As the fight for environmental justice intensifies in the Washington area, a new breed of community activist has emerged: the citizen scientist. They are ordinary residents using a basic understanding of civics and science in service to the health of their communities.
“They do their own research and they are not intimidated by the glossy presentations of industrial polluters at zoning hearings and county council meetings,” said Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland at College Park.
“They conduct door-to-door home health surveys in their neighborhoods and show others how to recognize the presence of environmental hazards,” he said.
Wilson consults with community groups and teaches residents how to become citizen scientists.
Some of the people he has worked with are fighting back in Brandywine, Md., where power plants, diesel truck traffic and a fly ash landfill are causing concerns about respiratory health, especially among children with asthma.
In Baltimore, air pollution from a notoriously toxic trash incinerator at Curtis Bay has declined, according to recent measurements, thanks to a cadre of citizen scientists. But, despite their successes, the environmental damage caused by years of toxic emissions has been significant, and the fight for restorative justice is far from over.
In the District, activists have mobilized out of concern that heavy traffic, huge residential renovation and commercial construction projects are releasing dangerous levels of exhaust, asbestos, lead-based paint particles and dust from contaminated soil.
In the small port towns along the Anacostia River in Maryland — such as Bladensburg, Edmonston, Colmar Manor and Cottage City — activists are seeking remedies to noxious diesel exhaust from heavy truck traffic and dust from a concrete plant.
Prince George’s County officials are scheduled to hold a hearing next week on a proposal to build a second concrete plant in the area. Wilson met Monday with several activists who are organizing opposition to the proposal. They’d gathered at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, which is not far from the site.
One of their biggest challenges, they agreed, is raising awareness about the dangers among people who are already overwhelmed with work and family concerns. Especially in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods.
A recent report by the NAACP in Maryland found 68 percent of African Americans and 40 percent of Latinos in the state live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. In Brandywine, which is about 72 percent black, there are five fossil-fuel power plants — one coal-fired and four gas-powered — built or permitted within 13 miles of black neighborhoods.
At the meeting, Wilson unveiled an environmental justice plan for Prince George’s County that he and students at the University of Maryland had prepared. Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report noted that in 2016, the county’s industries and businesses released 232,827 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air — second only to Baltimore City, which released 693,880 pounds.
Some of the “top releases” in Prince George’s County were sulfuric and hydrochloric acid (known as “acid aerosols”),
n-hexane, hydrogen fluoride, and ammonia, the report said. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to lung irritation, asthma and cancer.
And yet, Wilson’s report noted, “Environmental justice is an issue that is not well understood among county residents and officials.”
Training more residents to become citizen scientists was one of the suggested remedies.
“Part of the problem is the historic obfuscation of environmental issues, particularly in certain communities,” said Nancy J. Meyer, one of the activists at the meeting. “Nobody told them that their home was built on top of a landfill. These become throwaway neighborhoods, occupied by throwaway people. We have to find a way to revitalize these places.”
Wilson asked, “How do you revitalize a place that was never vitalized?”
Another activist, Paul Howe said, “We can do anything if we all come together and stop being so atomized. People on one side of the river thinking that what happens on the other side doesn’t affect them.”
Chris Melendez noted that an increase in truck traffic in Bladensburg had resulted in businesses around the concrete plant cutting down trees on their lots to make space for the trucks to park. The loss of trees had weakened the soil, and contaminated dirt was flowing into the Anacostia River.
Wilson said he’d seen people fishing in the river. “They are not throwing the fish back; they are eating the fish,” he said. “They are taking contaminated fish home and sharing it with their families and neighbors.”
A loss of trees that leads to soil erosion. Contaminated soil washed into a stream that flows into the Anacostia River. Fishermen unknowingly bringing home toxic fish and serving it to their families, believing they are providing a fresh, healthy meal.
Then having to deal with illness, if not birth defects, stunted brain development and kids who do poorly in school.
Seeing cause and effect and getting communities mobilized to prevent such a chain of environmental catastrophe, that’s the work of the citizen scientists.