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Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Falling into the Climate Gap

Poor communities, such as East Boston, are on the front lines of the environmental disruptions expected as a result of global warming
Environmental injustice, chevron, richmond, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color



Doug Struck

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of the Special Report.

EAST BOSTON, Mass. – The Shore Plaza East apartments have a stunning skyline view of downtown Boston across the harbor: Waves lap at the foot of the eight-story building; sailboats carve foam trails in the water.

These could be million-dollar condos. But, buffeted by winds and the threat of storm-water flooding, these apartments are subsidized housing, reserved for the poor.

"I worry about the water. The weather is changing a lot," said Margaret Orzco, who has lived here three years and is one of thousands of immigrants in this struggling, working-class neighborhood. "And the wind is scary. It sounds like a tornado."

Despite their first-class view, Orzco and her neighbors are especially vulnerable to whatever the air and water may bring to East Boston, a neighborhood that's a magnet for immigrants. That vulnerability puts them, and poor communities like theirs, in the crosshairs of environmental disruption expected from climate change.

Climate change is adding a new dimension to the three-decades-old environmental justice movement. 

As the effects of global warming become more evident, disaster planners and community activists are beginning to acknowledge that class disparities will come with a changing climate here in the United States, just as it will in developing countries.

A 2011 New York state report concluded that climate impacts will be "highly uneven" across households and disadvantaged populations. The poor are exposed on several counts, including higher energy costs, dependence on public transit and lack of access to health care, the researchers reported.

East Boston, for instance, is surrounded on three sides by water. A few blocks from the East Shore apartments, Lucy Acevedo wonders what she would do if an extreme storm surge swept the peninsula and cut the mass transit that is a lifeline for the community.

"I guess I would have to start walking," said Acevedo.

With climate change expected to bring higher waters and harsher winds, those already struggling will bear the brunt disproportionately, said East Boston community activist Neenah Estrella-Luna.

"Lower income people often do not have a choice as to whether they will live in an area of climate hazard," said Estrella-Luna, who teaches urban planning at Northeastern University. "They are the most vulnerable people to climate impacts. They don't have the economic conditions that allow them to be resilient to the hazards."

Acevedo, 40, who raised four children in East Boston after coming from Puerto Rico two decades ago, suffers from asthma. She wonders how much the smoky tankers that pass through the waters outside her window are polluting the air. Her neighbor, Magdalena Ayed, sees her two small children walk to elementary school past fuel storage tanks, and worries what would happen if a tank caught fire. On a recent spring day, they were both picking up empty vodka bottles and marijuana wrappers from a local park.

"The majority of people here are immigrants. They do not know how to navigate the system. They are not empowered. They don't know how to access information about health and the environment," said Ayed, 41, an Argentina-born medical interpreter who lives in subsidized housing with her husband, a taxi driver from Algeria.

"It's a huge issue for us and the neighborhood," added Philip Giffee, executive director of Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, a community organization in East Boston. "It is hard for people to think of what it's going to be like in 30 years when they are worried about feeding their family the next day."

Kim Foltz works on building and environmental issues for the organization and is a nine-year resident of East Boston. The stakes, she said, are different for those without money.

"We have lots of undocumented immigrants, who have a lot of social vulnerability to something like devastating flooding in East Boston.

"If you are working two jobs, and all of a sudden your transportation is cut off and you can't get to your job for a couple of days, it might be the end of your job. If you are an immigrant, your only option might be to go back home," she said.

In many cases, the poor are simply in the wrong place, historically situated in low, flood-prone, economically cheaper areas. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans' poor Ninth Ward because it was the lowest neighborhood in the city; the floods last year on the Mississippi River repeated that pattern among the poor.

But the effects of such disasters extend past the immediate loss, said Jennifer Leaning, a professor of health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"The wealthy and middle class are equally vulnerable to the immediate water effects," she said. "But they will have so many other resources in terms of getting out of the way and restarting. The poor are going to be trapped with having lost everything – including family members – and will have no money or resources" to recover.

During Katrina, many poor had no access to transportation, often did not hear warnings in time, and did not have the experience or confidence to leave; many never had been more than five miles outside of New Orleans, she said. The poor are less likely to have insurance, savings to help them recoup, or even a safe place to keep important documents.

"Poverty really makes a difference in one's ability to survive these events," said Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. "It impacts the ability of people to adapt individually through purchasing an air-conditioner, locating an air-conditioned space, having a car to transport them away, or having connections to others who can help them get over a disaster."

As the public debate shifts from the diminishing possibility of avoiding climate change to adapting to its consequences, some steps are being considered to help the poor.

Rachel Morello-Frosch, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, led a 2009 study on the "climate gap." She said attention to the issue helped prompt a proposal now before the California legislature to earmark funds from the state's carbon cap program for low-income and hazard-prone communities.

"We have to acknowledge certain communities are more vulnerable" than others, she said.

James Hunt, chief of environment and energy services for Boston, says climate change will be a challenge throughout the city, half of which is built on filled tidal lands. Officials are trying to make sure poorer neighborhoods are not neglected in planning for soaring city summer heat and other consequences, he said.

"If our temperatures continue to rise at this rate and our climate begins to look like New Jersey or Maryland, we will have an increase in 90-degree days and days with 100-plus temperatures," he said. "Overlap that in the inner city, where you have high density, fewer trees and higher asthma rates—that's a major health concern."

The city has launched a project to plant 100,000 trees over the next decade, and will target inner-city areas that have little shade, he said. "You have a tale of two cities. Some neighborhoods with very, very high tree canopy, and others woefully underserved."

The history of East Boston's Shore Plaza apartments stretches back four decades. Built in the 1970s, the development was financed in part with a public housing loan when interest rates were high, with the intention that the loan would be repaid and the housing converted to market value condos to be sold to middle- and upper-income buyers.

Then the market crashed in the late 1970s, and periodic flooding and harsh winds helped convince the developer the property would not appeal to a richer clientele, according to Estrella-Luna. The apartments have been through several owners since, but always as subsidized housing.

Ayed and Acevedo live in other subsidized apartments nearby, only slightly more protected from sea rise and storms. They are campaigning to get more information about climate change, development plans and environmental risks in their community.

"I worry about it," said Acevedo. "I'm really scared about what will happen."

The United Church of Christ -- a pioneer in the environmental justice movement in the early 1980s when it reported on the prevalence of toxic waste dumps in poor, black neighborhoods -- has turned much of its attention to climate change. The church is calling for people to change their personal habits related to fossil fuels and demand action from their public officials.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also has embraced the "climate justice" issue.

Jacqui Patterson, director of the Environment and Climate Change Justice Program at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, said impacts of climate change are entwined with class, race, lack of political clout and economic disruption when polluting industries close.

The organization is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and is trying to help promote more volunteer programs to deal with climate justice.

"I think there is a slowly growing awareness, and some moderate attempts to deal with it," Patterson said. "But moderate might be the right word."

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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