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Posted under: News Opinion

On the Dakota Access Pipeline, Alabama and environmental injustice

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In early September, the independent global news show, Democracy Now! released a disturbing video of security forces using excessive force on protesters resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

The $3.8 billion pipeline will pump oil through sites deemed sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The pipeline will also pollute the Missouri River, which provides access to water for many.

Resistance against DAPL has gained traction in recent months, making it one of the largest Native resistance movements in decades. Many across the nation have stood in solidarity with the #NODAPL activists, and Black Lives Matter released a gripping statement on why #BLM and #NODAPL are resistance movements deeply connected in their common goal of liberation:

“Black Lives Matter stands with Standing Rock. As there are many diverse manifestations of Blackness, and Black people are also displaced Indigenous peoples, we are clear that there is no Black liberation without Indigenous sovereignty. Environmental racism is not limited to pipelines on Indigenous land, because we know that the chemicals used for fracking and the materials used to build pipelines are also used in water containment and sanitation plants in Black communities like Flint, Michigan. The same companies that build pipelines are the same companies that build factories that emit carcinogenic chemicals into Black communities, leading to some of the highest rates of cancer, hysterectomies, miscarriages, and asthma in the country. Our liberation is only realized when all people are free, free to access clean water, free from institutional racism, free to live whole and healthy lives not subjected to state-sanctioned violence. America has committed and is committing genocide against Native American peoples and Black people. We are in an ongoing struggle for our lives and this struggle is shaped by the shared history between Indigenous peoples and Black people in America, connecting that stolen land and stolen labor from Black and brown people built this country.”

The outcry of support around #NODAPL arguably caused the Obama administration to attempt to halt the construction of the pipeline. However, despite Obama’s attempt, the head of the DAPL construction company announced that they are committed to the project despite federal orders.

The case was then taken to the US Court of Appeals, and as of October 17, “the appeals court ruling means the Dakota Access pipeline company can continue construction up until, but not under, the Missouri River,” meaning construction will continue on privately owned land and be halted on federally owned land, according to Democracy Now!

The news of ongoing DAPL construction comes on the heels of distressing news about a town in Alabama suffering from an eight-year-long methyl mercaptan leak.

Similar to what residents faced in Flint Michigan, citizens of Eight Mile, Alabama, a predominately black community, have faced severe health risks.

An estimated 500 gallons of methyl mercaptan have leaked into this community, leaving an unpleasant stench in the air that does much more than cause a nuisance. There have been complaints ranging from respiratory issues to a spike in seizures among children. According to the Los Angeles Times “more than 1,300 residents have filled out health assessment questionnaires describing symptoms such as nosebleeds, respiratory distress, nausea, vomiting, seizures, vision problems and hypertension.”

Environmental injustice in America must be viewed through a racial lens. According to a study on toxic waste and race, “race was by far the most prominent factor in the location of commercial hazardous-waste landfills, more prominent than household income and home values.”

Furthermore: “Across the United States, poor and minority neighborhoods bear an unequal burden from hazardous facilities and waste sites. This pattern is evident nationally as well as on the state and local level. Pollution is unequally distributed across the country; it is also distributed unequally within individual states, within counties, and within cities. Hazardous waste sites, municipal landfills, incinerators, and other hazardous facilities are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods.”

How we got here is complex. Years of racial segregation, coupled with the deregulation of corporations, left black people more likely to be subject to unsafe and unlivable environments.

Environmental injustice is what happens when you couple racism with neoliberalism. In a society that prioritizes economic output in an already seemingly endless ocean of institutionalized racism, black, native, and low-income communities of color are the first to drown. Destructive decisions that put their health, safety and livelihood at risk are made by people in positions of power that operate without accountability. Environmental injustice is arguably a slow and calculated genocide against marginalized communities.

University of California, Davis professors Lindsey Dillon and Julie Sze’s recent research expounds on the ways in which BLM is a response to both structural and environmental racism: “We suggest in this paper that the Black Lives Matter movement addresses racism in the U.S. as an embodied experience of structural, environmental insecurity...we explore this embodied insecurity through the everyday act of breathing and, specifically, the conditions through which breath is constricted or denied.”

Their research is particularly explored through the case of Eric Garner, whose death was largely blamed on his asthma. Asthma in New York disproportionately impacts black people. As does police brutality. Garner was subject to both police brutality and environmental racism, he was then blamed for his own murder because of his inability to breathe, while in a chokehold, by the personifications of the very same systems of power that did not provide him with the clean air to do so. Garner’s case is an example of how treacherous state sanctioned violence be.

Native and black communities in America are currently battling against very prominent and threatening manifestations of oppression. Not only are opportunities to thrive being gate-kept, but the actual ability to breathe is being robbed from communities who deserve health and wellness.

Donate to the #NODAPL legal defense fund, and spread information about the Eight Mile, Alabama case.

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Blavity Staff Writer