Cumulative Impacts and Economic Development

I have been paying attention and showing up to the discussions around putting another dump on the port of Providence.  The neighbors are quite incensed, and having lived through a similar fight 25 years ago, I sort of get it.  I offer a short essay leading to a short statement that we might consider enacting into law on the state and municipal levels.  Thank you for your attention and comments.  Greg Gerritt

I teach young doctors at Lifespan about environmental hazards in the city, and my partner in this endeavor reminds them that neighborhoods, with their unique mixture of hazards and income, sometimes shorthanded as zipcodes, are the best indicator of life expectancy.  We have come to understand that it is immoral, unethical, and ought to be illegal to dump more crap on low income communities.  But the laws have not yet caught up to our better understanding due to powerful forces arrayed to prevent justice. 

When Corporate America, as mediated through powerful organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, decides that it should be easy for them to dump whatever they want into the environment and the easiest place to get away with it is rural and low income neighborhoods, they write laws to enshrine it. As most people, if given the chance, will choose to live in a clean community, we find wealthy communities are able to deflect the dirtiest activities, and can write the zoning codes to concentrate the dirt in the places already suffering, and inhabited by people with less power.  

There are a variety of ways one could stop the current practices, most of them related to democracy.  One I would like to discuss is cumulative impact.  In the current regulatory regime you might have a neighborhood with relatively clean air.  Someone comes along and with sufficient tax breaks, offers to build a factory to build washing machines, something we all can use, to pay good wages, and not exceed any environmental limits, Next comes someone to put a recycling center that again does not exceed any limits.  But at some point, and usually not very far down the road, the cumulative effect is a polluted neighborhood.  

The port of Providence contains some of the dirtiest industries around.  Dust is an inevitable product of salt, of asphalt, of scrap metals.  Not all of the industries are in compliance, but even if they were, the amount and variety of pollutants has resulted in the highest asthma rates in the state in the surrounding neighborhood.  Current law continues to encourage the dirty to congregate, but there is no justice if we continue to dump all the dirt on the same people every time, perpetuating all of the inequities of race and wealth we currently endure.  

Clearly current law is not properly protecting low income people and communities of color.  We need a new standard, that of cumulative impact.  Maybe something as simple as 

No facility may be sited, even if it meets individual standards for emissions, if it adds to the burden of communities, with an eye towards direct hazards and hazards created by the interaction of various pollutants, that already suffer from elevated levels of any industrial diseases. 

I suppose one could include a list of ailments but if so, it should just say including but not exclusively, x, y, or z.

What this also does is imply that we shall not permit industries in polluted neighborhoods except those that contribute to a cleaner environment, and that is what we shall direct our economic development agencies to do, find things that clean environments while producing things we need.   Nothing less will do in the age of asthma and the climate crisis. 

I suppose this is not sufficient for bill writing at city or state level, but I doubt it would be hard to find a place it fits in the statutes.  If any of you receiving this have further thoughts, or have an ability to turn it into legislation, please do.