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Environmental Justice Advocate Speaks at EPA

By Eddy Ball
November 2008

"I feel like the hand of God grabbed me and said, 'This is the work you need to be doing, and this is the path you need to be on,'" Miller-Travis said of her 26 years of environmental rights advocacy. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Laura McKelvey
Laura McKelvey welcomed attendees to the presentation and introduced Miller-Travis. McKelvey is a tribal representative in the EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Liam O'Fallon
In response to a question from NIEHS Program Analyst Liam O'Fallon about the role of research in the EJ agenda, Miller-Travis acknowledged "the huge contribution that NIEHS and EPA have made in putting out the data." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Following her talk, Miller-Travis posed among wildflowers on the RTP campus with EPA EJ grantee Omega Wilson, center, and Lena Epps-Price, coordinator of the Environmental Justice Series at EPA. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As part of its ongoing Environmental Justice (EJ) Series, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted Vernice Miller-Travis on September 30 at the EPA auditorium in RTP. Miller-Travis, who is a leading figure in the movement, spoke to a group of EPA, NIEHS and community attendees on "The Unfinished Environmental Justice Agenda: Picking Up the Pieces."

Miller-Travis began with a review of the history of Environmental Justice and its relationship to civil rights before addressing the challenges that remain in the struggle to ensure that all communities are treated equally before the law. In the course of her narrative, she recounted the experiences that convinced her that "the real civil rights threat... was a whole other arena that no one had been paying attention to - the environmental threat that communities of color were facing."

The recipient of many awards for her work, Miller-Travis has spent the past 22 years in leadership positions in the EJ movement, including serving as the executive director of the Environmental Support Center (ESC)( Exit NIEHS from 2005 to 2008. She first became involved in EJ in 1982 when she was a Columbia University student living in Harlem and introduced herself to civil rights leader and Executive Director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ) Rev. Ben Chavis. Chavis, who is now known as Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, coined the term "environmental racism" and is considered by many to be the father of the EJ movement.

The first assignment Miller-Travis accepted with UCC-CRJ in 1986 was as a research assistant for the Special Project on Toxic Injustice in predominantly African-American Warren County, N.C. Miller-Travis worked with colleagues there, including UCC's Director of Research Charles Lee, overlaying EPA data on the location of hazardous waste sites throughout the United States with the racial and socio-economic profiles of residents in those zip codes to demonstrate the direct correlation between the two data sets.

The landmark national study,Toxic Waste and Race in the United States of America, published in 1987, grew out of that research collaboration. "If I live to be a hundred," Miller-Travis said of the experience, "I don't think I will ever have the opportunity to work on something as significant as this report turned out to be.... We now had the data to prove that this [relationship] is not random."

Fourteen years after the 1994 Executive Order (  Download Adobe ReaderExit NIEHS (122 KB) on EJ was signed by President Bill Clinton, the agenda is still "unfinished," Miller-Travis contended, because of several persistent challenges in ensuring equal opportunity before the law. Enforcement of environmental standards continues to be uneven, and people of color continue to be treated differently in such places as Dickson County, Tenn., when government officials are forced to take action against contaminated air and water, she maintained.

In addition, regulators are prohibited from considering the "big picture" when they rule on permits for hazardous waste and other environmentally impacting activities. Miller-Travis pointed to the siting of sewage treatment plants, like the one she has fought against in Harlem, and transit centers, the so-called "bus barns" that are major sources of diesel air pollution, in minority neighborhoods that already have waste sites.

Each permit is considered in isolation from pre-existing activities, she said. While the individual activity may not exceed air and water quality standards, the synergistic "mixture" of exposures from different activities may pose a significant threat to the health of residents. Harlem, for example, has the highest asthma rates in the world, and it is no coincidence, Miller-Travis argued, that Harlem is also the site of multiple environmentally impacting activities.

For EJ Activists, the Struggle Continues

People who attended the talk by Miller-Travis took away hard copies of Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987 - 2007:Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States. The report was prepared for the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the landmark study that grew out of Miller-Travis' work in Warren County, N.C.

The report uses 2000 census data, a current national database of commercial hazardous waste facilities and Geographic Information Systems to count persons living nearby to assess nationally the extent of racial and socioeconomic disparities in facility locations. It also examines racial disparities by region and state, as well as for metropolitan areas, where most hazardous waste facilities are located.

Several NIEHS EJ grantees were involved in the report, including principal author Beverly Wright, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. In addition to a detailed history and statistical analysis, the report includes contributions by Miller-Travis, NIEHS grantee Peggy Shepard( Exit NIEHS and NIEHS Public Interest Partner and National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council member Nsedu Obot Witherspoon( Exit NIEHS, executive director of the Children's Environmental Health Network.

These activists joined the more than 100 signers of an open letter to Congress on July 20, 2007 calling for leaders to address the continuing environmental and health disparities in low-income and people of color communities. "Environmental injustice in people of color communities," they wrote, "is as much or more prevalent today than 20 years ago."

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