Webinar Recap: Environmental Justice and Public Health Implications of Extreme Weather and Toxic Chemicals

Darya Minovi

Oct. 28, 2020

If you want to know what the world will look like as the climate crisis ramps up, you don't need a crystal ball. In fact, you need look no further than the past few months of 2020. Western states are fighting record-breaking wildfires, major flooding has plagued the Midwest, and we are in the midst of a historic hurricane season. This year marked the second time in history that the National Hurricane Center ran out of “human names” for tropical storms. They are now using the Greek alphabet, with Hurricane Zeta currently on its way to the Gulf Coast.

On October 20, CPR convened a group of researchers, advocates, and community organizers to discuss how the increasing frequency of extreme weather may impact coastal communities, especially those near hazardous industrial facilities vulnerable to damage. In the event of a power outage or flood, for example, these facilities could release toxic waste and chemicals that harm public health, causing acute health conditions or contributing to chronic pollution exposure. In more extreme circumstances, stored materials can explode, as we saw happen during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 at the Arkema chemical plant. The explosion and resulting fire injured at least 21 people and required evacuations of more than 200.

The webinar – the second in a three-part series on toxic floodwaters – focused on collaborative efforts by environmental justice advocates and researchers in New York to build climate resilience, especially in New York City’s coastal industrial areas. The speakers included Rebecca Bratspies, Jalisa Gilmore, Shahela Begum, and Ramya Chari.

Bratspies, a CPR Member Scholar and Professor at the CUNY School of Law, kicked off the discussion by providing an overview of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), one of the major federal laws that aims to improve preparedness for and reporting of chemical disasters. According to Bratspies, New York City is required to make available to the public an inventory of facilities storing hazardous substances. Unfortunately, the city has largely failed to notify the public of this information and does not meaningfully include affected community members in disaster planning. In her words, “we’ve got ‘EP’ but not ‘CRA.’”

In the wake of failed enforcement, coastal communities in New York City have grown increasingly concerned about sea level rise and the impacts of extreme weather. This was made especially clear in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy caused catastrophic flooding in New York and New Jersey. Gilmore, a Research Analyst at NYC-Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA) – a network representing grassroots environmental justice organizations across the city – spoke about the Waterfront Justice Project. The project, launched in 2010, was part of a campaign to reform the city’s Significant Maritime Industrial Areas, or SMIAs, which are coastal zones designed to cluster heavy industrial uses. As shown in this interactive map developed by NYC-EJA, there are seven SMIAs in the city, and six are in storm surge zones. These six zones are also home to a higher proportion of low-income communities of color, presenting significant environmental justice concerns.

One of the SMIAs is in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where according to Begum, a Climate Justice Resilience Coordinator at UPROSE, some 90 auto shops house or use toxic chemicals. In 2012, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, advocates and researchers from UPROSE, NYC-EJA, RAND Corporation, and The LifeLine Group came together to form Grassroots Research to Action in Sunset Park (GRASP). The partnership was forged to understand the hazards faced by recovery workers who may be exposed to toxic chemicals. UPROSE surveyed the auto shop owners to understand perceptions around sea level rise and with the other GRASP partners developed a community inventory of the chemicals stored in the shops, identifying more than 2,000 source points and 800 unique chemical hazards. Their hope is to create a toolkit that will help these shops better prepare for future extreme weather events.

The GRASP partners also conducted environmental modeling and developed exposure profiles of community cleanup and recovery workers and found that simple protective measures like wearing masks and impermeable gloves could help reduce hazardous exposures by up to 50 percent. One of the most important outcomes according to Chari, a Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation, was a framework for community-based environmental monitoring after climate-related disasters. Chari and her GRASP colleagues published their framework in Environmental Justice, outlining six steps for a successful community-research collaboration.

For those who are interested in pursuing community-based research, Chari suggests learning about the community you wish to engage with, being patient and building trust, considering procedural justice in your project, and remembering that humility is key. Gilmore added that research partnerships must reflect the needs of the community and recognize that community members bring valuable expertise.

To conclude the discussion, Bratspies shared that she is cautiously optimistic that recent policy wins, including New York City’s environmental justice laws and the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, will help advance environmental justice priorities in the city and state, especially because they emerged out of grassroots advocacy.

To hear the full discussion, you can watch the webinar recording on YouTube or below.

The third and final installment of CPR’s toxic floodwaters webinar series will be on November 18 and will focus on novel litigation and regulatory strategies to prevent climate-related chemical disasters. Watch for registration information on our website, or sign up to receive updates on upcoming webinars.

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Webinar Recap: Environmental Justice and Public Health Implications of Extreme Weather and Toxic Chemicals