Jefferson County members attend Environmental Justice Summits

January is a time to not only look forward to the new year but to also reflect on the successes and failures of the previous twelve months. While it is easy to get hung up on our mistakes and failures,  it is also important to celebrate our personal successes, as well as those made by our neighbors and compatriots. During the past year, taking actions to address climate change has been in both national and global news. Representatives from nearly two-hundred countries met at the U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Paris, France in December to discuss and agree on ways to curb the detrimental effects of climate change. In August, President Obama and the EPA announced the Clean Power Plan- federal legislation that will commit state governments to reducing carbon emissions.

In our own region, there were a number of events that took place this Fall that brought people together to discuss their communities environmental health and ways to make those communities healthier. An Environmental Justice Workshop was hosted by the EPA on October 30 and held at the UofL Shelby Campus in Louisville. Nearly sixty people from a number of backgrounds attended the workshop. Representatives from private companies and governmental regulatory agencies had the greatest presence. A smaller number of professors and UofL students also attended, along with a handful of activists from grassroots organizations.

The workshop described environmental justice as the access to economic, social, and psychological well-being regardless of race or wealth. A long history in Louisville and the state shows industrial development bringing the greatest amount of pollution and negative effects happens in communities of color or poverty. For example, West Louisville and the Rubbertown district have been the destination for chemical plants and landfills since before African-Americans were pushed into the area in the 1950s and '60s due to racially motivated zoning and housing policies. For activists and scholars, the notion of environmental racism may not be a new concept. However, the effort to make government workers and industrial decision makers in Louisville more aware of such disparities is something worth applauding the event coordinators.

A week later, the Louisville Sustainability Summit hosted by the Louisville Sustainability Council. The focus of the summit was ways that air quality in Louisville can be improved. Moderators of the event highlighted that Kentucky has the fourth highest asthma rate in the country. In addition, 63% of Louisville neighborhoods have a life expectancy lower than the national average of 78. It was stated that Louisville is one of the worst places in the country to live if you have a breathing disorder despite 4 star rating that the city received in terms of best places to visit. Speakers from the Institute for Quality Air, Water, and Soil; Humana; and a number of local action groups discussed initiatives that are attempting to address poor air quality. A large theme of the summit was ways in which individual consumers can contribute to the effort.

To paraphrase Chuck Lambert, the 2015 Chair of the LSC, improving Louisville's air quality is a task that requires the efforts of the entire community. Planting more trees, using electric lawnmowers and vehicles, riding bicycles and using more natural gas as an alternative to gasoline were the suggested efforts. Yet, these suggestions posed many questions. If we use electricity as an alternative, what natural resources are used to do so? Coal: one of the largest contributors to CO2 emissions not to mention the detrimental extraction methods? Does planting trees in a city with low air quality create more allergens? Where will this natural gas come from and how? While any idea to improve air quality is worth considering, it is important to also consider the themes of environmental justice.

On November 7th, a day after the Louisville Sustainability Summit, another summit was held outside of Lexington. The title of this Summit was "The Future Beyond Fossil Fuels". In contrast to the LSC event that charged a sizable entrance fee with limited scholarships, the summit in Lexington was free to the public. The majority of this audience were activists and concerned citizens that live in areas of the state where natural gas and coal are extracted along with the pipelines that transport the gases. Many of the attendees were passionate about protecting their health and holding industries and regulators responsible during likely gas leaks or the poisoning of local resources.

Each summit provided useful information on a variety of environmental topics with a lot of overlapping ideas. Attendees and moderators all had good intentions. It all comes back to those themes of environmental justice. When hosting events about community health, such dialogues need to be more accessible to the most marginalized residents in terms of cost and when these events take place. When we discuss the health and lives of impoverished people and communities of color, these community members must be present and made more aware of such events. We must also reflect on how alternative fuels differ from renewable resources, and how can the healthiest resources be made available to everyone. We as a society should not settle for the most cost effective solutions when healthier options are available.

I commend and thank everyone involved in planning these events. There were many successes. And there is always more to be done.