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Focusing on Environmental Justice Around Juneteenth: Maryland


Photo by Jaida Rhea

Maryland is a Mid-Atlantic state that is defined by its plentiful waterways and coastlines bordering the Atlantic ocean, and is home to the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay. Its largest city, Baltimore, is home of Fort McHenry, the birthplace of the U.S. national anthem, and has a very long history as a major seaport. From the bustling city streets of this colorful metropolis, to the purple horizons of the Appalachian mountains, and to the marshlands of Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland is the embodiment of diverse natural landscapes and cultures, and I am happy to call it my home. However, looking past the beauty of this small state, lies a long battle for environmental justice.


Unfortunately, clean air and water are not always guaranteed to all Marylanders. In certain counties, such as Prince George’s County and Anne Arundel County, many residents must deal with both of these issues, as well as being “disproportionately exposed to hazardous facilities”. Focusing down on Prince George’s County, four running power plants currently reside within approximately thirteen miles of Brandywine, an unincorporated town in southern Prince George's. This showcases environmental racism, as more than seventy percent of Brandywine’s population is black. Environmental racism is where environmental hazards are systematically placed in low-income communities and communities of color, which is exactly what is happening in this small southern town. Many residents of this community are calling it an "environmental sacrifice zone" for Maryland, or, according to the Climate Reality Project, a place where "Fenceline communities" where residents - usually low-income families and people of color - live in proximity to “polluting industries or military bases that expose them to all kinds of dangerous chemicals and other environmental threats”.


According to a 2019 health assessment prepared by the Prince George’s County Health Department and the University of Maryland, residents of southern Prince George’s County, where I live, have been found to suffer from much higher rates of respiratory illness, which is very likely due to the abundance of power plants located within our region. The Prince George's County Stop Environmentally Unjust Coal & Gas Plants Act of 2021, a bill proposed by the Prince George’s House Delegation, would prohibit any more coal or gas fired power plants to be constructed in our county, but it has yet to be put into effect, meaning a long battle for a healthier and safer community still lies in front of us.


Baltimore city, where I attend college, is another area in Maryland with a very high presence of environmental racism. Black Americans in Baltimore, especially, are disproportionately impacted by water affordability issues, as water rates have increased more rapidly than the national average, according to Climate XChange. According to the Baltimore Sun, “several studies have shown that by 2022, the national average annual water bill will be TRIPLE the national average of 2010 water bills”, and in November of 2021, Baltimore missed the deadline to implement a water-affordability program, again.


Moving forward


The state of Maryland has an Environmental Justice Commission, however it has received backlash for its "inefficacy". Although this commission was established in 2001, it has yet to push forward any policy related to environmental justice in its many communities that are suffering. This is largely due to a great lack of representation from communities of color - namely from the communities that are being impacted. According to Climate XChange, Sacoby Wilson from the University of Maryland School of Public Health, “this is especially difficult when there is a lack of strong community-based environmental justice infrastructure in Maryland [...] there are dedicated individual activists, but not as many organized grassroots green groups exclusively fighting for environmental justice in the state”.


Hope is not lost yet, however, as there are a few pieces of legislation that may help form Maryland communities into being healthier, and safer, to live in. Although the Environmental Justice Commission of Maryland has received much criticism, it has recently been strengthened to support environmental justice efforts in the state with the introduction of SB674, which passed last year (2021) with the purpose of increasing diversity by requiring that at least one member from each community most affected by climate change and environmental injustice is included in the commission.


In addition to this, the Maryland Campaign for Environmental Human Rights is also driving forward an amendment to the Maryland Bill of Rights, which would “constitutionally protect the right to a healthy environment”. If this measure were to possibly pass in the future, the Maryland constitution would order that “each person, as a matter of human dignity, has the fundamental and inalienable right to a healthful environment”, which would be an extremely beneficial "legal tool" for protecting regions of Maryland as well as defending victims of environmental injustices across the state.



 

References


Visit Maryland. Visit Maryland | VisitMaryland.org. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.visitmaryland.org/


Be a voice for environmental justice in Prince George's County. Sierra Club. (2020, November 1). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.sierraclub.org/maryland/prince-georges/be-voice-for-environmental-justice-prince-george-s-county


Let's talk about sacrifice zones. Climate Reality Project. (2021, May 13). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/lets-talk-about-sacrifice-zones


Life at the fenceline: Understanding cumulative health hazards in environmental justice communities. Coming Clean Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://ej4all.org/life-at-the-fenceline


Prince George’s County - University of Maryland Medical System. (n.d.). Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://www.umms.org/capital/-/media/files/um-capital/community/community-reports/community-health-assessment-2019.pdf?upd=20210528155139


Legislation - HB0613. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/Legislation/Details/HB0613?ys=2021rs


Elizabeth Shwe February 26, 2021, Guest Commentary May 20, 2022, Guest Commentary March 25, 2022, & Bruce DePuyt March 2, 2022. (2021, February 26). Bill would prevent more power plants from being built in Prince George's. Maryland Matters. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.marylandmatters.org/2021/02/26/bill-would-prevent-more-power-plants-from-being-built-in-prince-georges/


Julia Hananel View Bio More from this Author, & Hananel, J. (2022, January 26). A look at environmental justice issues in Maryland. Climate. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://climate-xchange.org/2022/01/14/a-look-at-environmental-justice-issues-in-maryland/


Duncan, I. (2019, June 30). As Baltimore Council weighs Tackling High Water Bills, study shows how much customers are squeezed. Baltimore Sun. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-water-cost-study-20171215-story.html


Maryland.gov Enterprise Agency template. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://mde.maryland.gov/programs/crossmedia/environmentaljustice/pages/ej_reports.aspx


SB 674. Maryland Senate (2021) - Open States. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://openstates.org/md/bills/2021/SB674/


Environmental rights are human rights. MD Campaign for Environmental Human Rights. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://mdehr.o

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