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.”

Slideshow: The faces of public participation

As part of my second research trip to Los Angeles, on Saturday I attended a hearing at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). At issue was the Exide Technologies battery recycling facility in Vernon, and the lead and arsenic it is emitting into the air. The decision-makers heard from lawyers on both sides of the case, and then opened the hearing up for testimony by residents and other interested parties.

Public participation is a key part of much environmental decision-making, and over time advocates have convinced many decision-making bodies to provide translation services. This helps the many Spanish-speaking residents who live near polluting facilities to participate in the environmental decisions that profoundly affect their lives. Being able to participate in environmental descision-making does not necessarily mean that that their voices will actually influence decisions, but it is an important first step.

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See coverage of the hearing by the Los Angeles Times here, and its broader coverage of the company here.

Research trip to Los Angeles

On Wednesday night I got back from a week spent visiting some of the most polluted parts of southern California, and in some cases the country. These are communities surrounded by ports, refineries, freeways, train tracks, warehouses and other industrial facilities.  They live with air pollution, asthma, cancer, dust, flares, the constant rumbling of machinery and trucks, and bright lights at night. Over the course of the week I heard stories of what it is like to live there. I heard about explosions, fires, police checkpoints, and the not-so-distant history of the Klu Klux Klan. But I also heard stories of improvements made, lawsuits won and protections put in place.

My dissertation research covers the growth and changing nature of environmental justice advocacy in California over the past three decades. Although I’ve been working loosely in this field for much of the past 14 years, my prior work has focused on the San Joaquin Valley and the international arena. And as a dedicated northern Californian, I find I have little knowledge of the southern half of my home state. So, this trip was an important opportunity to expand my understanding of environmental justice advocacy, and to connect across the gentle rivalry that sometimes divides north from south.

I’ve included photos and a description of my trip here in the hopes that through my eyes you too might better understand my state and the problems we face.

César Chávez National Monument

Day 1: Instead of driving south over the I-5, I went up and over the mountains that divide the Central Valley from Los Angeles through Cajon Pass. I wanted to visit the César Chávez National Monument in Keene, which President Obama dedicated just last year. Environmental justice advocates in the San Joaquin Valley have rich ties to the United Farmworkers of America, and César Chávez continues to be a potent political symbol there.  The national monument houses his grave, a garden, and a visitor’s center that was showing a photo exhibit of the 1965 Delano grape strike the day I visited.

National monuments are administered by the National Park Service. Because I associate the park service with national forests and camping trips, it was jarring to see their familiar signage next to images of César Chávez, farmworkers, and artifacts from the picket line. I’m pleased to see César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement get this level of attention and legitimacy, but also uneasy to see a memorializing process that makes it easy to think the problems they worked on are things of the past.

César Chávez National Monument

César Chávez National Monument

The drive through the rest of the mountains was beautiful. The Santa Ana winds had blown the air pollution away so I had an uncommon view of the stunning desert vistas around me. I didn’t see them again for the rest of the trip.

I ended the day happily in Riverside at a 35th Anniversary Gala Event for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). CCAEJ got its start through a fight against the Stringfellow Acid Pits above Glen Avon. The site contaminated local groundwater, and on several occasions released liquid hazardous waste into a canyon that carried it into the streets of Glen Avon. Activism around the site led to the creation of the California State Superfund Program and to the birth of CCAEJ. It is still being cleaned up.

Day 2: On Friday I woke up to soak in the beauty of a nearby desert rock formation visible from my motel. Then I drove to the Los Angeles Port to attend the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation‘s public meeting in San Pedro. The LA Port is the largest industrial port in the country, and the diesel exhaust from the ships, equipment and trucks that operate there are the largest source of air pollution in the region. The Foundation was funded by the port after years of activism by local residents and a lawsuit over the negative impacts of the port on the surrounding communities. The day I visited the board was discussing the $506,000 worth of grants they were giving to support local community initiatives.

The view from San Pedro

The view from San Pedro

After leaving the port I drove north to Pacoima, where I had a great time interviewing Veronica Padilla and Yvette Lopez from Pacoima Beautiful. They’ve offered to drive me around Pacoima to see their work in person, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again on my next visit!

My car

Day 3: Saturday was a welcome day of rest.  I organized my notes and audio files, scheduled more interviews, and hung out with my cousin at his office in Glendale (where I slept for the majority of the trip). I had it on my list to clean out my car too, but didn’t quite get to it.  You know you’re a Ph.D. student when you open the car door and books fall out!

Day 4: On Sunday I headed back to the area around the Los Angeles Port to interview Jesse Marquez from Coalition for a Safe Environment. Jesse grew up in Wilmington and works to protect his community from the pollution released by its neighboring ports, refineries and other industrial operations. While he printed out reports and campaign materials for me, I poked around his office. There were water samples and soot in jars, maps of the area with callouts pointing to the various projects of industrial expansion, and lots of books. I always find it instructive to peruse people’s bookshelves, and Jesse’s were no exception. The vast quantities of highly technical environmental impact reports spoke volumes about the maze of government regulations and science that he navigates in his day-to-day work.

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The bookshelves at the offices of Coalition for a Safe Environment.

After leaving Wilmington, I headed to Maywood to sit in on a meeting between residents and their lawyers at the local Denny’s.  Maywood residents have been engaged in a long battle against a polluting battery recycling plant run by Exide Technologies. The plant has been repeatedly cited for releasing lead and arsenic into the air above legal limits. See coverage by the Los Angeles Times here.

Downtown Huntington Park

Day 5: On Monday I made my first trip to Huntington Park and strolled through the downtown, which was bustling with activity. I met with Strela Cervas from the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of six California environmental justice groups. We discussed the challenges and opportunities of scaling up local battles into statewide policy work in Sacramento. I heard more about their campaign to pass a Green Zones initiative and their support of AB 1330, which would increase enforcement of environmental law in communities overburdened with pollution, and also channel more resources to them. I also learned more about about their “Solar for All” campaign to provide clean energy and jobs in low-income communities through investment in rooftop solar energy production. The need for environmental clean up as well as jobs in the communities in which environmental justice advocates work was poignantly underscored when I passed by long lines of people outside the Social Security Administration building on my walk back to the car.

Line at the Social Security Administration building in Huntington Park

The Los Angeles River

I had a bit of free time before my next meeting, so I drove by the Los Angeles River to take a few photos. It looks more like an industrial flood channel than a river, but I found it strangely attractive nonetheless and enjoyed taking photos of it. Check out long-term plans to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river here.

The Los Angeles River

My next interview was with Felipe Aguirre from the Comité Pro Uno in Maywood. Over the din of the trucks passing outside, we spoke about his many years of activism, his role on the Maywood city council, and the air pollution and contaminated drinking water faced by Maywood residents. Felipe told me that he first got involved in environmental justice advocacy when he found out that pollution where he lived was so bad that an administrator at a local school made a habit of referring the kindergarteners from his neighborhood to doctors who screened them for lead poisoning.  

Day 6: On Tuesday I joined a visiting group of environmental justice activists from Houston on a tour of the ports, railroads, freeways and warehouses in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.  This transportation system moves a vast quantity of goods every day. The neighboring communities suffer the consequences through air pollution, asthma, cancer and sometimes even fires and explosions. Over the course of the day we:

Picket line in front of Green Fleet Systems

Teamsters Local 630

Truck drivers taking a break from the picket line (names withheld by request)

Tracing the infrastructure of the global “logistics industry” from sea to mountain was daunting.  I already knew that environmental injustices are deeply embedded in global commerce, but watching the massive quantities of goods moving through the area brought it home in a concrete way I’ve never felt before. These lists of exports and imports through the area give a taste of just how deeply entrenched our society is in the international flows of goods:

Top imports coming through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Auto parts
  • Electronics
  • Shoes
  • Crude oil
  • Plastics
  • Chemicals

Top exports exiting through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Food
  • Scrap metal
  • Scrap paper
  • Animal feeds
  • Cotton
  • Resins
  • Petroleum coke and other petroleum products
  • Coal
  • Chemicals

Cargo ships at the Port of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports

Railroads cary cargo inland from the ports

Over the course of the day we used the buddy system to make sure nobody got left behind when we got back on the bus after each stop.  My buddy for the day was Juan Parra of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. We discovered we had a few friends in common, and I enjoyed hearing about the early days of environmental justice advocacy in Texas and the Southwest from him. We also spent part of the drive looking at the Google Map on my smart phone.  We used the satellite view to zoom in on the port of Houston and the neighborhood of Manchester where some of his group lives. Juan pointed out a house that we could see was surrounded on three sides by oil tanks and other industrial facilities.

The irony of spending the day driving and using electronics to learn more about environmental justice problems that result in part from pollution due to driving and electronics manufacturing was not lost on me. But although we’re all implicated in the planet’s environmental crisis, some of us are less implicated than others.  Low-income communities of color usually contribute less to the problem while suffering its impacts more. And like all advocates, we do the best we can with the tools at hand while working towards something better.

Day 7: On Wednesday I joined the group from Houston again as they met with an array of local environmental justice advocates and scholars.  After our morning meetings concluded, we went on one final “tour.”  Alicia Rivera from Communities for a Better Environment drove us through Wilmington, mostly to parts of the town I had not seen before. At one of our stops Francisco Vargas saw us and came out of his home to talk with us. He lives next to the Warren E & P urban oil-drilling site we were looking at. Francisco described how the drilling shakes the earth and has cracked his home’s windows and foundation. He told us that in response to his requests for financial help fixing the damage the company offered him vouchers to get his car washed instead.  In spite of his hardships, Francisco shared a few laughs with us before we went on our way. See page 6 of this report for background information on the drilling site.

View from the car in Wilmington

DSC_0033Francisco Vargas and Alicia Rivera at the Warren E & P drilling site in Wilmington

The immensity of the powers arrayed against communities trying to protect themselves from the pollution I saw in LA and the Inland Empire was staggering.  That’s why it was so inspiring to learn about the issues alongside the group of advocates from Houston, who are anticipating port expansion projects of their own. They were here to get a sense of what port expansion can mean, trade ideas, and learn from what California advocates have been able to accomplish. Although I’ve lived in California since I was five, the fact that I was born in Houston made me feel a special kinship with this group.  I’m grateful to them for sharing their learning experience with me, and to the Los Angeles environmental justice community for their hospitality and warm welcome.

The Houston group

Slideshow: Happy People’s Earth Day!

Today I celebrated People’s Earth Day in good Bay Area fashion, with a protest! After environmental justice leaders met inside with officials to present these demands, I joined 65 environmental and social justice groups at the regional EPA headquarters for a rally.  Then everyone marched to the State Department offices on Market Street for the last day of public comment on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

For a taste of the event, check out this clip of Dr. Henry Clark from West County Toxics Coalition, who spoke after EPA Region 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld.

Or, take a look at my photos! (There’s a lot of them – put your mouse over the slideshow and use the buttons that appear to advance through it at your own pace. Be in touch if you’d like copies.)

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Press Advisory

Slideshow: Walk for Health and Environmental Justice

I recently attended Greenaction’s second annual Walk for Health and Environmental Justice in San Francisco’s beautiful Golden Gate Park.  We had a great time connecting with and honoring the people who don’t get to live near such green parts of the city and state.  Here are a few photos:

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