The first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice was held on Friday night in South Carolina. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and former EPA official Mustafa Ali co-moderated the event.
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney and Joe Sestak took part in the forum at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.
The forum — hosted by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and leaders from frontline and tribal communities, civil rights, youth and environmental organizations — included discussion on how presidential hopefuls intend to manage the impacts of the climate crisis on the communities most affected.
AMY GOODMAN: From South Carolina State University here in Orangeburg, this is the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice. I’m Amy Goodman, host of the Democracy Now! news hour. I’ll be co-moderating tonight’s event with Mustafa Santiago Ali, the vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, former official with the Environmental Protection Agency. All candidates were invited to participate tonight. Those presidential candidates who accepted will be speaking tonight in order: Tom Steyer, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, John Delaney, Joe Sestak and Marianne Williamson. But first we’re going to hear from the president of the university and environmental justice activists from around the country.
But before we go to them, I want to ask my co-moderator, Mustafa Ali, what does environmental justice mean to you? You’ve been an activist in this area for decades. Environmental justice and environmental racism?
MUSTAFA ALI: Environmental justice is the disproportionate impacts that continue to happen in our communities. The things that no one else wants, they place them in communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous lands. They become the sacrifice zones, the sacrifice zones for coal-fired power plants, for certified animal feeding operations, for waste treatment facilities, for unhealthy housing where we find lead and so many other impacts that are happening. So, in essence, the environmental injustices that continue to happen are happening to people of color and low-income communities.
AMY GOODMAN: And these are the issues we’re going to explore tonight with six presidential candidates. But before we do, I want to introduce our host for tonight, Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter. She’s president of the NBCSL. That’s the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. She’s the first African-American woman to represent Orangeburg in the South Carolina Legislature. Representative Cobb-Hunter, the floor is yours.
REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Thank you, Amy. Thank you so much. OK, guys, that’s enough. Y’all are going to make me think I’m special. You’ve heard enough from me just welcoming. Thanks for being here. I want to introduce the president of this fine institution, to bring greetings and welcome you to Bulldog Country. Please join me in welcoming the president of South Carolina State University, Mr. James Clark. Mr. President?
JAMES CLARK: Good afternoon.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.
JAMES CLARK: Once again, good afternoon.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.
JAMES CLARK: Welcome to the 2019 Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice, and welcome to the campus of South Carolina State University. Founded in 1896, South Carolina State University is one of only two land-grant institutions here in the state of South Carolina and is the state’s only publicly supported HBCU. You are at an institution that develops leaders — leaders in politics, as exemplified by our loyal son and majority whip, Congressman James E. Clyburn; leaders in engineering, as exemplified by the South Carolina State having the state’s only undergraduate nuclear engineering program amongst its many wonderful engineering offerings; leaders in science, as exemplified by our joint initiative with MUSC, and cancer research, focused especially on the disparities found amongst African-American males in this region; leaders in athletics, as exemplified by the fact that, until very recently, South Carolina State was the only institution in the state with anyone in the NFL Hall of Fame, the NFL Football Hall of Fame — and we had not one, not two, but three; leaders in education, as exemplified by the fact that a significant portion of the educators in this state, be they teachers, principals or superintendents, got their degrees right here on these very grounds, grounds where one can go from three to Ph.D. in education right in one location; leaders in the military, as exemplified by the fact that only West Point has produced more African-American generals or flag officers, with 26, and we’re at 22 and gaining on West Point.
This proud institution has a legacy of understanding, having an understanding of and being responsive to the needs, concerns and the issues of its community. So it is only proper that this forum, and that a forum on environmental justice, something that affects us all, but our communities disproportionately, is being held on the grounds of this great institution. So, again, I say welcome to South Carolina State University, and welcome to the 2019 Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice. Thank you.
REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Thank you so much, Mr. President. Great job. At this point, before we start hearing our candidates, we thought it important that you hear from people who are actually on the ground working on this issue, not just talking about it. We are pleased to bring you five activists, frontline community workers, who are going to take two minutes each to share their stories. They will appear in this order: Harold Mitchell, ReGenesis in Spartanburg; Richard Moore, Los Jardines Institute; Sofía Martínez, Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound; Dr. Mildred McClain, Harambee; and Michele Roberts, Environmental Justice Health Alliance. And we’re going to ask all to come in that order, please. Mr. Mitchell?
HAROLD MITCHELL: Good evening. I want to first thank President Cobb-Hunter and her leadership and the sponsors for hosting this event, this historic event, on environmental justice, and the presidential candidates who saw it was serious enough to show up tonight at this event.
As a 26-year veteran of environmental justice and grassroots organizing in Spartanburg, South Carolina, I grew up in a toxic suit, a community with two Superfund sites, four brownfield sites around our house. With that, we were able to take residents from the community and revitalize this community as serious stakeholders at the table. We took a $20,000 small grant, leveraged it into $270 million, provided healthcare, housing, amongst other things, job training, transportation, and we’re now moving into a renewable energy stage, where we’re converting the landfill into a solar farm and creating aquaponics for the community itself. This came about in a collaborative effort. This is one that has to continue to happen around the country with organizations like NBCSL and other leaders within the community, because what we don’t want to do in the environmental justice community is to become — as the phrase says, we do not want to be on the menu, but we want to be stakeholders at the table.
RICHARD MOORE: Good evening, sisters and brothers. My name is Richard Moore. I’m with Los Jardines Institute, the Gardens Institute, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I just wanted to say, in regards to these brief comments, it’s an honor to be back in the beautiful state of South Carolina. And we appreciate all of the work that organizations — community-based organizations and student organizations and students and so on.
First of all, just to remind ourselves a little bit of the history, there’s hundreds upon hundreds — and I think it was identified, over a thousand environmental and economic justice organizations not only in the southeastern part of the United States, but throughout this country. That’s very, very important for us to keep in mind as we have this dialogue this evening.
I think, second of all, as a reminder, we’ll remind ourselves that many of those organizations convened the first National People of Color Leadership Summit in 1991 in Washington, D.C., where over a thousand of us came together and redefined environmentalism and conservationism as where we work, where we live, where we play, where we pray and where we go to school or where we learn. I think, additionally, coming out of that and redefining environmentalism, then, based upon that, the principles of environmental justice were established in Washington, D.C. And so, out of that convening then, as we say then, environmental and economic justice as a relationship to climate change, the issues that are being impacted in our communities were reput back on the table. So there’s a lot of history there. In New Mexico, we’re faced with many of the same situations and the issues that we visited here in South Carolina on several of our trips and so on.
I would just highly encourage you, lastly, those that are here that don’t understand our history and the connection between civil rights and environmental and economic justice and the intersection of environmental racism and environmental genocide — the intentional targeting of communities of color, Native indigenous communities and others for any thing that others do not want in their community. So, I thank you very much for allowing us the opportunity to speak with you this evening, and we’re looking forward to the forum. Thank you very much.
SOFÍA MARTÍNEZ: Good evening. My name is Sofía Martínez. I’m from Wagon Mound, New Mexico, although I also live in Albuquerque. I want to thank the folks that worked on organizing this environmental justice forum for the presidential candidates tonight, and I also want to thank those presidential candidates that showed up.
Environmental justice is about justice. It is the paradigm shift of environmentalism. Environmental justice is — hold a minute here. Environmental justice is not merely the places that we preserve, conserve and go to recreate. It is where we live, play, pray and go to school. It is this definition that was developed by a collective of racially, economically, gender and sexually diverse grassroots peoples that launched the EJ movement. Environmental justice is place-based health impacts. It is climate justice. It is economic justice. It is reproductive justice. It is about continuing our struggle for justice for all poor and people of color.
I come from New Mexico, a rural state that has continued to be the neocolony of the United States, regardless of who is in power. Our natural resources have been and continue to be used as a cheap supply of raw materials, weapons development and cheap labor. And we have the Superfund sites and the health issues to prove it. We are host to Los Alamos and Sandia labs, second only to Livermore labs in California in terms of military weapons development, including weapons of mass destruction, weapons that have poisoned indigenous nations in the uranium belt of New Mexico, weapons that only the United States has dropped on human populations, weapons that have poisoned the population in New Mexico with newborn babies showing toxins from the nuclear chain, weapons’ hazardous waste that is taken back to New Mexico , the only hazardous dump in this country — the Waste Isolation Project, or WIPP. We continue to be one of the poorest states in the nation. People of color, indigenous folks and the very county that I am from are in competition with predominantly black states for which is the poorest.
The lesson here is that we need to come together as poor, indigenous and people of color to challenge our continued minimum-wage labor and support not only the 1% — that supports not only the 1%, but that liberal 25% that with the 1% consumes 75 to 80% of the world’s resources. We must demand protection of the natural resources, a free, nonracist education, forgiveness of student loans, a level minimum wage that recognizes those that have built this country. It is not Facebook, Google or the liberals that come to our state and our communities to “protect” and “help” us. You must stop building your reputations, résumés and careers on our poverty and contamination. We will not let your New Green Deal be just the same old deal.
Today, as I speak, a nuclear summit is taking place in New Mexico. Activists from the United States, Japan and other countries will come together tonight to build power to challenge liberal contentions that nuclear is clean. It is as dirty as the politics we see on television each day from the White House. And like the rollback of environmental protections, that will plague us for decades, hazardous waste will haunt us for hundreds of years, just as climate change will eliminate life as we know it. In 1972, polluting facilities paid for research to identify where might be the easiest place to site polluting facilities. The result, the Sarel [phon.] report, suggested regions that were poor, with little education, rural, little news circulation, bilingual and Catholic, among other characteristics. This is why we, as poor white and people of color, must come together to continue this type of forum and to continue to challenge our marginalization by some politicians. We also know that they are not all white. Workers unite. We shall overcome.
MILDRED McCLAIN: We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. But most of all, we are sick of dying from being exposed to pollutants that come out of industries and factories and manufacturers who care nothing about us as people. They only care about profits. We are victims of environmental racism, and we demand environmental reparations. We are community people. We are families, we are sisters and brothers, we are aunts and uncles, who are concerned about our children’s future. “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired” has been the battle cry of the environmental justice communities from the time that we started, and it should always be, until we establish policies that will promote justice and equity and will eliminate inequities in our health system. Our health is our wealth. And without health, what can you do?
We call upon all of our young people, our elders, our children, our academicians, our scholars, our researchers, our scientists, our mothers and fathers to join hands in the name of our organization, which is Harambee. Harambee means let’s pull together. And without pulling together, we will not be able to dismantle this machine that keeps moving and moving and moving in denial that there is environmental injustice. So, tonight, as the candidates come before you, our question becomes: How will each of you, if elected, engage you, the public, engage the impacted communities, engage the frontline and the fenceline communities, and those community-based organizations who have for the last 30 years worked on an environmental equity and just platform that addresses indeed climate justice?
I woke up one morning in 1991, and the headlines in the Savannah Morning News was 20,000 picacuries of tritium leaked from the Savannah River site, which is located in Aiken, South Carolina. But the water tributaries end in the Savannah River in my neighborhood, in the plantation where I live, where a small community of 300 or 400 people are right at the mouth of the river, and they’re right in a donut of 17 polluting industries. These are moms and pops who go to work every day. So, environmental justice addresses a myriad of issues. But I don’t want you to forget that nuclear weapons facility right here in South Carolina, because it is a part of a national complex that is run by the Department of Energy.
Through our work, we were able to help the department develop an environmental justice program. But that’s not enough. That’s not enough. What’s going to be required of us is that for everyone who’s sitting in this audience to become an activist, an advocate and a mover and a shaker, a mover and a shaker to shake up what already is, to replace a new vision, a new agenda, that looks at all of us as creations of the creator. And as such, we have a human right to clean air, clean water, clean land and healthy bodies. So I challenge each one of you, and those of you who are looking and listening and recording, to go out and bring somebody else into the environmental justice movement. Remember, environmental justice is climate justice. Climate justice is environmental justice. And one day we want to say, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, Mother Earth is free at last!” Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mildred McClain, co-founder and currently serving as the executive director of the Harambee House / Citizens for Environmental Justice. That’s right, people on the frontlines of the climate crisis today from all over the country. We are now going to the final activist.
MICHELE ROBERTS: My name is Michele Roberts. I’m the national co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. I want to thank you, South Carolina NBCSL and all others who put significant work into this process. I am a proud graduate of an HBCU, Morgan State University. And at Morgan State University, I became a trained scientist. You know there’s no blacks in science. But HBCUs produce the best and the brightest.
The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform is a collective of what we call legacy fenceline, frontline groups. You know the ones — People Concerned About Chemical Safety; Mossville, Louisiana; Wilmington, Delaware, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, where I am originally from; Los Jardines Institute, who you heard; and many more. Our communities — and let me not forget West County Toxics, Dr. Henry Clark, Alaska Community Action Against Toxics. Our communities are legacy communities that have been harmed by centuries of racism, colonization and economic injustice and exploitation. We are part of the change, that we hold the solutions that are necessary to make effective change in this country. The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, EJHA, as we call ourselves, we provide the capacity support for our communities, from that of building capacity to that of supporting with technical assistance and the solutions that’s necessary to make effective change in this country. And as a result, as you heard all of the other speakers before me, we are sick and tired of sick and tired of being hurt, sick, dying. I just left my father’s hospital room from early this morning, where he, Leslie R. Roberts, and thanks be to God, is better this week. But my father said we must stand against this racism.
And so, as a result, as you heard Richard say, Richard Moore, in 1991, the first People of Color Summit brought thousands of people to Washington, D.C., and redefined environmentalism and conservationism. Well, we’re proud to say, 28 years later, we took the national groups to task, national groups that included environmental and advocacy, legal advocacy groups. And now we have created what’s called the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. The necessary point of that is that we must go beyond that of the carbon-centric, market-based conversations that we’ve been so consumed in that will not take care of our people. We must be about addressing cumulative impacts of all those impacts that span back 400-plus years, and bring it into the forefront of addressing how we have mandatory emissions reductions, not that just of the carbon-centric conversation that we are caught up in.
We are asking our brilliant students here to be part of this process and to help us move this initiative. It is high time that we take the principled integrity and solutions that our communities have been asking for, for over and over and over and over again. You see the 17 principles in the environmental justice principles. Our vision for a just climate future includes a healthy climate, air quality for all, access to reliable, affordable sustainability, electricity, water and transportation for every community, an inclusive, just and pollution-free energy economy with high-quality jobs, safe, healthy communities and infrastructure. And guess who should be at the front of that line: our communities.
Enough is enough. It is time for a change. We are standing here for an equitable and just climate future for all, where no community is left behind. We thank everyone who showed up. And for those who didn’t, catch up, because now is the time for us to change this narrative. It is time. It is time. It is time. Will you join us? Thank you very much, South Carolina. Right on, and power to the people!
[Partial transcript. More to follow]