Inside Climate News: Environmental Justice Plays a Key Role in Biden’s Covid-19 Stimulus Package CleanAirNow Interview

Looking at Air Quality Through a Different Lens

The support was welcomed by activists and environmentalists who have been working with minority and poor communities overburdened with air pollution. They see the funding as a potential turning point in getting the attention to issues they have been seeking for years.

“This can provide some mechanisms to really begin to look at air quality through a different lens,” said Beto Lugo-Martinez, executive director of the nonprofit CleanAirNow, in Kansas City. “When the Clean Air Act was enacted, and they were placing monitors, they were really not thinking about local communities. They were thinking about local ambient air quality. And in the work we’ve done, we know those air monitors don’t capture what is happening in these neighborhoods.”

Lugo-Martinez has been working for years with a group of largely Hispanic neighborhoods in southwest Kansas City—Argentine, Turner and Armourdale—that are home to one of the nation’s largest freight rail hubs. Nearly 2,000 railcars per day are sorted and routed in different directions from the 780-acre inland port, activity that sends enough soot into the air to line the window panes of surrounding homes.

Residents did their own testing and found high levels of fine particulate matter, PM 2.5,  and black carbon, indicating they were being exposed to the harmful pollution caused by incomplete combustion of diesel fuel, Lugo-Martinez said.

The EPA, responding to residents’ pressure, began its own study in 2017, but Lugo-Martinez said the agency did not seek community input on where testing should take place. In 2019, the Trump administration announced preliminary findings showing no levels of pollution that would be a health concern.

Meanwhile, the county where the neighborhoods are located, Wyandotte, has consistently ranked near the bottom of Kansas’ 105 counties for health measures like life expectancy. And in mid-January this year, Wyandotte’s positive Covid-19 test rate spiked to 40 percent, more than three times the national average at that time.

“The same communities that are being hit hardest with Covid are the same ones that already had lung issues and that had heart disease because they are adjacent to these facilities,” said Lugo-Martinez. “It’s not a coincidence.”