Medium: Toxic Tragedies Displace People and Communities
by Regina G. Jackson
The massive fire at an eastern Indiana recycling plant last week that has forced evacuation orders for more than 2,000 people is only the latest illustration of those in power’s willingness to sacrifice our communities to sustain their addiction to fossil fuels. The recycling fire comes on the heels of the freight train derailment and chemical fire in eastern Ohio, which has left thousands of people fearing for their health.
These toxic tragedies are avoidable. In the case of the derailment, many components contributed: from the plastic industry’s commitment to continue manufacturing toxic plastics like polyvinyl chloride from crude oil in the first place, to Norfolk Southern’s failure to ensure the railways were equipped with the electronic brakes that could have at least mitigated the disaster. It is also past time for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue strong Risk Management Program (RMP) rules because the plastic and railway companies have lost credibility in the realm of sustainable and just business practices.
All of these disasters also contribute to a legacy of racial and economic discrimination. Railways are frequently located in low-income communities and communities of color. The railway industry can pay for these disasters in fines, but these communities pay for them in trips to the hospital, the prisons, and even the graveyard. Toxic disasters can often have ripple effects that are felt by communities long after newscasters and politicians have left.
The increase in developmental disabilities in children in Flint, Michigan, in the years following the 2014 Water Crisis is a good example. Years of lead poisoning can contribute to behavior problems in children, which are criminalized in children of color as a part of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” These children often find themselves in the system–or maybe as hashtags in the movement against police brutality–as adults, and it could all be linked to a chemical disaster that they had absolutely no role in causing.
Today, the thousands of people who have had to evacuate their homes after these toxic tragedies must now try to rebuild their lives while fearing cancer-causing chemicals in the air. Do they send their children back to school? Do they leave their community? The acute impacts of toxic disasters are only the tip of the iceberg.