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Environmental Justice in the Sunshine State

This piece is part of our Stu­dent Blog Series, fea­tur­ing posts on cli­mate, clean ener­gy, and envi­ron­men­tal issues from the State Impact Center’s legal interns and oth­er stu­dents work­ing with the Center.

This year has brought increased ini­tia­tives and resources at the fed­er­al lev­el to help states address Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice (EJ), as the State Impact Cen­ter recent­ly cov­ered in its blog on key devel­op­ments in EJ.

The next log­i­cal ques­tion is: what is hap­pen­ing at the state lev­el? This post will focus on a state with a wide range of press­ing envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect under­served com­mu­ni­ties: Flori­da. Three issues at the fore­front of Florida’s EJ bat­tle include: 

  1. haz­ardous waste sites found in under­served neigh­bor­hoods includ­ing super­fund sites and incin­er­a­tors such as the Doral incin­er­a­tor,
  2. the lack of acces­si­ble infor­ma­tion for lin­guis­ti­cal­ly iso­lat­ed Florid­i­ans, and
  3. cli­mate gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

These issues rep­re­sent just a por­tion of Florida’s EJ chal­lenges. EJ work in Flori­da is typ­i­cal­ly a com­mu­ni­ty-led effort, and orga­ni­za­tions across the state repeat­ed­ly address such issues as seen in Earthjustice’s envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice work, Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi School of Law’s envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice clin­ics projects, and The Cleo Institute’s report on a cli­mate-ready future for Flori­da.

Sev­er­al maps gath­ered from the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s (EPA) Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Screen­ing and Map­ping Tool help show that there is often over­lap between the areas affect­ed by these envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges and at least one socioe­co­nom­ic fac­tor pro­vid­ed by EPA.

Maps of Florida’s EJ Indicators

These maps of Flori­da’s EJ indi­ca­tors were gen­er­at­ed through EPA’s EJ Screen tool by select­ing the indi­vid­ual socioe­co­nom­ic indi­ca­tors avail­able through the tool and lim­it­ing the map view to Flori­da. These four maps focus on the fol­low­ing socioe­co­nom­ic fac­tors respec­tive­ly: less than high school edu­ca­tion, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly iso­lat­ed, low income, and peo­ple of col­or. Click on an image to enlarge it.

Maps of Florida’s Environmental Challenges

These maps of Flori­da’s envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges were gen­er­at­ed through EPA’s EJ Screen tool by select­ing spe­cif­ic envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice index and cli­mate change data points avail­able through the tool and lim­it­ing the map view to Flori­da. The first three maps were gen­er­at­ed by select­ing super­fund prox­im­i­ty, coastal flood haz­ard, and 5ft sea lev­el rise, respec­tive­ly. The final map was gen­er­at­ed by pin­ning each super­fund site that EPA has com­mit­ted to review­ing the cleanup process for in Flori­da. Click on an image to enlarge it.

EJ Con­cerns

Spe­cif­ic exam­ples of these envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges are seen through­out the state. First, 70 per­cent of Florida’s munic­i­pal incin­er­a­tors are locat­ed in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and lin­guis­ti­cal­ly iso­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ties. In addi­tion, tens of thou­sands of Cen­tral Florid­i­ans live near tox­ic waste sites that are often unmarked, such as the Tow­er Chem­i­cal Com­pa­ny site that used to be a man­u­fac­tur­ing site with a waste dis­pos­al sys­tem that led to con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the soil and water.

In South Flori­da, the Doral incin­er­a­tor is in a com­mu­ni­ty with 93 per­cent peo­ple of col­or, 36 per­cent below the pover­ty line, and 88.2 per­cent who speak a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish at home. Accounts from the com­mu­ni­ty near the Doral incin­er­a­tor describe expe­ri­enc­ing an unbear­able garbage smell that lim­it­ed the time folks could spend out­doors. It was esti­mat­ed in Earthjustice’s account of Florida’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion (DEP) per­mit­ting process for the Doral incin­er­a­tor that one third of those attend­ing the pub­lic meet­ing about the incin­er­a­tor would be Span­ish speak­ers. Yet DEP ini­tial­ly refused to pro­vide a Span­ish-lan­guage inter­preter before final­ly agree­ing to have a bilin­gual employ­ee pro­vide the gist of the com­ments in Span­ish after mul­ti­ple requests. Fail­ing to pro­vide ade­quate trans­la­tion decreas­es the equal­i­ty of such a process by lim­it­ing a community’s abil­i­ty to active­ly respond to envi­ron­men­tal issues that affect their day to day lives.

Final­ly, cli­mate gen­tri­fi­ca­tion pos­es a risk of dis­plac­ing under­served com­mu­ni­ties. There are three ways cli­mate gen­tri­fi­ca­tion typ­i­cal­ly occurs: (1) low-income areas with low cli­mate risk attract wealthy home­buy­ers that price out exist­ing res­i­dents, (2) the high cost of liv­ing in an area affect­ed by high cli­mate risk forces out low­er-income house­holds, and (3) areas that imple­ment­ed resilience strate­gies become more desir­able and less acces­si­ble for low­er-income house­holds. In a recent report on cli­mate dis­place­ment in Florida’s coastal com­mu­ni­ties, researchers exam­ined cen­sus blocks with­in three Flori­da coun­ties (Duval, Pinel­las, and Mia­mi-Dade) and grouped them in terms of high, medi­um, or low risk of dis­place­ment. In each coun­ty, the major­i­ty of res­i­dents in high-risk blocks have less than a bachelor’s degree and at least 19 per­cent are liv­ing below the pover­ty lev­el. In addi­tion, in the high-risk areas of Duval and Mia­mi-Dade coun­ties, a lit­tle over 40 per­cent of res­i­dents are African American.

EJ Activism

Despite these issues affect­ing res­i­dents through­out the state, most state agen­cies do not obvi­ous­ly incor­po­rate EJ into their work. How­ev­er, some local and fed­er­al agen­cies are tak­ing EJ action. 17 cities and coun­ties com­mit­ted to a just tran­si­tion to 100 per­cent clean ener­gy through Sier­ra Club’s Ready for 100 cam­paign. This cam­paign worked on dis­man­tling unjust ener­gy sys­tems and get­ting local lead­ers to rec­og­nize and work against the dis­pro­por­tion­ate effect of the unequal ener­gy sys­tem on under­served com­mu­ni­ties. In addi­tion, EPA has com­mit­ted to review­ing cleanups at eight Flori­da super­fund sites.

Local non­prof­its and coali­tions are also active in advo­cat­ing for EJ caus­es. Large orga­ni­za­tions like Earth­jus­tice rep­re­sent grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions like FL Ris­ing and the Con­ser­van­cy of South­west Flori­da in EJ-focused actions such as a Civ­il Rights com­plaint against Flori­da DEP and a suit against EPA chal­leng­ing their approval of the state tak­ing over wet­lands per­mit­ting in Flori­da to pre­vent harm­ing Florida’s crit­i­cal wet­lands. This includes Big Cypress Nation­al Pre­serve, where a plan to drill for oil would harm sacred lands of the Mic­co­su­kee Tribe. Oth­er orga­ni­za­tions at the front­line of these issues include 1000 Friends of Flori­da and the Cleo Insti­tute.

These vic­to­ries are impor­tant in coun­ter­act­ing envi­ron­men­tal injus­tice in Flori­da. As these and oth­er EJ issues progress, it is impor­tant to keep an eye on how these efforts progress to sup­port all res­i­dents of Florida.

Read about how state attor­neys gen­er­al can be promi­nent part­ners in the fight for EJ.