A Tale of Two Cities: Environmental Justice and Transportation

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is a local non-profit organization that strives for environmental justice for all, specifically focusing on environmental justice for Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Recently, APEN held a protest to show their “opposition to oil trains moving through Richmond and the Bay Area” (APEN). Ethan Buckner, a campaigner at the protest, stated that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District allowed the Kinder Morgan company to bring more oil trains through the Bay Area without consulting the public. By bringing more oil trains through the Bay Area, Buckner argues that the Kinder Morgan company is threatening the lives of millions of Californians. Beyond disregarding public opinion and increasing oil trains through the Bay Area, the Kinder Morgan company is also practicing environmental racism. The Crude Injustice report shows that oil trains often travel through poor communities of color yet rarely travel through affluent white neighborhoods. In Richmond, the community residing within the danger zone from trains transporting oil is comprised 90% by people of color. The Kinder Morgan company is clearly exploiting communities of the Bay Area and especially its people of color. These injustices need to stop and I’m glad to learn that the APEN is fighting for environmental justice for all communities.

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Last year my community faced a similar situation regarding the introduction of a new high speed rail. Before I describe the situation my community experienced, it’s important to note that my town is affluent but diverse, so our experience is not of the same nature as the racially-based environmental injustices seen in Richmond.  About a year ago, the transportation committee of my town’s government began campaigning to gather support to build a high speed railway. This high speed rail would require a significant amount of tax dollars to build and result in very high speed trains streaking through town every few minutes during commuting hours and disrupting the town’s peacefulness. The transportation committee promoted the new high speed rail because it would run on electricity, have less of an environmental impact, and help improve transportation in the broader Bay Area. Regarding social equity, the high speed rail would result in environmental injustice for people living near the rails due to increased noise pollution. Since numerous citizens felt the addition of a high speed rail unfairly burden our town, in the name of improving broader Bay Area transportation, the city council ultimately struck down the proposed plan.

Although by striking down the plan my town avoided experiencing environmental injustice, this action does negatively impact other Bay Area residents that rely on public transportation. The train would have allowed more accessible and ‘cleaner’ transportation than the current system allowing lower income commuters that rely on public transportation to have a faster commute as well as more social mobility. Beyond improving social mobility a high speed rail running on electricity would also have led to decreased environmental impacts. According to Robert Cruickshank in Environmental Justice Does Not Mean What They Think It Means, “motor vehicles are responsible for 57% of the air pollution…” An efficient train run on ‘clean’ power could cut down the amount of air pollution in the Bay Area since people would rely on their cars less and decrease asthma risk caused by high pollution.

The situation my community faced is an example of the tradeoffs involved among communities regarding environmental justice. The citizens of my town felt that the burden of the high speed railway was too high of a cost and were able to block it. Although my community attained environmental justice for itself, it’s actions inhibited plans that would have helped people of other communities that depend on pubic transportation for social mobility.  For the parallel situation involving Kinder Morgan oil trains, the people of Richmond are facing an environmental injustice that is seriously threatening their safety.   Although Richmond based oil refineries would argue that inhibiting oil trains hurts their business interests, this claim is weak compared to the danger the oil trains pose to the community of Richmond. Whereas the affluent community of my town was able to politically forestall the high speed train, the much less affluent and minority community of Richmond has less political clout to fight off the environmental injustice of the oil trains

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