Las Vegas Sun

December 17, 2017

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Why clean energy is a civil rights issue

Speakers at Latin Conservation Week raise awareness of environmental justice

Erika Castro, a Dreamer who grew up in Las Vegas, is a community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Erika Castro, a Dreamer who grew up in Las Vegas, is a community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

When it comes to discussing equity and justice in environmental protections, communities of color have much to lose. That’s why organizations throughout Southern Nevada are making sure they have a voice when it comes to discussing such issues.

“When we see that 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant and 80 percent of Latinos live in neighborhoods that fail to meet air-quality standards, we know it is not just bad luck but environmental racism,” said Erika Castro, the senior organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, citing statistics from a 2011 study by the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “Asthma attacks send African-Americans to emergency rooms at three times the rate of white children. African-American children also are 10 times more likely to die from an asthma attack than white children. These statistics show that front-line communities are being unfairly affected by environmental issues.”

On July 19, PLAN teamed with the Sierra Club, an environmental protection organization, to host a panel discussion during Latino Conservation Week as a way to talk with the community about environmental justice and how proposed federal rollbacks to the Environmental Protection Agency could be harmful.

“We have to see how much we can push back and create a better future,” Castro said.

Environmental justice isn’t a new concept.

The EPA established an office for environmental justice in the 1990s to ensure fair treatment through policies and regulations regardless of race or national origin.

Ever since, its focus and power has fluctuated depending on the president.

But with the Trump administration proposing to cut funding to the EPA by about 30 percent, that office could be eliminated or at least drastically cut. Beyond that, Castro said slashing the EPA’s budget could jeopardize the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

With or without federal protections, organizations are working to fight for people of color.

Many conservation and environmental groups have created campaigns to address the needs specific to these communities. The League of Conservation Voters, which set up a booth at the event, created the Chispa program that looks specifically at how Latino communities are disproportionately exposed to pollutants and toxins.

Along with discussing issues on a national level, PLAN and the Sierra Club talked about the local impact.

To better understand the concerns of Nevadans, PLAN released its Environmental Justice Report, in which it interviewed residents from Las Vegas, Reno, Silver City, Duckwater, the Washoe Tribe and the Moapa River Indian Reservation.

“They are sharing their stories on what they’re dealing with and what they are seeing in their communities because of coal plants or nuclear test sites,” Castro said. “(PLAN did the report) to really tackle what environmental justice means to our communities. Environmentally hazardous projects often are placed in marginalized communities.”

She added that those communities didn’t have the same political power as corporations or wealthy industries and often couldn’t fight such projects.

“That means they also have less resources to cope with environmental changes,” she said.

Strides have been made.

Ana Boyd, an organizer with the Beyond Coal campaign from the Sierra Club, talked about how the organization has tackled the use of coal plants.

Nationally, the group has helped shut down 250 plants, one of which was the Reid Gardner Station 50 miles from Las Vegas.

“It burned its last piece of coal,” Boyd said. “It was really causing terrible health impacts to the surrounding Moapa reservation, from soot to air pollution.”

The organization is working toward an earlier shutdown of the North Valmy Generating Station, which is scheduled for retirement in 2025.

While conducting interviews for PLAN’s Environmental Justice Report, Castro said pollution from coal plants was on the list of concerns residents faced.

Boyd added it went beyond just transitioning to clean energy.

“It’s not just about shutting down coal plants,” she said. “It’s about making sure we enable a just and equitable transition to renewable energy and that the people in Las Vegas and throughout Nevada are engaged in making sure the clean energy and jobs created from it go to the communities that need it most.”

Some of the panelists talked about changing the way communities of color are approached when talking about the environment.

Vernard Williams

Vernard Williams

“A lot of times, people come into our communities to tell us how we should feel,” said Vernard Williams, one of the panelists. “They don’t really talk to us. They don’t really speak to us to find out what’s bothering us.”

He added that when people talked about the environment or climate change, they often threw out a bunch of facts and figures.

“But this is a human issue,” Williams said. “This is a civil rights issue.”

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