Environmental Racism Is Killing Black Communities In Louisiana

In 1959, the Dow Chemical Company moved into Plaquemine, Louisiana, and began making vinyl chloride, a colorless cancer-causing gas used to produce a variety of plastic products. Twenty years later, after years of chemical-related poisoning, vinyl chloride was found in the wells of nearby Morrisonville.

The predominantly Black River Parishes along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are overrun with over 150 plants and refineries. This area was once dubbed Cancer Alley by residents and media because of the clusters of cancer patients in the area. Now residents are calling it Death Alley because of the significant amount of deaths by cancer and other illnesses among the residents who live near the industrial pollution.

“You put poison in the land, water and in the air, the result is sickness and death. The planned killing of any group is genocide,” Pat Bryant, the son of sharecroppers and a resident of New Orleans, said frankly. Bryant started Justice and Beyond in 2012 as a response to social and environmental injustice along the Louisiana parishes.

After Emancipation, in 1863, many formerly enslaved Americans remained in the South, occupied fertile plots of land, and built themselves small shanties along the curvatures of the serpent-like Mississippi River, not far from the plantations that once enslaved them. These communities represented freedom and prosperity long fought for.

Descendants of enslaved Americans who, against all odds, made lives for themselves along the Mississippi have found themselves next door to refineries, chemical plants, and waste dumps in one of the most heavily polluted areas of the country. Cities like Morrisonville, Diamond, Mossville, Sunrise, and Revilletown, all founded by formerly enslaved Americans, have all been erased by environmental racism. Each town was devastated by the toxins emitted into the air, water, and soil surrounding their communities by multinational petrochemical companies like Shell and Georgia Gulf Corp. that inevitably seeped onto their land, into their homes, and poisoned their bodies. Those who didn’t fall ill and die were eventually bought out or moved.

The town of Morrisonville, founded in the late 1870s after the Civil War, was wiped off the map by the 1980s. “Morrisonville is one of the sad stories that had so much promise at the end of slavery and fell to such tough circumstances during Reconstruction. The people were able to make a living. They built houses. They educated their families when there was no public education for African Americans. And some of them were able to send their kids to college to build a better life,” Bryant told me.

Today, Dow Louisiana, the largest petrochemical company in the state, resides there, and the only thing left of the historic community of Morrisonville is the town cemetery and its more than 100 years of familial ties. The exploitation and genocide of Black Americans may look different in the 21st century, but there is no denying that racism, environmental and otherwise, plays a powerful role in the fates of these predominately Black Louisiana parishes, and much of America.

Every family along the River Parishes has lost droves of loved ones to cancer and other pollution-related ailments. Many have joined or created activist groups opposing large petrochemical companies, but their cries are being dismissed and pushed aside while people are getting sick and dying at alarming rates.

If Formosa come in, that’s it.

Resident Mary Hampton started Concerned Citizens of St. John as a result of the lack of action from public officials and the deadly effects of chloroprene coming from the Denka plant to the residents of St. John. In 2016, the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment revealed that residents living near the Denka Performance Elastomer plant were 800 times more likely to get cancer. Denka is the sole source of chloroprene in the United States. Since rule-making is such a long and strenuous process, the EPA does not prioritize compounds that are not present in more than one community.

“My father had prostate cancer, my two sisters-in-law died with breast cancer, my son-in-law died from bone cancer, my other brother died of bone cancer. So many members of my immediate family that I have lost,” Hampton said of Denka’s legacy in St. John. Her voice broke as she detailed many of those close to her who passed before their time and the children they left behind. “We just want a safe place to live, that’s all.”

According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the office has never once made a formal finding of a Title VI (prohibits discrimination on the base of race, color, or national origin) violation.” Latinx Americans are exposed to 63 percent more pollution than they create and Black Americans are exposed to 56 percent, in comparison with white Americans, who are exposed to 17 percent less, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. People of color contribute less to the overall effects of pollution but carry the bulk of the burden.

Stephanie Cooper, a 50-year-old teacher of 29 years, is Vice President of RISE St. James, an activist group fighting to block Formosa Plastics. Cooper’s family has lived in St. James Parish for four generations. Her father, Oliver Cooper Sr., purchased their land when she was just eight years old. During this same time, he challenged the status quo by running for St. James Councilman — a seat that he kept well into his 70s.

Now, Formosa plans to build a massive ethane cracker complex a mile from the local public school which would emit ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical that causes cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer.

“We used to enjoy just sitting outside or with the screen door [open] but you can’t do that anymore. The door has to be closed,” Cooper explained. The pollution in the area is so bad that the beautiful garden her family once had is no longer possible and the critters have all but left. “We used to catch butterflies with butterfly nets and catch dragonflies on the fences, but you don’t see too much of that anymore. Now you’d be lucky if you see a pigeon.”

“If Formosa come in, that’s it,” Milton Cayette told me. Cayette’s great-great-grandfather bought 17 acres of land in the late 1800s, which Cayette tends to and lives on to this day. “They said that if anything would happen people would need to be at least a one-mile radius from the center of the plant. They built it 300 feet from my house and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The Taiwanese Formosa Plastics Group was awarded The Black Planet Award in 2009, an award meant for companies creating the most ecological damage on a global level, by Ethecon Foundation. Ethecon cited “a continuing sequence of social and ecological foul play throughout the world.” In fact, one quarter of Taiwan’s greenhouse gas emissions could be tied back to FPG.

Yet, state and local officials offered FPG an estimated $1.5 billion in incentives to bring the chemical complex to St. James Parish, without disclosing any information to residents.



A Mistake At A Ticket Machine Cost Me $100. Fining Me Didn’t Make the Subway Safer.

I returned to New York City in the autumn of 2018 for the first time in nearly a decade. The shape of the city was the same, and it still had the intoxicating fast pace that I imagine has been part of the fabric of New York long before I was even born. But details were changed — one, notably, the way fares were collected for public buses. As city changes go, this one could easily be mistaken as minor, but it was significant enough to earn me a $100 fine within minutes of setting foot in the city. And I am not the only causality of the recent changes in the way New York handles its fares.

Ride any train in the city and you’re bound to see the signs — wallpapered across stations and on the insides of trains — warning passengers that they’re better off paying the $2.75 fare than the $100 fine, and directing them to use turnstiles to enter and exit the tunnels, as opposed to gates, which can easily be held open and passed through without paying. If you ride in the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens, you’re bound to see fare checks taking place, or to be subject to one yourself.

Here’s how it happened to me: I approached one of the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) automated ticketing booths at LaGuardia Airport and purchased a fare card with something like 30 dollars on it. When I got on the bus, amidst a pretty typical New York crowd, I didn’t see anywhere to swipe my card. But people were cramming in behind me, so I shrugged it off. I could figure it out when I got off, or pay the same fare at the next stop, where I would have been using a receipt had this fare gone through. In any case, my money had transferred from my bank account over to the MTA — so good enough, right?

At the bus stop in Queens, we were greeted by two burly police officers in full cop regalia — guns and batons at hip, the whole show. There was no crowded shoving now; everyone stepped off single file, flashing a paper receipt to the cops before walking off. A paper receipt I didn’t have. I showed the officers my Metro card and explained the steps I’d taken to pay the MTA. One of them told me I had gone to the wrong machine. He pointed at the display of machines behind us. When I told him I used a machine like that, he replied that no I hadn’t, but the one that I used was almost the same. Almost the same, but not right. Then his partner demanded my ID card and fined me $100.

What happened to me in 2018 is part of a city-wide crackdown by the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) on fare evasion. The crackdown is supposedly aimed at preventing the MTA from hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars they say are lost to people skipping fares. In 2018, the MTA reported that loss at $225 million, but the Office of the Inspector General thinks that was an undercount, and loss estimates for 2019 are closer to $300 million. While subway fare evasions are certainly a major contributor to these financial losses, it’s bus routes that are taking the biggest hit, including Select Service routes used to connect subway systems, like the one I was riding from the airport.

But as my experience illustrates, the crackdown behaves like a Kafka-esque authoritarian overreach. In the best circumstances, authorities fine people for giving money to the MTA through the wrong slot, or for just being unfamiliar with the local nuances of the payment system, which is especially absurd in a city with as much tourism as New York. In the worst light, the fare evasion crackdown targets the city’s most vulnerable populations, criminalizing poverty and giving New York police another excuse to fine and jail Black and Brown people.

Not every city views fare evasion as a priority police matter.

The NYPD has been reticent to reveal racial and ethnic demographic information about who is being fined, even resulting in a lawsuit in 2018. But data now available show summonses are being disproportionately distributed to Black and Hispanic (their language) populations. In the second quarter of 2019, 15,280 summonses were issued. Of those, 6,110 were Black, and 5,154 were Hispanic. In contrast, only 2,586 were issued to passengers identified as white, even though non-Hispanic whites comprise nearly half of New York City’s population. 712 summonses were issued to people under the age of 18.

Tickets aren’t the only consequence of fare enforcement stops. Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance announced in 2017 that his office would stop prosecuting for “theft of services” on public transportation. The decriminalization of fare evasion in New York led to a sharp decline in arrests related to fare evasion, which saw nearly 10,000 people jailed in 2016.

But as the recent high profile arrest of nineteen-year-old Adrian Napier shows, arrests are still happening — and mostly to Black men. People with outstanding warrants are at particularly high risk of being arrested. But bystanders have been posting recordings on social media of violent subway arrests of “unruly” fare beaters. Reports from around the city are also catching officers stationed around transportation stops making arrests for reasons like unauthorized sales of candy and sweets. In the second quarter of 2019, NYPD reported 682 arrests related to fare evasion. Of those, 414 were Black. Only 76 were white. Ten were minors. The overwhelming majority of people arrested were identified as male, indicating that the new campaign is functioning as yet another excuse for the NYPD to jail men with black and brown skin.

While all this has been going on in the name of saving money, use of public transportation in New York has taken a sharp decline. Subway rides had seen an increase until 2016, when ridership dropped slightly. After 2017, both buses and subways saw a dramatic slope in their ridership stats, with bus ridership dropping by 5.1 percent. In 2018, subway and bus ridership dropped by 2.1 and 4.4 percent, respectively.

Fare evasion is not unique to New York City, but not every city views it as a priority police matter. In Seattle, where I grew up, King County Metro launched a new Fare Violation Program. When I was living in Seattle, prior to the beginning of 2018, bus savvy Seattle residents knew that travels taking place in North Seattle through Downtown would probably not be interrupted by fare enforcement agents. Travel South toward the airport, and you’d need to show proof of payment. This was very much delineated by racial lines. Neighborhoods in North Seattle are divided into affluent sections and very poor areas, but all of them are mostly white. Gentrification has begun to reshape the city, but the South-end has historically been a mostly Black and Latino area. Fare enforcement agents usually began entering just before the International District, which houses a mostly Asian population and several low-income housing complexes. All in all, Seattle’s fare enforcement protocols appeared as racially biased as those in New York. Now, Seattle seems to be trying to correct some of these issues by scaling back punitive measures against fare beaters.

Previously, fare evasion could result in a $124 fine that was handled in civil court, although riders would usually receive one or two warnings before getting the fine. Now, fines are $50, and if paid within 90 days they will be further reduced to $25. Riders also have the option to pay that $25 toward their own ORCA card (Seattle’s kitschy transit card that, yes, does have an orca whale on it). They can also perform two hours of community service or enroll in one of the reduced fare programs offered by the city. The program that serves the largest population is ORCA Lift — which I am still enrolled in because enrollment lasts five years — and is available to all Seattle residents who meet their low-income requirements. Indigent riders also have the option to appeal the citation, which may be overturned based on “extenuating circumstances.”

Seattle’s 2019 program comes on the heels of a similar program rolled out in Portland, Oregon, in 2018. In 2018, a Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge ruled that random fare checks on TriMet, Portland’s public buses, were unconstitutional. The lawsuit, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was incited by an incident involving Ana Del Rocio, one of the only Latina members of the David Douglas school board. She was arrested after refusing to supply identification, which is her right under state law. The ruling means that TriMet will no longer be able to perform random fare checks, similar to the kind I was subject to in New York City. TriMet also began offering community service and enrollment in reduced fare programs in lieu of paying fines, as well as tiered fines. Repeat offenders will receive increased fines or community service hours before being banned from services for 90 days.

Washington, D.C., recently decriminalized fare evasion and reduced the whopping $300 fine to $100. This was after the Washington Lawyer’s Committee released findings from a data analysis that discovered 91 percent of fare evasion citations were issued to Black riders, even though just under half the population of D.C. is Black. 46 percent of citations were issued to passengers under the age of 25, and one was only seven years old.

But the most radical change comes out of Kansas City, Missouri, which is now poised to offer free city-wide public buses. In December 2019, the city council unanimously voted to pass a resolution that will make public transportation free, once the next fiscal year budget is approved and designs are put in place. The measure, called Zero Fare Transit, is estimated to cost $8 million. This will make it the first major U.S. city to offer free city-wide public transportation in the 21st century, though a few other cities experimented with it unsuccessfully in the 20th century. The smaller city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has a population of approximately 60,000 and operates just 121 buses, has offered free public transit since 2002.

When I returned to New York in December 2019, the first thing I did was load my Metro Card. During a trip downtown to meet a friend for coffee, I swiped my card, but the turnstile wouldn’t budge. The machine directed me to swipe again at the same turnstile, but when I did — no budge. I continued to swipe my card and receive the same error message directing me to swipe again. Finally, exasperated, I moved on to another turnstile. This time it worked — but a swipe at the other turnstile had also been deducted.

Does that mean I can now send MTA a $100 summons?


First Person

I Went Into Debt for a Christmas Gift

As I neared the checkout counter at Belden Jewelers, the sales associate who was helping me asked, “And did you want to pay for this in full or did you want to finance it?”

“Finance it? What do you mean?” I looked at the box in my hand, which held a sterling silver and diamond ring I planned to give my girlfriend for Christmas in a few weeks. She was elsewhere in the mall with our friend Katie; we’d separated so we could buy each other gifts.

The associate explained that I could apply for financing and pay for the ring in installments, which were interest-free for the first 12 months. I had the slightly more than $300 that the ring cost in cash; it was one of the nicest rings in my budget. (All the white gold ones were too much money.) But if I financed it, which I hadn’t even considered as an option, I could afford to spend a little more on my other gifts and even save some for the new year. I could start putting away money for appliances I needed in my apartment or a used car to drive to an off-campus internship.

I asked for an application and after a few minutes of processing, I was approved. I had started using my first credit card, a Discover Student card, only a few months prior, and it wasn’t maxed out yet, so I genuinely believed I could make the decision responsibly.

After I left the store, I met back up with my friend Krista, my shopping partner while I looked for my girlfriend’s gifts. “That was the most money I’ve ever spent on Macey,” I said, nervous and excited in equal measure. “I hope she loves it.”

I was too embarrassed to admit I’d opened a store credit card to pay for it; it seemed like something my college friends, who all came from middle-class families, would know better than to do. “Don’t spend money you don’t have” was a wise adage their parents shared when they taught them tips like paying for a car in cash. My dad taught me how to return items to Walmart without a receipt if we were running low on money between paychecks and needed an extra $20 for milk and bread.

A few weeks later, Macey and I spent our first Christmas Day together and I surprised her with the ring during a short, chilly walk. I didn’t tell her that I’d financed the ring or how many hours working in the reading and writing center on campus it would take to pay off. I didn’t say that I’d wanted to get her a white gold ring with a larger karat diamond. She’d also given me her priciest gift to date, a sterling silver replica Time Turner from the Harry Potter franchise I’d been obsessed with for years but couldn’t afford.

Instead, I said that I loved her and wanted to marry her someday, and asked her if she wanted the same thing. We both cried and she said yes, but the reality of ever having enough money to get married eluded even my colorful, wildly hopeful imagination. We both grew up with single parents with underpaying jobs who couldn’t foot the bill for our college education. We would graduate in a year and a half with student loan debt (and me with thousands of dollars in credit card debt just to buy necessities like books, snow boots, and groceries).

The diamond promise ring was an irresponsible romantic lifeline; I was betting on our future. Someday, I would pay off the ring. Someday, we could afford to get married. Someday, I would be able to spend more for white gold, Macey’s favorite. None of that felt true as I went home to my dad’s over winter break to collection notices and service shut off warnings; business was slow for a cab driver during the rise of Uber and Lyft and in the wake of the recession.

It took me about a year and a half to pay off the Belden Jewelers credit card, which I promptly closed. Eventually, I admitted to Macey that I’d taken out a loan to get her ring. She told me that she never wanted me to feel pressured to spend money on her or use a credit card to buy her presents, she just wanted to spend time with me. She told me she’d sometimes felt the same stress: That the cost of her gift reflected how much she loved me, and she worried about spending less on my gifts than I did on hers.

The diamond promise ring was an irresponsible romantic lifeline.

It’s easy to write-off the monetary value of holiday gifts or the importance of deals on Black Friday when you’re financially comfortable. When I was poor, that fact haunted me like an ever-present ghost in my relationships, which felt transactional to me even when my loved ones insisted they weren’t keeping track and were doing me favors out of love. That was easy for them to say, when I noticed it was always me who needed rides to the library to use their free printers or me who carefully calculated the cost of my meals and couldn’t afford to split the check evenly.

This year, Macey and I are celebrating our first holiday season as wives, three months after our wedding. In wedding planning, we were both clear: We wouldn’t let any insecurities or the grim hand of capitalism make us feel like we had to do anything we couldn’t or didn’t want to afford, and we didn’t go into debt to pay for any of it. Even if it meant we had to answer questions about why our reception was buffet style or why we didn’t have an open bar.

She and I are now the kind of financially comfortable I could only dream about my entire childhood, meaning we don’t have enough money to own a home and we still have mountains of student debt, but we pay all our bills on time each month and we can even afford to travel if we plan well. But as November crept closer, I still felt the pressure surrounding me just like it had when we were spending our first Christmas together. Didn’t my gifts have to be epic?

One day while Macey was at work (she commutes and I work from home), I sent her a text: What if we did a lowkey Christmas this year, just one gift and one book? We could save money to travel in 2020 and there are no physical gifts I really want.

It is an incredibly privileged position to be in, and I know that. When you have enough of a financial cushion to go on nice dates when one person gets promoted or to buy a new bookshelf as soon as you need it, holidays don’t have to be about prioritizing everything you need for the entire year. Macey and I got a lot of the home goods on our list this year between our wedding presents and a sponsored article I wrote for Bed Bath & Beyond that came with a couple thousand dollars worth of free store merchandise. We’re at a point where we have more than we can comfortably fit in our one-bedroom apartment.

But back when we were both poor or broke, Christmas could be the only time of year when we actually got big ticket items we needed, or pricey experience gifts like a couples’ massage. I once waited months to get a new purse in the hopes that Macey might get it for me in December, and another year, my Christmas gift from my dad was a fancy date for the two of us. We ate sushi at a restaurant with three dollar signs on Google, played games at Dave & Busters, and took professional photos together.

Macey texted back: That sounds good. It was harder than I expected to fight the urge to shower her with multiple expensive gifts after promising not to, especially when I came across a $1,500 moon necklace on Instagram (that I absolutely can’t afford but I know she’d love).

Our stockings this year will be filled with the promise of a two-week honeymoon in 2020 and love letters to each other. Capitalism tells me that isn’t enough, but I’m not listening.



The Trump Administration Has a New Stealth Approach to Kicking People Off Disability

Even though I’m a lawyer, receiving a letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration still triggers a panic attack. My heart races, I get nauseous, and my hands shake.

Lately it’s gotten worse. A letter earlier this month made me feel suddenly lightheaded as my vision started to fade. As I sat on the floor, my mind raced through all of the potential bad news the envelope could contain for a disabled Supplemental Security Income recipient like myself.

Many more people could soon be in the same position, more often. A new proposal from the Social Security Administration would cut $2.6 billion dollars over the next decade from the two core programs it runs that comprise the disability safety net: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The cuts would start with letters — 2.6 million more of them.

A letter is the first notice a disabled recipient of SSDI or SSI gets that they’ve been selected by Social Security to undergo a “continuing disability review” (CDR). As the agency puts it, CDRs are used to “determine if disabled beneficiaries still meet the medical requirements for eligibility.” In other words, a CDR is a kind of “are you still disabled enough for SSI or SSDI” audit.

After the audit, if Social Security believes a beneficiary’s medical condition has improved such that they no longer meet Social Security’s stringent criteria for disability, their benefits are terminated. It is now much easier for Social Security to say that a disabled person has medically improved thanks to a 2017 rule change that allows the agency to disregard medical evidence from a beneficiary’s own doctors. Benefits are also terminated if the disabled person does not respond to the CDR.

The Social Security Administration is proposing a dramatic ramp up in the number of CDRs it conducts, adding an additional 2.6 million of them over the next decade. And that’s not the only change Social Security wants to make to the CDR process.

When an applicant is approved for disability benefits, Social Security assigns them to a category that determines how often they must go through a CDR. If Social Security thinks a disabled person’s medical condition is expected to improve, they set a CDR for every 6 to 18 months. If it’s possible the medical condition will improve, they set a CDR for every three years. And if the person’s medical condition is not expected to improve, they set a CDR for every 5 to 7 years.

Social Security officials want to create a new category, “medical improvement likely,” that will get a CDR every two years. And they propose to move hundreds of thousands of people from less frequent CDR categories into the new category.

The vast majority of disabled people receiving SSDI and SSI are not represented by counsel through the CDR process. The maximum amount that SSI will provide to a disabled beneficiary is just 74 percent of the federal poverty level — currently $12,490 for an individual. As of November 2019, the average SSDI benefit was just $14,855 per year. Most SSDI and SSI beneficiaries simply do not have the money to hire someone to help them navigate the CDR process. Instead, they find themselves facing the byzantine, and all too often hostile, bureaucracy of the Social Security Administration on their own — something that I find daunting even with the benefit of a law degree.

SSA provides no estimates of the number of people who would be affected.
– Kathleen Romig

Social Security is also proposing to focus the targeting of those CDRs on disabled children, people with certain medical conditions such as leukemia, and disabled older adults. Under the new rule, many disabled children would face a mandatory CDR at six years old and another mandatory CDR at 12 years old.

In both adults and children, the rule would change the category of certain mental health conditions including anxiety-related disorders, depressive, bipolar and related disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and impulse control disorders to a CDR every two years.

But Social Security has not provided estimates of how many disabled people from each of those groups will be impacted. In fact, Social Security hasn’t released any estimates of how many people will be impacted, period, only the number of CDRs it expects to undertake. (A single person could face multiple CDRs in that time period.)

Kathleen Romig, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained by email that “SSA provides no estimates of the number of people who would be affected. No number of people who will be subject to additional reviews. No number of people who will be terminated.”

Instead, Social Security just published the projected cuts of $2.6 billion. That leads Romig to believe the agency has data it isn’t releasing: “They DO have a number of program dollars saved — in fact, two numbers, one for SSDI and one for SSI. I think it stands to reason that SSA has estimated how many disability beneficiaries would be cut off and they are withholding it. I’ve never seen the estimated number of people left out of a proposed rule; it’s a vital piece of information.”

The rule is open for public comment on regulations.gov until January 31, 2020.




A Pesticide the EPA Won’t Ban Is Sickening Low-Income Californians of Color

As a child growing up in Arvin, California, Gabriel Duarte played with his brothers in an orchard 15 feet from his family’s front door. Today he plays in a prison yard. Duarte believes these two points on his 20-year timeline are related.

Earlier this year, Duarte contacted me after reading an op-ed I’d written about the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos. I’d discovered that the likely reason for each of my three children’s brain malformations was due to my acute exposure, in 1989, to a flea “bomb” containing chlorpyrifos. Duarte believes his ADHD and impulsivity issues are the result of his chronic exposure to chlorpyrifos in his home, school and work environments.

Human and animal studies link chlorpyrifos exposure to structural damage to the brain, neurobehavioral deficits, asthma, diminished IQ, and a wide range of developmental disabilities in children. It has also been linked to heart disease, lung cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and the lowering of sperm counts in adults. Based on my investigative research, and interviews with Duarte along with dozens of other residents in the San Joaquin Valley, I’m left to draw the all-too-obvious conclusion that communities with a higher percentage of residents who are low income are at greater risk of being exposed to harmful pesticides and other environmental toxins. And the issue of race is an inextricable co-factor.

Duarte’s alcoholic father abandoned the family when Duarte was nine, about the time his mother was diagnosed with leukemia. (Both pediatric and adult leukemias have also been linked to pesticide exposure.) Duarte, the third of four children, became the man of the house and remembers making meals for his sick mother and biking to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for his mom and younger brother, who had severe asthma.

Both Duarte and his brother were diagnosed with ADHD by a school psychologist at Di Giorgio Elementary School. Duarte does not recall being provided treatment or support from the school, which likely speaks to Di Giorgio School District being highly under-resourced, given the district’s meager tax base. Like their home on Richardson Road, the school abuts an orchard where pesticides are routinely sprayed.

And if exposure at home and school weren’t enough, before leaving the family, the boys’ father was a fieldworker who would have likely brought home pesticide residue on his clothing and shoes. Duarte himself worked as a field hand as a teenager and also at a golf course collecting stray golf balls. (Chlorpyrifos is widely used in non-agricultural settings like golf courses and golf balls are commonly thought to be a source of pesticide residue.)

The EPA banned chlorpyrifos in household products in 2000. However, its use in agriculture was allowed to continue. It’s often small, rural, low-income communities of color that bear the cumulative impacts of pesticide exposure and environmental degradation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in communities like Arvin, located in Kern County at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley — the most productive agricultural region in the country. Millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos are used each year nationwide. In 2016, 1.1 million pounds were used in California; more than a quarter of that total was used in Kern County alone.

According to the 2010 Census — about the time Duarte would have been taking on the man-of-the-house role — Hispanic or Latinx persons made up 92.7 percent of Arvin residents. Arvin’s average per capita income in 2010 was $9,241, or only 19 percent of the U.S. average of $48,880 at the time. Today, the percentage of families living below the poverty line in Arvin is more than double the national average.

This pattern of unequal protection constitutes environmental racism.

That low-income communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the health effects of chemical toxins such as chlorpyrifos is not news, nor is it an accident. People of color disproportionately hold the most physically demanding, unpleasant, and low-paying jobs. The roots of the problem trace back to the legacy of state-sanctioned racial segregation. For instance, communities with high Latinx representation such as Salinas, Visalia, Santa Rosa, and San Luis Obispo, California, rank among the lowest U.S. metropolitan areas in employment opportunity. Not only have low-income families and people of color been segregated according to residence and work, they’ve consequently been forced to play host to the worst kinds of environmental burdens.

Both of Angel Garcia’s parents worked the fields when he was growing up. He is now the head of the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety. “If you drive through the Central Valley from town to town you will realize the proximity of these homes to the fields,” says Garcia. “You can speak to many community residents who will tell you ‘oh, it’s that time of the year where I have to close my windows, shut my door, not let the kids go outside.’ It’s almost normalized but I don’t want to say it’s normalized because I feel like it not normal. It’s just so common.”

Sacrifice zones are hot spots of chemical pollution where residents live or work immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries or military bases. The Gulf Coast post-Deepwater Horizon, Cancer Alley in Lousiana, a Tesla plant built on a Superfund site in Buffalo, and polluted neighborhoods surrounding Houston’s shipping channel are but a handful of examples of locales where public officials have turned a blind eye to extreme environmental contamination in minority-dominated areas so that society at large can reap the rewards of a robust economy. This pattern of unequal protection constitutes environmental racism.

The San Joaquin Valley in general and Kern County in particular are examples of sacrifice zones. Here, the burden of the vibrant agricultural economy is carried by those predominantly-Latinx workers who pick and pack the fruits and vegetables that feed America. The health risks associated with these jobs and attendant living conditions have been well documented, but perhaps no more strikingly than by the CHARGE study conducted by UC Davis’ MIND Institute, and led by epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto, PhD.

Dr. Hertz-Picciotto and her team questioned mothers living in California about what their health was like before and during pregnancy, linking this information to another set of data that the state keeps, a pesticide-use reporting system. Their findings — that the incidence of developmental disability increases significantly in areas where pesticides are applied — bolster previous research and have dire implications for families working and living in agricultural communities near where pesticides are applied.

Garcia and others, such as Nayamin Martinez of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, have led recent caravans to Sacramento to lobby their state representatives and organized an environmental bus tour that highlighted hot spots and problem issues throughout the region. To their credit, the tour was attended by the newly appointed Cal EPA director, his director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), and a lone local agriculture commissioner.

Garcia and Martinez’s organizations also advocate for larger pesticide-free buffer zones surrounding schools, an Amber Alert-like notification system that would notify residents of pesticide applications in their vicinity, and more sustainable agricultural practices. “We will never stop pushing for greater health protections for low-income people of color,” says Martinez, “but the fact of the matter remains that most of the jobs in this region are agricultural.” Martinez, Garcia, and others in the environmental justice movement recognize they must find a win-win roadmap for both the residents who depend on those jobs and the industry that provides them.

Their largest “victory” to date may provide just such a road map. In April, as a result of the overwhelming scientific evidence and intense lobbying from environmental justice groups, the California Environmental Protection Agency, flying in the face of the federal EPA’s example, directed the state’s DPR to begin the process of banning chlorpyrifos throughout the state. After initial resistance, the chemical industry gave up its fight over the ban, which is now expected to go into effect in early 2020. It is the first time in the history of California that a pesticide’s registration has been revoked. To sweeten the bitter pill that industry is being asked to swallow and to help farmers make the transition away from chlorpyrifos, the state is adding $5.7 million to fund research into safer and more sustainable alternatives.

As for Gabrial Duarte, he is currently awaiting trial at Laredo Pretrial Facility in Kern County on charges stemming from illegal gun possession. He has spent two and a half of the past five years in detention, first in juvenile detention, and currently while awaiting trial. After our first conversation at the prison in July, he asked to be seen by a mental health professional and has since been prescribed medication for his ADHD. He is also attending anger management classes.

“Before, I was a reckless renegade,” he told me over the phone. “Now, I think things through. I ask myself, ‘if I were to do this, how would you view it, how would they view it, and how would I view it’? It [the classes] has helped me to learn empathy.”