Commission, Activists Aim to Improve Environmental Justice in Maryland

It’s a straightforward concept but covers a long and hefty list of issues.

Environmental justice is defined simply as the right of all people – regardless of race, color, national origin or income – to enjoy equal levels of environmental protection. But consider the range of conditions that can undermine that equality: industrial facilities that damage air quality and ground water for surrounding communities, traffic congestion that fills a region with high levels of exhaust, neglected infrastructure in poor communities that subjects residents to lead pipes or substandard water filtration, and the list goes on.

Camille Burke, Chair of Maryland’s Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities (CEJSC), acknowledges that comprehending the nature of environmental justice issues in the state and finding ways to address them is a huge undertaking.

“The commission has been given an incredibly broad mission and, to be honest, it has taken us a year to find our way,” Burke said.

CEJSC has been tasked with advising state government agencies on environmental justice issues and assessing the effectiveness of state and local laws in supporting environmental justice and sustainable communities. Through its first year of work, commission members realized they could only deliver on that mission by spending more time connecting with residents across the state and “finding out what environmental justice means in each community and trying not to define environmental justice for those communities,” Burke said. “The people of Maryland are really intelligent and feisty. They are opinionated and very clear, and will tell you what they need. We should listen to them.”

Burke raises the example of her trip to the Eastern Shore last autumn. At the urging of community members, Burke and senior officials from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) set out to gather more first-hand knowledge of the issues created by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

“It was a hot, humid day and I had never smelled anything like what I smelled standing downwind from a CAFO that day,” she said. “We stood in a field with chicken feathers flying and we talked to community members about what it is like living next to a CAFO. It was an incredibly sobering experience.”

The commission’s work to date has touched on numerous other issues. Those include the need to remove lead pipes from infrastructure and housing, plant more trees in under-treed communities to improve air quality and reduce heat island effect, address low-quality housing stock that subjects some Maryland residents to unhealthy conditions, and alter permitting practices that overburden some communities with industrial facilities that lower air quality and drive up rates of asthma and other diseases. In Maryland, like other places, those issues occur almost entirely in low-income and minority communities.

In partnership with MDE and other organizations, CEJSC is working to build environmental profiles of every community across Maryland and to identify legislative priorities and government efforts that would produce a better understanding of “overburdened, underserved and vulnerable” communities and how to address their environmental justice issues.

To accomplish that, “we desperately need more input from other areas of Maryland – Western Maryland communities, the farming community, young activists and others,” Burke said.

Meanwhile, various communities and organizations around Maryland are actively working on select environmental justice issues.

Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, has focused on two issues at the intersection of environmental justice and the energy sector.

“In recent years, it has become clearer that there is a systemic problem with burning fossil fuels inside your home,” Makhijani said.

Portable kerosene heaters and appliances which use natural gas or propane for cooking or heating, pump “an alphabet soup of pollutants” into indoor air, Makhijani said. One study of Baltimore City homes using natural gas for cooking by Johns Hopkins University found high nitrogen dioxide levels, “in many cases higher than outdoor air standards allow. One aspect of this systemic, environmental injustice is that we have no indoor air quality standards. There is a huge intersection between unaffordable energy bills [which prompt some people to use gas stoves to heat their homes], indoor air quality and poor health. A lot of the consequences of that indoor air quality of are borne by women who become pregnant. They experience higher risk of problems like pre-term births and asthma among children.”

Solving that problem, however, requires bold action. Makhijani, who working with the staff of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Health Energy, completed a study for the state of Colorado that compared the cost of resolving the state’s energy affordability problem (a leading cause nationwide of people losing their homes) by either providing financial aid to low-income earners or by lowering their energy expenses by retrofitting their homes with energy efficiency measures, efficient electric heating systems, smart grid capabilities, and community solar. The study concluded that the home retrofits would cost $1.5 billion less over a 20-year period, to resolve the energy insecurity problems, in addition to providing residents with healthier environments. The same team is is now doing a similar study in Maryland due to be completed in early 2023.

Makhijani’s second energy-related environmental justice issue is transportation. Policy decisions about transportation projects, public transit and the migration to emissions-free vehicles are typically made by “middle- and upper-class people who are not thinking from the rural point of view or the low-income point of view,” he said.

Consequently, policy makers have not given adequate attention to initiatives that could improve economic equality, environmental justice and the switch to clean transportation, he said. Those include making public transit free, expanding public transit in rural areas and changing the way we incentivize electric vehicle adoption.

“We should not be subsidizing the purchase of private electric cars, except in very specific circumstances,” he said.

Most Tesla buyers don’t need the subsidy and subsidies for private EVs which typically drive 10,000 to 15,000 miles per year, don’t result in large emissions reductions, he added.

Instead, governments should incentivize the conversion of transport trucks which drive many miles and often through low-income and minority communities, such as some neighborhoods near the Port of Baltimore, Makhijani said. “We should also give priority to the conversion of public transit, delivery vehicles and passenger vehicles that are used as taxies or Uber or Lyft cars.”