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The Toxic Trenches: Making Environmental Justice a Priority

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These days, pretty much everyone seems to know about the energy crisis. And, by now, most people also know a little something about Global Warming. But despite the increasingly vocal green movement, far too few know anything at all about Environmental Justice and the communities it aims to serve.

The time is now to raise awareness, to make a difference, and to -- literally -- save people's lives.

Environmental justice is about the people who live next to our power plants, oil refineries, manufacturing plants, incinerators, and waste treatment facilities.

It's about the poor neighborhoods where mountains of empty, hydrofluorocarbon emitting, cargo containers are piled high on residential city blocks...

And it's about the communities near ports like the Port of Los Angeles, Long Beach and others, where hundreds of thousands of ships, trains and diesel trucks travel every day, hauling everything from fruit to furniture to our Toyota Priuses.

It's in these places that childhood asthma is epidemic and lower test scores are the result of deadly toxic fumes children inhale regularly.

Thankfully, it's also in these places that eco-heroes like Bill Gallegos, Hilda Solis, Majora Carter, Van Jones and others are hard at work winning incredible battles -- battles that make a difference for all of us.

For example, in Southern California, when Bill Gallegos and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) prevented the City of Vernon from opening a massive new fossil fuel power plant we all won.

The CBE's recent court victory (won with the help of the California Environmental Rights Alliance and the National Resources Defense Council) stopped 11 new power plants from going online, keeping 2.8 million tons of greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants from being emitted into our air annually.

But unfortunately, despite all the media attention focused on green these days, the grassroots activists who lead the movement against global warming and power plants in these communities simply do not get the publicity they deserve.

And the challenges they face remain significant.

In the San Gabriel valley, Congresswoman Hilda Solis, recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her work on environmental justice issues, represents a district burdened with rocket fuel tainted drinking water, granite quarries that leave gaping canyons miles in diameter, and air so thick with life threatening particulates that the EPA refuses to come in and measure them.

This media neglect wouldn't happen if it were the Pacific Palisades - but of course it would never be the Palisades.

When Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, asked Al Gore how Environmental Justice communities could play a part in his coalition, she made clear that she wasn't looking for just a grant. "Don't waste me," she said.

(It's not that Sustainable South Bronx couldn't use the funding, because of course they could. One clear outcome of the media inattention to Environmental Justice efforts is the lack of support and funding they receive.)

Majora and other EJ leaders don't want to, and shouldn't be, wasted because they bring so much to the table. They are organized, motivated (they have to be when at least 66% of Hispanics in the US live in communities where the air quality does not meet federal standards), and they do daily battle with corporations that are betting the rest of us will just keep avoiding, or pretending we don't see, the injustice.

By working with communities that may sound far away but aren't, we will find that our fight against global warming, and civil rights becomes much more effective. Solutions are fortified by our collective power.

"We get people involved. That's the tradition in this country. That's the civil rights tradition, the farm workers tradition, the women's suffrage tradition. Because we know that when people get involved they make change," says Bill Gallegos.

One of the most compelling, frightening, ways to become aware and to get involved is to take a Toxic Tour. Most EJ organizations offer them, and I recently went on one with CBE.

On one street in the LA Southland, I watched as an elderly woman walked out of her small house to her mailbox. She never looked at the massive Conoco oil refinery that loomed behind her at the street's end. Nor did she take notice of the freeway racing by at the other end of her block.

But I sure did. And it's changed me. It'll change you too.

For a Toxic tour and other CBE information go to www.cbecal.org or call 323-826-9771.

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