Teaching Environmental Inequality: Boat Tour of the Anacostia River

This is the third post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching earlier this month. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, and the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. This post describes the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River.

Who: Our tour-guide was Jim Foster, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. We were also joined by the person who organized the trip for us, Tony Thomas, the Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and board member of the Anacostia Watershed Society. A few other faculty joined in for the fun, as did one of our class research project partners from Empower DC, one of the residents whom the students would later interview for the class project, and the executive director of Energy Justice Network.

What/Where: The tour began and ended in the Bladensburg waterfront park in Maryland. We got on one of the Anacostia Watershed Society’s boats and drove slowly up the river into Washington D.C. and back. The first half of the tour was largely spent listening to Jim Foster describe what we were seeing as we went. On the return trip conversation broke into smaller groups and the students enjoyed just being out on the water. After the tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group of us to see two trash-traps that divert trash from the river.

When: We took the trip about a third of the way into the semester. I wanted to do the trip relatively early in the semester as a way to help the students learn about some DC issues before diving into our off-campus research project. We also needed to get the trip in before the weather got too cold.

Why: I organized the field trip as a way to help the students connect some of what they were learning inside the classroom to Washington D.C. I also hoped the trip might be informative for our class research project (the Anacostia River forms one of the borders of Buzzard Point, the neighborhood at the heart of our project).

How:  I assigned the following two readings to prepare the students for the trip. The first gives a socio-ecological history of the river that begins before European colonization and continues through the end of the 1990s. The second is an 11 minute video about efforts to clean up the river, which was historically one of the most polluted in the country.

Outcomes: Several themes somewhat in tension with each other emerged amongst the students as we reflected on the tour in class the following week. Because of the stigmatization of the Anacostia River as both dirty and dangerous, many  of the students who grew up in Washington DC and the surrounding areas described being pleasantly surprised at how scenic the river was, and how many people were out enjoying it. At the same time, some were a bit shocked by the spare tires they saw here and there in the river as real-life, visible examples of pollution (for my part, I didn’t think there was much trash on the river at all, spare tires or otherwise). Our tour-guide’s discussion of how raw sewage flows directly into the river when heavy rains overflow the local sewage infrastructure also made quite an impression. So did the discussion of how poverty leads people to eat the polluted fish they catch from the river, despite the signage warning them against doing so and sometimes visible lesions on the fish.

An encounter with a baby deer that had gotten stuck in the water and couldn’t climb over the low wall at the river’s edge also was memorable for many of the students. Jim Foster used this as a teachable moment to make a point about the need to take down some of the old walls along portions of the river’s edge. (For those of you concerned for the deer’s fate, you’ll be glad to know, as my students were, that a passing group of boaters later ushered the deer to a safe exit further down the bank.) The students were also very interested to learn about the history of the Seafarer’s Yacht Club, one of the country’s oldest black yacht clubs. Several expressed interest in participating in the Yacht Club’s annual river cleanup for Earth Day.

There were a few conversations that interested me greatly but my students mostly missed because, 1) many had broken up into smaller conversations by then, or 2) they were unfamiliar with the technical language being used, or 3) were not yet well equipped to quickly recognize common areas of environmental conflict. One was a debate between one of our hosts and an environmental justice activist on board concerning the pro’s and con’s of waste-to-energy facilities/incinerators. We read about this topic later in the semester through this short piece on the multiple meanings of renewable energy that I co-authored with Lindsey Dillon. There was also some tension in a conversation about the relationship between river-clean up efforts, riverside redevelopment, and and the threat of displacing current residents due gentrification. My students read about this subject later in the semester through the lens of “green gentrification.”

Overall, the experience was a great way for all of us to learn more about how the issues we read about in class play out in the city beyond our classroom walls. On the last day of class, when I asked my students to reflect on what they learned that was most interesting, surprising or memorable, things they saw on the boat tour were a central theme. Take a look yourself below.

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All aboard!

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Students Cameron Clarke and Amanda Bonnam settle in for the tour.

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Standing: Tour-guide Jim Foster, Executive Director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. At right: students Tyla Swinton and Brittany Danzy.

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Wildlife sitings were a big hit, here’s our first egret of the day.

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Kari Fulton, environmental justice organizer with Empower DC.

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The Anacostia River flows under several DC thoroughfares.

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We saw a bald eagle!

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This baby deer trapped in the river by a low wall along the river bank prompted great consternation among the students (the deer was later rescued).

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One student even took notes!

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Student Joseph Dillard taking it all in.

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Plenty of pretty scenery…

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… with a few abandoned tires here and there.

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Riverside signage warns people against eating the fish they catch here, which pick up unsafe levels of pollution from the water.

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Benning Road Trash Transfer Station.*

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New construction designed to resolve the problem of raw sewage flowing into the river during heavy rains.

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These will line the wall of a giant tunnel being built to contain runoff during heavy rains, which now mixes with sewage and overflows into the river.

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Metro!

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We passed lots of other groups out on the water, including this crew team and their coaches.

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After the river tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group by car to see two trash-traps.

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Whatever is on the road eventually ends up in the river.

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Trash-trap #1.

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Tony Thomas, Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

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Howard faculty-member Vernon Morris at the top of trash-trap #2.

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When this tributary into the Anacostia River is flowing, the water flows through these bars and the trash stays behind.

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Lots of the captured trash could have been recycled but ended up on the streets instead, and from there makes its way into the the river.

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Leaving trash trap #2, near the now-closed Kenilworth landfill. The landfill was built next to the historically black neighborhood of Deanwood.

* Mike Ewall, Executive Director of Energy Justice Network, e-mailed me the following when I sent a note asking him to jog my memory about this photo: “This is the Benning Road trash transfer station — one of two large trash transfer stations that the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) operates. The other is at Fort Totten.  It also used to be the home of DC’s trash incinerator, from 1972-1994, and is the place that the leaders at DPW were nearly certain to have tried to locate the new incinerator they were exploring a few years ago before we derailed that conversation in 2013. We = Energy Justice Network, Sierra Club, ILSR, and DC Environmental Network. The community around it is 98% black and 52% of the people are below the poverty line. That site also hosted the oil-fired Pepco power plant that shut down in June 2012, and was torn down in more recent years.  That plant left behind a toxic waste site that remains to be cleaned up and won’t be fully cleaned up. Ash from the old incinerator there is in the Kenilworth Landfill just north of there, next to public housing. The landfill is now a Superfund site that the National Park Service plans to “clean up” by merely dumping two feet of soil on it. It’s currently used as a ball-field / park by local residents.”

“Toxic tour” of Baltimore

Last fall Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton of Energy Justice Network led my students and me on a “toxic tour” of Baltimore. Toxic tours are one way that environmental justice activists do political education. They involve bringing politicians, environmental agency staff and others into the communities where activists live and/or work to build awareness of the problems there and find ways to support local activists in trying to solve them. In our case, Mike and Dante led the students in my fall Environmental Inequality classes to see some of the contested sites where they work. This gave the students a better way to visualize the things we had been reading about, and to learn about their local applications.

We started at the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator. We were immediately reminded of the environmental justice slogan that defines the environment as “the places we work, live and play” by the sight of families picnicking at the park directly adjacent to the incinerator. We moved on to the site of a proposed new incinerator (for trash, tires, shredded cars and wood waste), a coal and steam-fired electrical generating station, a closed hazardous waste landfill, the port (piled high with coal), the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator and a municipal waste landfill, among other industrial sites.

Since our visit, the proposed new incinerator that we learned about has been defeated, at least for now. Baltimore resident Destiny Watford, co-founder of the student group Free Your Voice, became the 2016 recipient for North American of the international Goldman Prize for her leadership role in the campaign.

My students got a lot out of the trip. They had read about the problems of industrial pollution and the people who live right next to polluting industries, but walking those landscapes seemed to make the issues much more real for them. For my part, I was saddened to see again in Baltimore many of the same problems I am familiar with from my research in California. It’s one thing to know about national trends, and another to see for oneself that they are, indeed, national.

The photos below show some of the places we went. They depict Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton from Energy Justice Network, as well as my students from Howard University – Olivia Byrd, Jesse Card, and Gerlene Toussaint. Sign up for the Energy Justice newsletter or “like” the Free Your Voice Facebook page to find out how you can plug in.


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The view from faculty seating – HU Commencement with President Obama

Last Saturday Howard University hosted its 148th graduation ceremony. I donned my (borrowed) academic robes to celebrate our graduates and hear President Obama, our commencement speaker. I’ve shared my snapshots below to convey what it was like to attend and participate. They show: workers setting up for graduation during the last week of the semester, getting through security and onto campus on the day of the ceremony, faculty waiting for the event to begin and then processing into the the yard together, President Obama being “hooded” while he receives his honorary Ph.D., and the commencement ceremony. The last photo is of Sociology graduate Diamond Crumby showing off her awesome cap. Congratulations Diamond and the Howard class of 2016!

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For the full text of President Obama’s commencement address, click here. For video, click here. And for summary and analysis, try the following:

Classes are over now, but next year I plan to show the President’s commencement speech toward the end of my Introduction to Sociology class. I’ll ask the students to analyze it according to sociological concepts we’ve been learning (structure, agency, social stratification, intersectionality, theories of change, American individualism, etc.). Then I’ll have them chew on a few of the wide array of responses to his speech listed above. I like doing these sorts of activities to underscore how the concepts we are learning in the classroom get used in the political world, even if they are not always referenced by the same names. If any of you do something similar with the speech, let me know how it goes. I won’t be teaching Intro to Sociology again until next spring, so there’s plenty of time to build on your experience.

Trash as a renewable resource?

Over the last few years I’ve been involved with a multi-campus group thinking about the many different ways that the concept of sustainability is used. Under the able leadership of Miriam Greenberg, this group recently launched an collection of digital essays called Critical Sustainabilities: Competing Discourses of Urban Development in California. It features short case-studies to show how the idea of sustainability is used for competing political purposes. It also features essays about key-words that underpin sustainability debates. The project’s focus on Northern California complicates the ways in which the area is often seen as a model of sustainability efforts.

My contribution, with co-author Lindsey Dillon, analyzes efforts to create a policy mechanism by which energy created from trash could qualify for sale as renewable energy in California. This poses the strange prospect of categorizing trash as a “renewable resource.” We locate this debate in the small farmworker town of Gonzales. A proposal to locate what was alternatively called a “waste-to-energy plant” or an “incinerator-in-disguise” was recently defeated there. Though the case center on Gonzales, the broader conflict is happening nationwide. You can read our piece here.

Those of you with overlapping research interests may be interested in submitting a paper to the group’s proposed panel at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

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Workers cover the existing landfill at the site of the proposed “waste-to-energy” facility in Gonzales.

New digital project in honor of Teresa De Anda

Today I released a new digital project to honor the memory of California pesticides activist Teresa De Anda, and to help educate the public about the problem of pesticide drift. In Her Own Words is an expansion of the blog post I wrote the day before Teresa’s memorial service last fall. It includes photography, new and previously published oral history, suggestions for readings to use with the website in college classrooms, links to resources to help address the problem of pesticide drift in community settings, and a short essay I wrote about Teresa.

Thank you, Valerie Gorospe, for allowing me to continue to work with your mother’s stories, and to share them with others so they might learn from everything she accomplished. Thank you also for your support Linda MacKay, Lauren Richter, Tracey Brieger, Sarah Aird, Tracey Osborne, Rachel Deblinger, Zoe Stricker and Evelyn Torres Arellano.

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With Teresa, in front of a photo I took of her, at an exhibit of my photography in Fresno. February 10, 2011.

In Memory of Teresa DeAnda

I first met Teresa DeAnda in 2007 when I sat in on one of the monthly meetings of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment’s Delano Advisory Board. I was there to describe my master’s research and ask the community leaders on the advisory board if they would be willing to participate in it. At that time Teresa was the group’s president, and she was quick to say yes. I learned over time that this generosity of spirit was core to who she was.

As she has done for so many others, Teresa invited me into her home to tell me about her life and her work. Over the years I continued to get to know Teresa through photographing her, through her participation in Voices from the Valley (formerly called 25 Stories from the Central Valley), and through the many other environmental justice events that led our paths to regularly cross. I came to know her as generous, fierce, and a lot of fun.

Teresa lived next to vast fields of industrial agriculture. When we first met she told me about the regular pesticide drift she experienced in her home in Earlimart. She told me about how many people in her community had cancer.

She later got cancer herself. Her death at 55 is made doubly tragic by the fact that it is hard to think of her illness as random, rather than as part of a consistent pattern of toxic exposure in politically marginalized communities. Much of her life’s work involved changing this pattern. Her efforts helped put protections into place that limit the drift of pesticides into residential areas in a number of San Joaquin Valley counties, and that improve emergency response to pesticide drift incidents statewide. She was a bright light whose loss will be deeply felt.

So others might also know of her life and her legacy, I have collected below previously published excerpts from my 2007 interview with Teresa, along with some of my favorite photos of her. I have also included links to other testaments to her life, as well as information for her memorial service in Delano tomorrow morning.

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Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.

Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.

[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.

One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.

So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.

So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.

WTeresaKitchen copyhat happened in Earlimart was in November, so by September, UFW and us, we had formed El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart [Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart]. All of the people were victims of the accident. They were all mostly farm workers. Just a couple weren’t. We started having meetings, our own meetings without UFW, still supporting UFW in any press conference they wanted us to, but then we started having our own meetings. And then in September of 2000 we asked the farmer and the chemical applicator to pay the medical payments for the people that had asthma. It was coming out that people had gotten asthma—didn’t have it before that night in 1999—just like that, from that night, that exposure. And it had gotten in their mucus membrane and then in their lungs. And so they needed long-term treatment. We got Wilbur-Ellis [the company hired by the farm to apply the pesticide] to pay for that.We had a big press conference, right here at the house. And that was a big victory. The State of California Department of Pesticide Regulation gave Wilbur-Ellis the biggest fine that had ever happened. It’s still peanuts compared to other fines for toxic spills and stuff, but it was the biggest for pesticides. [Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical they had been exposed to is activated by water and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.]
– Source: Perkins and Sze, 2011 

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Once there was a guy spraying, it was May, 1999, and he was spraying over there and the fog was in the house.  He wasn’t even turning off the tractor rig when he was coming up the road.  The stuff he was spraying, it was in the house.  My kids were all puking, my husband was out of town, so it was just me here.  I didn’t know to pick them up, take them to the van, and get them out of there. It looked like London fog out there, and in here it looked like San Francisco fog.  I didn’t know whether to leave them sleeping, or to take them out to more danger.  So I called the fire department, the sheriff, and they both said the same thing: “The farmer has a right to farm.  You can’t complain about this.”  And I said, “But I don’t know if we’re going to die or live or what.  This stuff, it’s really bad out here.  I know he’s got to spray, I realize that, just tell him to turn the things off when he’s coming out of the vineyards.”  You know what a tractor rig looks like?  Kind of like a monster.  It’s a noise, and then you look out, and then there’s lights.  It was in the night, so they said that they couldn’t come out.  I said that you’d better come out here and at least look at this.  I wanted it on record that I called them.
***

The next day was a Saturday, and they applied the pesticide again.  This time instead of going west, it went south.  And south, there was a low income housing complex,  I guess about 100 people live there.  They began smelling it, and they began getting sick, a bunch of kids out on the lawn vomiting.  A bunch of people from that place were calling 911, calling for help.  And basically, this is what happened from Flores’ point of view, Flores Baptista.  She said she was baby-sitting her nine month old nephew.  She was holding him in her arms.  She has a lot of kids, all of her kids were outside, vomiting.  And the baby was in her arms, and she was on the phone with 911, and she told them, “My kids are outside vomiting, there’s something going on here, we think it’s the spray.  You need to come do something about it.  Everybody’s kids are outside vomiting, and we just need some help out here.”  And the operator told her, “Just hold on, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on.  Just calm down.  I think your being calm will have a big impact on your kids, and you need to just calm down.”  And so Flores said, “OK, well I’m trying to relax, but my kids are out here, and they’re getting sicker and sicker.  And the baby I’m baby-sitting is breathing really weird, and I’m really worried about him.  I don’t know if he’s going to make it or not.  And my nephew’s looking real bad.”  And the operator kept telling her, “Look, you’re hysterical.  You need to calm down.”  This went on for 45 minutes.  They kept them on the phone for 45 minutes.  And so after 45 minutes, Flores said, you know what, and she said some bad words, and she said “I’m just going to get out of here.  I’m not going to wait for your guys.  You guys obviously aren’t coming, and I don’t know what you’re doing, but everybody’s about to die here.  We need to get out of here.  It smells so bad.”

So she got in her van, and she drove out.  And at that time, other people slammed the phone down.  When they saw people leaving, they slammed their phone down, and they got out, and they were leaving too. And so there was a caravan of vans.  They drove out to Sunset and Weed Patch. And on the corner, it was barricaded.  It’s called a stop and freeze, or freeze and keep whatever is contaminated in. They were telling people “Go back, go back, you can’t come out.”  And they’re like “No, we’re sick, and need our kids to get to the doctor.  We’re going to drive them ourselves, cause we’re not going to wait for you any more.  We were on the phone for close to an hour with that lady, and she was just telling us to sit down, to calm down, and that we were talking crazy and stuff, but no, we’re going to get out.”  And there was a lot of people that spoke Spanish.  So one of the men just went on the dirt and drove off.  Broke the barricade.

– Source: Voices from the Valley

***

Teresa.OnRoadTeresa describing visiting residents of Arvin, CA, after a pesticide poisoning incident there in 2002:

I wanted to talk to the people and let them know that when the doctors and the agencies, like the fire department or whatever, tells you it’s nothing… because they will, they’ll tell you it’s nothing.  They’ll say “Oh, it’s mass hysteria, you’re hung over,” or, “It’s just something you ate that’s making you nauseous.”  No, it’s the pesticides, and don’t doubt it.  It’s the pesticides.  Then I always want to tell them that they need to report drift.  It’s state law, drift is illegal, it shouldn’t happen.  The farmers spray the field, it leaves the field, goes on your car, goes on your property, goes on the park when you’re there. You need to report it.  I’m trying to get it across, but people still don’t call.  The numbers are so low for reports.

***
I was at a meeting with the county agricultural commissioner, and we were looking at maps of the agricultural land. I saw these little red dots on the map and asked what they were. He said, “Those mark where the bees are, they’re the buffers.” I said, “The bees have buffers and we don’t?!” He said, “Teresa….,” but I was serious.
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I had no idea what an activist was. Now I know there’s a name to it, not just “troublemaker.”
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