Environmental Injustice in the District
By Artisha Naidu
Importance of Environmental Justice
With the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, the nation has shifted much needed attention towards issues of racism and racial injustice. The two are systematically engrained into all sectors, including environmental. Countless studies have revealed the impacts of harmful discriminatory environmental policies that constantly plague communities of color. DC is no exception to this trend, environmental racism and injustice, byproducts of larger systems of racism and racial injustice, have damaged minorities and minority communities in the region for decades. Addressing and combatting environmental injustice in DC is imperative to rectifying racism that communities of color continue to experience. It is also important to advancing the quest for a clean and healthy environment. Read more about the importance of environmental justice here.
Environmental Racism in DC
Environmental racism has been prevalent in DC since the first European settlements. In the early 1600s, settlers seized land surrounding the Anacostia River from Native Americans to later develop into a tobacco plantation. After two centuries of growing tobacco using slave labor, the land was exhausted from intensive farming. In addition to pollution into the river from deforested land, industrial and military activity increased to further increase contamination. Since then, environmental racism against minority communities has only worsened. Modern-day segregation intensifies environmental racism in the District. Black-white racial segregation in DC was ranked the 6th worst in the nation in 2015. While the Black population has steadily decreased in DC over the past 50 years, racial concentrations have become more apparent. Wards 7 and 8 are the extremes of this trend with populations over 92% Black. Communities of color are often subjected to environmental injustice because they are the least likely to speak out against it. These communities usually lack access to legal information about their rights as well as connections to legislative decision-makers, such as those on zoning boards, that could protect their interests. Such blatant racism creates an atmosphere for environmental racism to run rampant.
DC’s predominately Black neighborhoods are extremely likely to experience environmental racism. For instance, the largest trash transfer stations are located in Ward 5’s minority communities. Residents not only have to deal with its stench and disease-carrying rodents, but transfer stations are also a source of airborne mercury pollution from trash such as broken light bulbs, medical waste, and batteries. The Anacostia River that surrounds Wards 7 and 8 is full of fecal bacteria, toxics, trash which increases risk of disease. In the late 1960s, a special governance structure was created to clean the Potomac River, which runs through wealthier areas, but no similar effort was made for the Anacostia. Furthermore, climate modeling suggests that Wards 7 and 8 are more vulnerable to heat waves, flooding, and storms. Although this is in part due to topography, these areas are more vulnerable because residents do not have access to personal transport, healthy food, and other services to respond to environmental crisis. Here are other cases of environmental racism in DC.
What You Can Do
Environmental racism, and other byproducts of systemic racism, are prevalent in and out of DC. The time for action is now. Listed below are a few actionable steps you can take to impact environmental justice.
Talk about it – Bring up issues of environmental racism and injustice to your supervisors, peers, family, friends, and anyone else. Educating others will not only widen the reach of environmental racism’s platform, but also inspire others to take action against it.
Join the movement – The Environmental Justice Network, DC Climate Coalition, and Sierra Club are some organizations that are addressing environmental injustice locally. Join the movement to clean up the Anacostia. Here is a list of resource organizations combating environmental racism throughout the country.
Engage with local government officials – DC is holding general elections for Council Wards (at-large, 2, 4, 7, and 8), House Representative, Shadow Senator, and Shadow Representative on November 3, 2020. Call or write to candidates and elected officials to urge them to prioritize environmental justice in DC (tips for writing letters).
Here are additional ways to support the environmental justice movement.
Artisha Naidu is an incoming Government and Public Sector Consultant with Deloitte LLC. She has an extensive background in energy, environmental sustainability, and urban policy. In her spare time, Artisha is launching the Girls’ Leadership Apprenticeship and Mentorship (GLAM) Program, which provides workforce development to high school girls in Ward 8 of D.C. She also tutors youth from disadvantaged communities and is a Community Outreach Coordinator for IMPACT Now.
 Wiener, Aaron. “D.C. Is One of the Most Segregated Cities in America.” Washington City Paper, 2015, www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/13124668/d-c-is-one-of-the-most-segregated-cities-in-america.
 March 17, 2016 Renee Skelton and Vernice Miller. “The Environmental Justice Movement.” NRDC, 2 June 2020, www.nrdc.org/stories/environmental-justice-movement.