Posted by: NCC Poverty Initiative Director | December 8, 2011

Environmental Justice and Loving Neighbors as Ourselves

This blog post is featured from the Presbyterians for Earth Care Advent devotional. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I hope you do! There are some wonderful reflections on caring for God’s Creation and God’s people in the series.

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“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: „You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NRSV)

I saw a lone fir tree last week, looking like it was ready to be decorated for the Christmas season. But it is not. It is planted in soil covering a cement cap that shields soil so contaminated by dioxin, it could not be remediated. This is the former manufacturing home of DDT and Agent Orange.

I saw this on a tour of the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ, named because it developed inside the railroad tracks crossing the city. Today the majority of the population is African American, Latino and foreign born, moderate to low income, and approximately 75% of the population has less than a high school education. People who don’t live there know this section as having the best Portuguese restaurants in the state, yet it is a food desert. On this tour, what I saw was environmental racism. This is not the reflection of a person who has experienced the injustice in this community, but of a white, middle-class person who toured it one day and saw circumstances that would not be tolerated in my neighborhood.

What I saw is a community that suffers from the cumulative impacts of multiple injustices:

  • The dioxin-laden site, along with other pollutants from numerous old industrial sites, contaminated a 13 mile stretch of the Passaic River. In many neighborhoods, the rivers play a large part in the community, this river does not. The Ironbound abuts Newark Airport and is surrounded by five major New Jersey highways – its air is polluted by emissions and noise.
  • Port Newark is also adjacent to the Ironbound and 7,000 trucks regularly service the port. Trucks idle for hours at the port waiting to load cargo and drive through the Ironbound. Community members did a truck count once for 2 hours at 6 intersections and counted over 2,000 trucks.
  • Port Newark is also a visual reminder of the US trade deficit, with towering piles of empty shipping containers (a visual eyesore as well).
  • There is a lack of recreational opportunities – not many parks, others closed because of contamination. One chemical company, as part of restitution, built a recreational center. The pool had to be suspended above ground because of the contamination in the soil at that location. Covanta operates the largest incinerator in the state here (over half of the trash comes from New York City). And the air scrubbing equipment is not as advanced as the other installations in the state.

In this season of anticipation of the birth of Jesus, I am drawn to his commandments. If we love God, we need to love all of God’s creation. Can we do this and tolerate multiple injustices to the earth in one place? Can we love our neighbor and tolerate multiple injustices to our neighbor’s community?

But in this season of hope –I saw great hope. The Ironbound Community Corporation is very engaged in helping residents organize and advocate to remediate the current problems, and prevent further cumulative impacts. They provide awareness tours. They advocated keeping a medical waste facility from being built. They are involved with the planning process for the restoration of the river banks. They are saving the few parks they have.
In this season of anticipation of the birth of Jesus, I am drawn to his commandments. If we love God, we need to love all of God’s creation. Can we do this and tolerate multiple injustices to the earth in one place? Can we love our neighbor and tolerate multiple injustices to our neighbor’s community?

What can we do?

  • Always respect a community suffering from environmental injustice and how they are working to make their situation better.
  • Provide support by writing letters and standing with the community when asked.
  • When you throw out your trash, think about how to create less going to incinerators.

More Information:

Read the Environmental Justice Principles:
http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html

Look at the web to see if your state posts DEP environmental mapping tools. Read the Executive Summary of the United Church of Christ’s report on Toxic Waste and Race:
http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/2007%20UCC%20Executive% 20Summary.pdf

Prayer:
Gracious God, in this season of anticipation and hope, care for those who are impacted by environmental injustice; keep them safe from further injustices; give them strength in their work for justice. Open the eyes of the unaware. Help us all to tend your wondrous creation, working towards a healthy earth that will lift everyone. Amen

Sue Smith is the Treasurer of Presbyterians for Earth Care, a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson, NJ, a GreenFaith Fellow, and a student at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy of the author.

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