Interview: Vernice Miller-Travis

Vernice Miller-Travis began her work as an environmental justice advocate nearly 30 years ago, fighting for clean air in her hometown of West Harlem, New York. Since that time, she has developed ample experience in environmental policy, including brownfield redevelopment, hazardous waste remediation, and community revitalization. Currently a Senior Associate in the Community Planning and Design Group of Skeo Solutions, she also serves on the U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.  Previously, she has worked as Director of the Environmental Justice Initiative of the Natural Resources Defense Council and for the Ford Foundation and Groundwork USA, as well as co-founding We ACT for Environmental Justice. Miller-Travis helped to develop the report Planning for Climate and Energy Equity in Maryland, a blueprint for incorporating environmental justice into clean power plans. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with her in Lower Senate Park near Washington, DC’s Union Station…

EarthTalk: Minority and low income communities have long faced environmental challenges. Can you briefly explain the major problems historically faced by these communities?

Miller-Travis: Okay briefly, hmmm. Well, going back a century, as land use and zoning became a tool that local governments used to determine where people would live, where industry would be built, etcetera, baked into that process was a process of racial segregation. And so a lot of our zoning from the very beginning, and a lot of our land use across the country, was meant to keep whites and blacks from living near each other, was meant to keep people of color from living next to white folks, immigrant communities, sometimes Catholics sometimes Jews, depending on where you were. And even though it has been illegal to say that people cannot live where they want to live based on race or other points of national issue, since 1968 we’ve had the passage of the fair housing act by Congress and President Johnson, it’s still with us. We have but to look at our own beloved DC to see that residential segregation is still very much with us. And stacked onto that was a practice of building light industry, railroads, waste dumps, landfills in those places where people of color and other quote-unquote undesirables lived. And to this day, that pattern and practice is still very much with us. And so when you add modern practices on top of that, you get very, very environmentally degraded communities.

E: Okay, so you have for instance incinerators. . .

Miller-Travis: Highways, byways, landfills, sewage treatment plants, chemical manufacturers, storage compartments, railroad areas where they just let the trains sit. We call them locally unwanted land uses and every jurisdiction has them, but most people have no idea where they are because they’re all concentrated in a few geographic locations.

E: Which are mainly African American and . . .

Miller-Travis: Mainly people of color, immigrant, low income.

E: And causing health hazards such as asthma.

Miller-Travis: Serious health hazards, cancer, elevated cancer rates, premature death from respiratory disease, chemical exposure, diesel exposure to diesel particulates from transporatation sources. It’s a pretty serious scenario.

E: Okay, and then, when you add in climate change it’s a new set of issues. And so what new problems do these already exposed communities face?

Miller-Travis: So, even though you have a lot of transportation resources—railroads, byways, truck depots, bus depots—near these communities you don’t always have access to that transportation. So, when there’s rising sea levels, when there are devastating intense storms, just because you have those sources near you doesn’t mean that you have access to those sources so you can get out of harm’s way. So that’s one issue, right. And we can look at Katrina and Rita, hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to see what the impact is of intensifying hurricanes and storms, that not everybody’s going to have the resources to get out of harm’s way in a timely fashion and get to safety. Not everybody’s going to have the resources to be able to do that. Some people are going to be left behind. And of those people left behind, if their homes are not prepared for intense storms, whether those be winter storms or summer storms, if they’re not prepared for intense heat, loss of power, if they don’t have excess resources and those systems, sort of default systems baked in, people are going to suffer and people are going to die. We’ve seen it happen already and it’s going to intensify.

E: Great. And Obama’s Clean Power Plan calls for actions to combat climate change at the state level. How is it likely to affect minority and low income communities?

Miller-Travis: Well, if you look at the states, for example there are 26 states that opted not to participate in the Affordable Care Act. And those states, most of those states are in the deep South, not all of them but many of them. Their populations don’t have access to resources, don’t have access to health insurance. Those some states are going to be the ones, or many of them are the ones that are also fighting the clean power plan. So they believe that there is too much regulation and that this is not something the government should regulating, and they also don’t believe that climate change and sea level rise is real. So you’re going to see those same places trying to opt out. A lot of them are challenging in the courts EPA’s ability to implement the Clean Power Plan. And in the middle of that are going to be a lot of communities that are in harm’s way directly, right now and that already are experiencing the impacts of climate change and global warming. That’s only going to get worse, as folks do not prepare and do not build in these safety systems for these events through the Clean Power Plan. So, how are they going to reduce carbon emissions? Also, many communities of color are at ground zero for where these carbon emissions are being generated. So one of the not good things about the Clean Power Plan is that it sets up a credit trading system, an emissions trading system, to allow companies and producers to reduce their overall levels of climate emissions. But they don’t have to give the reductions from the places where the emissions are the highest. They can get it airshed wide, right. So let’s say we’re looking at Baltimore County and its environs. Many of the sources are in Baltimore City, but the reductions will be able to be gotten further away from Baltimore. So people will still have those emissions, they’ll still have those exposures, they’ll still have the adverse health impacts. And if we don’t get specific about making sure that the reductions in carbon emissions are targeted at the place where the emissions are the highest, then we’re not going to get the public health benefits that EPA is trying to drive through the implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

E: Okay, but there are some environmental justice positive elements of the Obama Clean Power Plan?

Miller-Travis: Sure there are, sure there are, but there are also parts of it that really still need work. Making sure that there’s input and engagement with all kinds of populations in the development of the state implementation plans, that’s a big win. A big step forward, that the state implementation plans have to be able to demonstrate that they’ve talked to vulnerable populations, that they’ve had real engagement that’s meaningful, and that their plans are based on the output of those dialogues. That’s required in the Clean Power Plan and that’s a very, very good thing.

E: Okay, great. And you were involved with crafting the Maryland plan, I believe it came a little bit before the Obama act but then it feeds into the Obama act.

Miller-Travis: So in Maryland we have the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, and that is the main vehicle by which the state of Maryland is going to drive carbon reductions in our state. And I was involved in helping to craft a plan, a report that critiques and advocates for various avenues to address inequality as well as to get greater carbon reductions in the places where those emissions are the highest. So that’s the plan that I worked on, the report that I worked on. It’s giving the state of Maryland and decision makers a roadmap for how to use the tools that we have to really address inequality, but also to get clean energy benefits to the lowest income strata in the state of Maryland.

E: Okay, thank you very much.

Miller-Travis: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.