s situation with Ms. Morris, she said, “I am not surprised by anything that EPA does to its employees. I worked at four major Departments and industry for over 30 years and never encountered a more despicable environment in which to work. I understand the woman, another lawyer, that they just put in the Acting position was detailed over 30 times and is now in charge of civil rights. They don’t want civil rights to work in the EPA because it would mean they would have to be timely in processing complaints from employees and poorer communities that are being polluted by industry. It’s a disgrace.” The case of Dr. Jenkins, Morris continued, “just adds to the fear of discrimination and retaliation that permeates the agency with over 1,000 attorneys supporting the corruption.”

On May 4, 2012, the MSPB (the Merit Systems Protection Board), responsible for protecting employees from agency management abuses unanimously rejected EPA’s claims against Dr. Jenkins and ordered the rogue agency to “fully restore” her back to her position and provide back pay with interest, just as OSC did with respect to Susan Morris. It should be noted that the MSPB routinely finds in favor of federal agencies and rarely in favor of federal employees. In this instance, the evidence was clearly so overwhelming that the MSPB was unable to rubber stamp the illegal behavior of the Agency. Ignoring the MSPB decision, the EPA placed Dr. Jenkins on paid administrative leave for over one year (at taxpayers’ expense) and re-filed termination charges against her on August 27, 2013—the same exact charges as those previously dismissed.

They don’t want civil rights to work in the EPA because it would mean they would have to be timely in processing complaints from employees and poorer communities that are being polluted by industry.”

Is this an isolated case? By no means. The Washington Post recently reported that John C. Beale, a subordinate of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, (in her previous position as head of the Air and Radiation office) has pleaded guilty to defrauding the EPA of $900,000. However, the same rules do not apply to all offenders. Mr. Beale obviously belonged to what many refer to as the EPA’s “good ole boy club” having basked in the perks of special privilege afforded the high and mighty. Once his crime was discovered he did not face the same level of acrimony suffered by Dr. Cate Jenkins or Susan Morris. In Beale’s case, he was allowed to quietly retire from his position until he was criminally charged. The length to which the Agency will go to provide cover and protection to one of its “own” would shame any government that values fairness andjustice.

For an agency whose stated mission is “to protect human health and the environment,” it is more than a little embarrassing when one of their scientists outs the Agency’s willfully dishonest and misleading statements. Questioning the moral, legal and socially responsible ethics of what would in any reasonable context be seen as criminal misconduct cannot be allowed. It is imperative to those with the power for the whistleblower to be destroyed.

Dr. Jenkins’ is just the latest in the succession of cases that the EPA chooses to ignore direct instructions from its judicial overseers. This flagrant and arrogant disregard for the law comes as no surprise to those familiar with EPA whistleblowers. Despite public outcry and congressional inquiries, the same attorneys in the EPA Office of General Counsel, including David Guerrero and Nancy Dunham, routinely have their names affixed to agency adverse removal actions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as many as 65,000 people have been ill as a result of exposure to the 9/11 dust. This was exactly what Dr. Jenkins was trying to avoid. A Mount Sinai Medical Center study announced the grim statistics that 9/11 first responders are now experiencing a 15% higher cancer rate than their cohorts who were not exposed to the toxic air.

EPA allowed these people to be exposed when it was unnecessary and could have been averted through using proper protective recovery gear. As of August 2013, approximately 1,140 emergency responders and people who lived or worked near ground zero have been certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to have a WTC-related cancer and these numbers are expected to rise. The question is how many more will die?

Where is the accountability for those who were in a position to know what Dr. Cate Jenkins knew and made up feel-good announcements that condemned all of these people to suffering and death? The EPA’s Office of General Counsel, Office of Civil Rights and the Office of the Administrator have all been complicit in crimes against the people and environment they are charged with protecting. The corruption at EPA is found at every level. Lisa Jackson, the former EPA Administrator who leveraged her EPA gig into the position of Vice President for Environmental Affairs at Apple (a business that she used to regulate) is under Congressional scrutiny for using the alias, ‘Richard Windsor’ to skirt Congressional oversight and to avoid having to release information to the public mandated under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.) A Congressional hearing was held last week to continue the investigation into this matter.

9/11 first responders are now experiencing a 15% higher cancer rate than their cohorts who were not exposed to the toxic air.”

In Coleman-Adebayo v. Carol Browner, in which I prevailed in federal court, a jury of my peers established that EPA as an agency tolerated racism, sexism and a hostile work environment. However, as in the case of Dr. Jenkins, even after I won and the first civil rights and whistleblower protection law of the 21st century, No FEAR, was ratified the agency continued its ham-fisted retaliation until I was fired.

The legal attack team that is prosecuting the cases against Dr. Jenkins and Susan Morris are the same lawyers who have been relentless against me. People who trusted the assurances of the Agency tasked to protect human health and the environment are suffering by the tens of thousands and dying.

Who is going to protect us from the ones who systematically destroy the whistleblowers who are trying to protect us?

It is essential that we continue to fight for the survival of this planet that is placed in peril when we choose corporate collusion over sustainable environmental protection. For more information about corruption at the EPA please see: www.occupyEPA.com.

Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA is available through amazon.com. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered vanadium mine workers in South Africa. Marsha’s successful lawsuit lead to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet.

Reference documents:

Read the PEER protest to the new proposed removal

Click to access 9_11_13_Jenkins_Removal_PEER_Protest.pdf

View legal victory that restored Dr. Jenkins

View legal victory that restored Dr. Jenkins after her Monsanto Agent Orange dioxin study disclosures

Read an interview of Dr. Jenkins in the scientific journal Nature

ocg 10-8-11 MColeman 2

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