The Injustice of 'Environmental Justice'

At its core, my day job as an environmental consultant to industry is about helping clients safely negotiate the rocks and shoals of an ever-more complex regulatory structure. The Biden administration, along with an increasing number of blue states, are adding yet another level of needless complexity to that structure, making so-called “environmental justice” a priority.

In practice, the idea of "environmental justice" has almost nothing to do with protecting low-income and minority communities from supposed exploitation by dirty, rotten scoundrel polluters, but instead ensures economic injustice by placing roadblocks to development in areas that have a disproportionate number of historically brownfield sites.

As we dive into this issue, it’s important for the reader to understand what a brownfield site is and how it came to be. Brownfield, as opposed to greenfield, sites refer to properties that are often contaminated by pollution from historical activities that occurred prior to the modern era of environmental regulation, which began under the Nixon administration in 1970.

Time's up, racist!

Consider my childhood home as a typical example. I grew up on the far southeast side of Chicago in a neighborhood called “Hegewisch” after its founder Adolph Hegewisch, who had hoped to duplicate the George Pullman ideal of a self-sustaining industrial community via his Rolling Stock Company.

That didn’t happen, neither for Adolph (his name is sometimes given as Achilles, or even Adolfo) nor for Pullman, but what did happen is that the burgeoning steel industry that emerged shortly after the turn of the last century pumped a lot of money and jobs into the southeast side of Chicago and northwest Indiana. Steel mills popped up like mushrooms, creating good-paying, secure jobs. Immigrants flooded in to fulfill the labor demand.

Both my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated (legally, by the by) from Poland in the 1920s, hoping to cash in on the boom, and settled in Hegewisch. The steel industry on the Southeast Side of Chicago and Northwest Indiana was eventually deemed a vital national resource during the Cold War. Nike missile batteries ringed the area in to protect the mills from Soviet bombers. As kids, we all knew the location of the nearest fallout shelter in case the Soviets tried to take out the mills with nuclear missiles.

The growth of the steel industry from c. 1920 to 1980 on the southeast side of Chicago and northwest Indiana had absolutely nothing to do with taking advantage of an otherwise disadvantaged populace and labor force. It was quite the opposite. Business was booming and everyone was welcome to contribute. My father worked in the mills all his life. I and my three brothers who variously worked in the mills or had jobs supporting the mills benefited as well.

The bottom dropped out of the Chicago-area steel industry starting around 1980. There was no single cause one could point to, but rather a combination of events. These included: the rise of big labor, management’s willful ignorance when it came to recognizing how drastically lower labor rates in the Asian countries could undercut the American steel industry, management’s unwillingness to deploy new, more efficient technologies to offset the labor rate difference, and the new environmental movement’s demands to establish standards that were far more stringent than any standards that had been previously imposed.

American steel mills lost their competitive advantage and many went out of business throughout the latter half of the 20th century. On the southeast side of Chicago and northwest Indiana the carnage wiped out names that had previously been core employers: Republic Steel, Wisconsin Steel, Interlake, U.S. Steel South Works, Youngstown Steel and many others

The timing was significant. Big steel grew in the Midwest corridor during a time when nobody paid much attention to environmental standards. It shrank during a time when environmental standards began to emerge. Thus the area was full of properties that been the home of now shut-down and abandoned steel mills that also contained levels of pollutants in the soil and groundwater that were typical of the pre-environmental regulatory era, but unacceptable in the new era. This problem did not only involve the now-dormant mills, but included the many industries that grew up during boom times to support the mills: coke plants, landfills, railyards, etc.

Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Hegewisch.

As the jobs left and the depression-era generation that at one time made up most of Hegewisch’s populace began to die off, the neighborhood changed over time. What had been a middle class mostly Polish neighborhood morphed into a lower class, mostly Hispanic neighborhood. The neighborhood had aged and was surrounded by abandoned brownfields sites. Property values dropped, attracting lower-income families who could not afford homes in more affluent neighborhoods.

An area is designated as an "environmental justice" zone primarily based on two characteristics: income and ethnicity. A poor neighborhood with a large minority population is the ideal EJ zone and Hegewisch, along with some surrounding neighborhoods has been so designated.

Though the EJ designation is supposed to be protective, it’s actually quite damaging. The theory is that dirty rotten polluters would try to take advantage of vulnerable neighborhoods but for the EJ zone protection. The reality is that we live in an era of the most stringent environmental standards in the history of the industrial era. No facility being built in America today has anything near the potential to generate pollution or affect public health the way that the old rust belt plants built in the first part of the 20th century had.

So what an EJ zone does, in effect, is to serve as a red flag to anyone thinking of developing a new job-creating facility in or near such a neighborhood. Building in an EJ zone means jumping through many more regulatory hoops, risking being vilified by ignorant journalists and self-interested environmental NGOs. No one in my business, whose job it is to look out after our client’s best interests, would ever advise some one to develop a new project in an EJ zone.

Dirty rotten scoundrels polluting the Calumet River in Hegewisch.

Before leaving this story, let’s step back into my old neighborhood of Hegewisch. A metal recycling facility operated by General Iron received a permit to build a state-of-the-art plant in one of the old industrial parts of Hegewisch.

There are more than 300 metals-recycling plants, sometimes called “auto shredders,” across the United States. They are by far the most important and most economic form of recycling in the country. According to the Department of Commerce, the industry ranks 16th in terms of revenue nationally. More steel is now recovered through recycling in America than is produced in the blast furnaces at traditional steel mills, and the air pollution generated by recyclers is a tiny of fraction of what traditional integrated steel mills generate on a per ton of steel produced basis.

Add to this that, General Iron (not my client, if you’re wondering) permitted the plant with state of the art pollution controls, equipment most similar plants do not have. And, in addition to the jobs the facility would directly create, it would also create related jobs among the truckers, maintenance contractors and other services necessary to keep the plant going. All good stuff, right?

No. Not according to the mainstream media and environmental NGOs who have made the most outrageous claims about the danger the facility supposedly represents to my old neighborhood. Trusting those frauds and not really understanding the issues, some citizens banded together to form groups whose sole goal is to prevent the multi-million-dollar facility from opening. Some have even gone on hunger strikes.

It’s madness, but it’s the sort of madness that grows out of the noble-sounding, but utterly damaging concept of environmental justice. The next time a client asks me about building in an EJ area, I’ll have to point them no further than the General Iron fiasco to demonstrate how big a mistake that can be.

Joe Biden's Climate Nirvana -- and Ours

Since Washington was locked down on inauguration day, President Joe Biden was free to spend his first day in office signing stacks of Executive Orders rather than attending the more traditional inaugural parades and balls. The object of these orders was, of course, to undo as much as possible everything the outgoing president, Donald Trump, had accomplished over the past four years.

Executive actions on climate and energy unsurprisingly dominated the first day’s to-do list. Since getting the U.S. out of the Paris climate treaty was Trump’s most consequential deregulatory action, it was fitting that Biden’s first signature was on a letter notifying the U.N. that America would be rejoining it.

Next, he signed a lengthy executive order that, among much else, canceled the permit for the mostly-completed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Canceling Keystone immediately threw up to 11,000 well-paid construction workers out of their jobs. The trades union leaders who had endorsed Biden expressed their outrage, but the fact is that most of their members voted for Trump.

You got what you voted for, America.

Biden also ordered all government departments “to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis,” and directed that all deregulatory actions on fossil fuel energy use and production taken by the Trump administration be reviewed with an eye to suspending and rescinding them.

The order re-instated the application of the “social cost of carbon” (an entirely speculative and largely fanciful cost estimate of the impact of adding one ton of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere) in regulatory decision-making and abolished Trump reforms aimed at speeding up the environmental permitting processes that are routinely used to delay politically incorrect energy and natural resources projects to death. For example, major hardrock mining projects that take two to four years to permit in Canada or Australia routinely take over ten years in the U.S.

On January 27 the White House held a "Climate Day," which included a major speech by the new president. It began, "Today is 'Climate Day' at the White House and—which means that today is 'Jobs Day' at the White House." The speech focused on two selling points aimed at two uneasy partners in the Democratic Party coalition—trades unions and the Woke left.

It turns out that addressing the climate crisis requires creating “millions of good-paying union jobs” in building the new green infrastructure. One imagines that these jobs will be much better than those created by the free market because they will be guaranteed and subsidized by government.

At a press conference after Biden’s speech, John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate, was asked about people losing their jobs in fossil fuel industries as a result of the administration’s agenda. Kerry’s reply was predictably tone deaf:

What President Biden wants to do is make sure those folks have better choices, that they have alternatives, that they can be the people to go to work to make the solar panels.

Implied, but unacknowledged, was the fact that they first have to lose their jobs in order to access these "better choices."

Hitting Kerry in a bad place.

For the woke left, Biden offered something called "environmental justice." While it’s not clear exactly what the term means, the intended audience is a broad one:

With this executive order, environmental justice will be at the center of all we do addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color—so-called “fenceline communities”—especially those communities — brown, black, Native American, poor whites.

Several specific decisions were also announced during Climate Day, including a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and offshore areas (which account for nearly one-quarter of U.S. oil production).

In addition to these announcements, there was much speculation in the media about other planned actions. Most notably, the New York Times reported that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was planning to take three to ten billion dollars out of their reserves meant for dealing with disasters such as  hurricanes and spend it on preparing for the impacts of "climate change." Possible projects include constructing sea walls to safeguard against rising sea levels (the current rate is between 7 and 14 inches per century).

But most importantly, Biden made it clear that the entire executive branch is going to be organized around addressing climate: "It’s a whole-of-government approach to put climate change at the center of our domestic, national security, and foreign policy." His executive order officially declares a "climate crisis." A climate office or program is being installed in every federal department and agency.

Or maybe it can.

All this activity requires a lot of new high-level staffing at the White House as well. In addition to Kerry, Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama and then president of a major environmental pressure group (the Natural Resources Defense Council, which had $173 million in income in 2018), has been named National Climate Advisor, with the same rank as the National Security Advisor.

McCarthy will be head of the White House Climate Policy Office and also oversee a National Climate Task Force. When Biden introduced McCarthy near the beginning of his Climate Day speech, he off-handedly let the cat out of the bag, saying “And Gina—you run everything, Gina."

The next step may be to declare a National Climate Emergency and invoke a wide range of special emergency authorities given to the president by Congress. This would allow the president to commandeer large parts of the economy not currently under government control.

It’s going to be a long, long way to climate nirvana, but we can next look forward to an undoubtedly scintillating international Climate Leaders’ Summit hosted by the United States. The White House has scheduled the summit for Earth Day, April 22, which appropriately would be the 151st birthday of Vladimir Lenin, the patron saint of national economic overhauls. No word, yet, on whether that's intentional.