‘Environmental justice’ an emerging topic in Rockies | VailDaily.com

‘Environmental justice’ an emerging topic in Rockies

Bob Berwyn

COLORADO SPRINGS – Low income and minority neighborhoods in the Rocky Mountain region’s urban areas are faced with a disproportionate share of environmental risks, according to the State of the Rockies report issued by Colorado College last week.”We found striking patterns of what we call environmental goods and bads,” said student researcher Angela Banfill, releasing the results of an “environmental justice” scorecard at a conference in Colorado Springs. Environmental justice is based on the idea that people of every race, ethnicity and income group deserve equal rights to clean air, water and land.Focusing on urban areas like Denver, Pueblo, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, the student researchers tried to outline the presence and magnitude of environmental inequities in the region by combining U.S. Census data with the U.S. Environmental Report’s annual toxic release inventory. The results are striking, showing that In five of Colorado’s metropolitan areas, the poor and minorities are more likely to live closest to polluted air, polluted water and nuclear radiation.”There’s a real need to consider environmental justice in the region,” Banfill said. People living near toxic pollution sources earn 14 percent less income (or about $3,000 less per capita) than residents of “clean” areas, she said. The breakdown by ethnicity is equally distinct. There are 4 percent more non-whites, and 6 percent more Hispanics living in areas near toxic pollution sources than those living near non-polluted areas, she said. In Colorado Springs, 26 percent of residents living closest to toxic areas are non-white, compared to 19 percent of those living closest to clean areas, with similar numbers in Denver.Other investigations have shown similar results, said University of Colorado researcher Liam Downey, who presented data from his own studies at the conference. “National data show blacks are most burdened,” Downey said.Both researchers made it clear that the data doesn’t show that all those residents are being exposed to toxic releases, but only that the proximity implies the potential for that exposure.Mountain inequities?The Colorado College and University of Colorado research focused mostly on urban areas, and both Downey and Banfill said there is not a lot of solid information on environmental justice when it comes to the region’s more rural reaches, including mountain resort communities in the High Country.”It’s not going to be like urban areas. It’s going to be a sort of reverse situation, not necessarily related to heath issues,” Banfill said. Instead, the question of environmental justice in mountain resort areas like Eagle County relates to the unequal distribution of environmental benefits. In other words, do minority and low-income residents of the High Country share equally in the wealth of the environmental blessings?Banfill mentioned the possibility of low-income and minority populations living in sub-standard housing, with a potential risk of exposure to environmental hazards, such as trailer parks in floodplains or affordable housing developments on land that is environmentally degraded in some way.”It’s a much more subtle, less tangible issue here,” said Carly Wier, director of the High Country Conservation Center. “But it’s something we should consider as we plan new development and affordable housing. Certainly, the gentrification of our communities should be a red flag.”While the concept of environmental justice calls forth a toxin-spewing vinyl manufacturing facility located near low-income housing in Wier’s mind, she said there are certain things that could be examined to assess the state of environmental justice in areas like Summit County. For one thing, she said a close look at housing developments might reveal patterns of inequities.”We need to make sure that affordable housing is sited so that there is access to open space and trails and transportation, instead of clustering it where it’s looking at the back of factory outlet stores,” Wier said. KT Gazunis, director of the Eagle County Housing Authority, said it’s unlikely that such patterns exist in the High Country. She said federal housing regulations are very clear in that regard.”Most of the people in the housing business are very attuned to this issue,” Gazunis said. “It’s a much more serious issue in the cities.”From a High Country housing perspective, Gazunis said her main concern within the context of environmental justice is to “avoid placing housing in something akin to slums.”Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado

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