Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

How is pollution connected to race and inequality? | terrestrial

The Trump administration has proposed cutting the EPA's budget by 30 percent. What does that mean for polluted communities in the U.S.? 

The effects of pollution and climate change don’t affect us all equally. Those hit hardest often belong to communities of color and are cash poor — what Majora Carter describes as “low status” communities. She’s an urban revitalization strategist who has focused on environmental justice throughout her career. Carter was raised in the South Bronx, a hub of urban blight.

She grew up, went to college and returned to New York for grad school — right as the government was about to turn part of her community into a dumping ground.

This the final episode of the first season of Ashley Ahearn's new podcast, terrestrial: exploring the choices we make in a world we have changed. You can join our Facebook group and subscribe to the podcast to hear all our full episodes. 

“Even though the Bronx handled about 40 percent of the city's commercial waste and 100 percent of its own waste, we were about to handle possibly another 40 percent of the city's commercial waste,” she recalled. “It was just like, ‘Are you crazy?’”

She decided to stay and resist.  

“I looked at that and thought, wow, this is happening because we happen to be a low income community of color,” she said.

The community came together — and got the city to build a park instead of the waste facility.

But, Carter said, this is happening all over this country, and we as a society aren’t talking about it enough.

“We do need to have white people saying this is a problem because it's true,” she said. “I'm often the angry black woman, but all I'm literally saying is, like, this doesn't happen in white neighborhoods.”

In this episode of terrestrial, we’re going to hear a story from Birmingham, Alabama, where another community has struggled with pollution for almost a century.  

Birmingham is an old steel manufacturing town, and it’s been struggling with environmental issues for a while. The neighborhoods in North Birmingham are industrial — steel foundries, cement plants, scrap yards – and they’re also majority African-American.

Charlie Powell grew up in this neighborhood and he took reporter Ashley Cleek for a ride through the area.

He pointed out piles of waste owned by the coal company. They’re called “wire fluff piles,” which is the product of wires being stripped of their conductive metal and ground into dust.  

Beneath these piles, the Environmental Protection Agency said they’ve found high levels of lead, but they haven’t been able to move it. That’s because it’s on private land owned by the coal company.

Birmingham has a long history of institutionalized racism with racial zoning laws in effect until 1951. That meant black families could only live in certain neighborhoods.

During the '70s and '80s, and even the '90s, the pollution was really intense in these neighborhoods. Powell remembers when he was 30 or so, driving home late: “At night, from 12 to about 2 o’clock in the morning, you could be coming down the road in the good summertime, when it’s 70 to 80 degrees at night, you could just see it, like it’s just, the whole night is kind of lit up like white.”

The smog, Powell said, felt like a light snow falling or like someone had blown on a billion dandelions. When it got on your clothes, you’d itch all over. 

Powell didn’t realize how bad things were until he got a job driving a delivery truck around Birmingham, and he noticed that other neighborhoods weren’t like his. “I saw the houses and I wanted one,” he said.

It was the smell he wanted most. Wealthier neighborhoods in other parts of town didn’t smell like his. “It don't smell like rotten eggs and cabbages,” Powell said.

A lot of people here have been trying to get the government to do something about the pollution for decades. There was a city councilwoman named Maxine Parker who went to Washington, D.C., every year to talk to her congressmen about the pollution. But she died of cancer in 2013.  

And Rev. E. O. Jackson who grew up down the street across from the coal plant — he moved away but returns to see his old neighbors.

“Other than going over there for meetings,” he said, “I’m over there for funerals. Cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer.”

Jackson’s mother died of cancer at 59, almost the same age he is now. He said it seems like a lot of neighborhood kids have asthma and learning disabilities – he believes it's connected to the pollution.

“All of us are sitting back, pondering and wondering, why do we have these high numbers of people who are passing away from cancer? Wait a minute, have these chemicals played a role?”

Local officials kept telling residents that everything was fine until 2011, when the EPA announced that they found toxic levels of arsenic and benzopyrene — both known carcinogens — in the dirt at a neighborhood school. So then the federal government came in to do more testing.

“All of a sudden, boom, we have an office, it's staffed,” Jackson said. “You just don't get these people coming, there had to be something there.”  

The EPA declares these neighborhoods a Superfund site, which means the community can get federal funds to clean up the pollution, and the EPA can make industry pay for it.

Residents are told not to eat the vegetables in their gardens. Parents are told their kids should wash their hands and kick the dirt off their shoes before coming inside.   

People in the neighborhood were horrified, and also relieved that the EPA had showed up.

But when the soil tests started coming back the results were not what residents expected to see. 

To hear the full episode subscribe to the terrestrial podcast here. 


This is the final episode of terrestrial’s first season. We’ll be back in the fall with a new season for you, but in the meantime, we want to celebrate! So if you’re in Seattle on Wednesday, July 26, come to Fremont Brewing’s Urban Beer Garden from 5-9 p.m. Find more info about the event and a special offer for terrestrial subscribers.

Why you can trust KUOW