Sep 18, 2021 - Podcasts

Hard Truths: Environmental Justice and the U.S. Government

In the latest installment of our Hard Truths series, how the federal government is tackling environmental justice, and what it will take to make real change in vulnerable communities.

Guests: Henry Herrera, EPA administrator Michael Regan, and Dr. Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University.

Credits: "Axios Today" is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. This episode was produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez and edited by Alexandra Botti. Jeanne Montalvo is our sound engineer. Dan Bobkoff is our executive producer. Special thanks to executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, Hard Truths editor Michele Salcedo, managing editor for business Aja Whitacker-Moore, climate and energy reporters Ben Geman and Andrew Freedman, and race and justice reporter Russell Contreras.

Editor’s note: This story incorrectly stated that the atomic bomb test was detonated in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The bomb was developed in Los Alamos but detonated in a desert valley near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The episode has been updated to reflect the change.


NIALA: Good morning. Welcome to another episode of our monthly series Hard Truths, examining systemic racism in the US. Today - environmental justice and the US government

At 5:29 AM on July 16, 1945, the U.S. army detonated an atomic bomb - the first test in American history - in a desert valley near Alamogordo, New Mexico. At the time, the location was kept secret -- but the huge blast woke members of the Hispanic and Indigenous communities living next door. It was about a month before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Henry Herrera was 11 years old in a town, Tularosa, just outside of Alamogordo. He spoke with our race and justice reporter Russell Contreras about what it was like in the moments after the bomb went off.

HENRY HERRERA: And when that thing exploded, she had just hung up her white clothes on the clothesline and here comes the dust.

NIALA: The dust Henry is talking about didn't just cling to clothes like Henry’s mom had hung up outside. It also settled on people's homes. Not knowing the dust was radioactive, Henry says they kept wearing those clothes for years, and other residents took trips to the site and even brought radioactive green glass back into their houses. Eventually people started getting sick with rare cancers.

HENRY: Oh, it was quite a while back later, you know, people started getting sick, you know, and nobody knew why.

NIALA: Henry is now 87. He’s had his jaw reconstructed because of mouth cancer. He and other residents believe their illnesses were caused by the bomb.

HENRY: We had no idea. The military didn't tell us a damn thing, not even, “I'm sorry,” not one goddamn word from the military.

NIALA: And it wasn't just this bomb. The U.S. government has a history of endangering communities of color to produce nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the government was mining uranium all over the Navajo Nation.

These are just a few examples of what climate activists and academics call environmental racism. Like housing and employment discrimination, the term is a way to explain that environmental laws are not enforced equally across racial lines, and that some communities - particularly Black, Latino and Native American -- are left to bear the brunt of the hazardous and often deadly effects.

Environmental racism can be about access to clean air: Take the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, for example -- the surrounding area is made up of primarily black and Latino residents where the asthma rate is at 25%, almost twice the state average.

Or it can be about clean water: like in Jackson, Mississippi where storms and freezing temperatures left many Black residents without water for weeks in March.

The movement to change all this is known as environmental justice -- and it puts vulnerable communities at the center of climate policy and solutions.

DR. ROBERT BULLARD: What the environmental justice movement attempts to do is to make sure that no community is left behind when it comes to environmental protection, environmental enforcement. It's very clear that everybody is not getting the same level of protection that others who are living in the suburbs or who are living in affluent communities. We say it's not just, it's not fair and it's illegal.

NIALA: Dr. Robert Bullard is known to many as the father of environmental justice. He's a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern university in Houston. And he's a member of president Joe Biden's environmental justice advisory council.

Today, we're going to talk about how the federal government is tackling environmental justice under the first Black man charged with leading the EPA - Administrator Michael Regan, and what it will take to make real change. First though, I went to Dr. Bullard to explain how we've come to understand that the environment and racism are linked.

Dr. Bullard, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

DR. BULLARD: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: Can we start at the beginning of your career - what was the first instance of you observing environmental racism that led you to dedicating your entire career to addressing this?

DR. BULLARD: Wow, that's a long one. It was way back in 1979 in Houston, Texas. I was asked by my wife to collect data for a lawsuit that she had filed. She needed someone to put on a map all the landfills that were located in Houston, generators, garbage dumps. And that was the first lawsuit, Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation that challenged environmental racism. And so I got drafted and I did the study and I've been doing studies and writing books over the last 40 years, as a matter of fact, 42 years,

NIALA: One of your earlier books, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality came out in 1990. And it was one of, if not, the first text to address inequities in the environment and climate. Was there pushback at that time for you framing it that way?

DR. BULLARD: Of course there was pushback. You know, I finished the book in 1989 and it took me a whole year to get it published because I got nasty notes from publishers saying, “Oh, there's no such thing as environmental racism. The environment is neutral. It's subjective. Everybody is treated the same.” And finally, I was able to get a publisher out of Boulder, Colorado. I don't know if it's mountain high air, bean sprouts, tofu, marijuana, whatever, they published my book. And so that was the first book on environmental justice, Dumping in Dixie. It was the first book and they made it a textbook. And that's how I got into the academy and got in the hands of lots of folks.

NIALA: You have been doing this, as you've said for decades. How important was last year, 2020 in America's understanding of how systemic racism does affect people's access to water, to their sanitation, to environmental justice?

DR. BULLARD: The summer of 2020 was a great awakening. It was a great awakening to the fact that there were so many cascading, multiple converging threats on America and particularly Black America. When we saw, you know, what was happening with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the others that was about Black Lives Matter. It was about criminal justice. But at the same time, you know, “I can't breathe” was also about, I can't breathe because my community is surrounded by 15 chemical plants, refineries that's just choking my community. You're waking up at two o'clock in the morning because of some toxic spills, some explosion. I can't breathe. My life is threatened. You know, when I started in 1979 in Houston, Texas with Bean versus Southwestern Waste Management Corporation fighting environmental racism, environmental justice was a footnote, but 2020 of the summer, it became a headline. We're fighting to breathe. We’re also fighting to live in a society where you can have a good, sustainable and resilient future.

NIALA: In 15 seconds, we'll hear more from Dr. Bullard, but also EPA Administrator Michael Regan on how environmental justice is changing his agency's role.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Hard Truths. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

The impacts of climate change aren't equal. We've seen that all over the world with developing countries like Bangladesh or the Maldives, but that's also true right here in the U.S. The EPA just put out a report looking at four different socially vulnerable groups when it comes to climate change.

And here's what you need to know: Black people are 40% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected mortality rates because of climate change. Hispanic and Latino people are 43% more likely to work in places where high temperature days will cause them to lose job opportunities. And Native Americans are 48% more likely to live in places that will be flooded because of sea level rise.

Michael Regan is the first Black man to be in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. Before joining the EPA, he led the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Administrator Regan, thank you for being with us on Axios.

MICHAEL REGAN: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: So we've seen some striking evidence recently in this country of the ways in which communities of color are disproportionately subjected to the impacts of climate change. We just saw this tragically play out in Louisiana and New York city. How did you try to quantify that? How did you want to study and capture what's going on here?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, thank you for the question. The EPA released one of the most comprehensive and advanced studies around environmental justice to date. We know that there are certain communities that are disproportionately impacted. It's more than a feeling. It's data that points to and demonstrates how this is impacting low income communities. But unfortunately you don't have to read the science to know that climate change is real, too many people are seeing and feeling it and living it as a real experience.

NIALA: Do you think the goals of the EPA, when it comes to environmental justice, align with the goals of racial justice groups like Black Lives Matter?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: I do. I believe that environmental justice is racial justice is climate justice. This is why it's important for us to partner with the civil rights organizations, to partner with the climate justice organizations, to partner with the environmental justice organizations because we don't need to recreate the wheel. That's what we're doing at EPA.

NIALA: How do you bring those groups to the table when there’s a history of different federal agencies, including the EPA, that has excluded these groups for such a long part of American history?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You invite them to the table and listen, listen to what these communities have born disproportionately for far too long, listen to their concerns, listen to their solutions. Now I think it does take time to build trust and so now it's on us to begin to extend those invitations, to those who have not been a part of the discussion, ensure that their voices are being heard and considered in the decision.

NIALA: Michael Regan is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Thank you for your time.


NIALA: The EPA has come under fire from activists like the Sunrise Movement for falling short on environmental justice, especially as climate change has become more visible, but one in President Biden's plans on this front has support from people like the father of environmental justice - Dr. Robert Bullard, who we heard from earlier.

Biden set up a council on environmental justice with activists and academics from across the country to push forth what he called the Justice 40 initiative to ensure that 40% of all the benefits from climate investments go to our most vulnerable communities.

Dr. Bullard says that initiative is key to actually making progress and improving environmental conditions for these communities.

DR. BULLARD: You got to make sure that the monies flow to those cities and counties and municipalities. What we have to do is to assist and support what's happening on the ground to ensure that the historical pattern of how federal funds and disaster funding and FEMA and other kinds of funding, even Covid monies that this dominant paradigm money follows money, follows power, money follows whites. That's how it generally happens and the communities of greatest need get left out. We have to flip that script. We have to flip it so that money and resources flow toward need. We're talking about giant steps and we're talking about steps to eradicate those structural factors that create and perpetuate inequality.

NIALA: But getting the federal government to take those giant steps will continue to be a challenge. And for communities and families that have already been devasted by environmental racism - for people like Henry Herrera in New Mexico -- the government has failed them time and time again. From President Harry Truman to now President Biden, they're still waiting for someone to acknowledge -- and compensate them for -- everything they've lost.

"Axios Today" is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. This episode was produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez and edited by Alexandra Botti. Jeanne Montalvo is our sound engineer. Special thanks to Axios Executive Editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, Hard Truths Editor Michele Salcedo, Executive Producer Dan Bobkoff, and managing editor for business Aja Whitacker-Moore, and for this episode especially - climate and energy reporters Andrew Freedman and Ben Geman and race and justice reporter Russell Contreras.

We’ve got so much more about many other aspects of systemic racism and the environment, visit

Tell us what you think. Email us at [email protected] and find me on Twitter. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening - stay safe - and we’re back with the news on Monday.

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