On April 9, Newark Academy will be hosting its fourth annual Northern New Jersey Eco-Summit. Each year, the Eco-Summit explores a specific aspect of environmentalism and highlights solutions to environmental issues from a local to international scale. The theme of this year’s Eco-Summit is environmental health. The summit will explore the intersections between public health and the environment, and it aims to promote the collective health of both the environment and humans. Environmental health is also closely tied to environmental justice because BIPOC and low-income communities often bear the burden of environmental hazards and pollution, leading to the prevalence of adverse health effects in these regions. Following the Community Service Council theme of environmental justice and stewardship, the Eco-Summit will serve as one of the main events for the Earth Month of Service occurring throughout the entire month of April.
Each year, the Eco-Summit features a keynote presentation given by an expert on the theme. This year, the keynote speaker is Anne Rolfes, the director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in Cancer Alley, Louisiana. Cancer Alley is a region along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans containing over 150 petrochemical facilities, which have been found to release extremely toxic amounts of pollutants into the air and water. As the number of petrochemical facilities in Cancer Alley continues to multiply, respiratory diseases and cancer become more prevalent, especially among BIPOC communities. In a study conducted at an elementary school near the Pontchartrain Works facility, a chemical manufacturing plant, in Cancer Alley, chloroprene levels were recorded 755 times above the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance. Over 400 children attend the school that is only about a thousand feet from the plant, meaning that they are exposed to toxic chemicals and can begin to develop respiratory infections and cancers from a young age. Toxic air quality levels like the ones in this elementary school are now common throughout the entire Cancer Alley region.
Anne Rolfe’s organization, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, is a grassroots organization that is fighting against the detrimental health impacts of environmental hazards perpetuated by Louisiana's petrochemical industry and regain control of the region’s environmental health. Since its founding in 2000, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has gathered community members to challenge the expansion of the petrochemical industry through local political action and data collection on pollution levels. The organization started collecting data using a simple, low-cost air sampling bucket that could be easily distributed to everyday citizens. Since then, the organization has expanded to provide medicines and supplies to suffering families and prompt political action through campaigns and protests. The Bucket Brigade exemplifies how sustained community efforts can raise awareness and hold large companies accountable for the environmental damage that they cause and its impact on the public health of these regions.
Anne Rolfe’s work goes beyond her influence in Cancer Alley and also brings attention to the ethics of environmental racism and health issues internationally. A year ago, the United Nations declared Cancer Alley a human rights violation and a case of environmental racism that must be addressed, as the petrochemical industries in Louisiana now infringe on citizens’ right to health and safety in their environment. Rolfes explained, “It’s easy to get used to atrocities that are happening in your own backyard, but when you step back and look at the situation in St. James Parish and along Cancer Alley, it does rise to the level of human rights abuse and humanitarian tragedy. The state and the local parish council are cramming all of the pollution into the two highest majority Black districts. We are relieved and grateful that the United Nations has taken a stand, and we would like our state officials to follow.”
So what can you do to help? First, Green and Blue Committee along with the Eco-Summit Steering Committee will be hosting a fundraiser to support the Louisiana Bucket Brigade with Eco-Summit themed stickers available to all who donate. Next, I urge you to register and come to the Eco-Summit to learn more about environmental health issues in Cancer Alley and beyond. And lastly, I invite you to engage in this intersectional topic within environmentalism beyond the Eco-Summit. Although this year’s Eco-Summit will highlight Cancer Alley, environmental racism and health issues are prevalent throughout the nation, including in Newark, New Jersey. Thus, environmental health impacts us all, and we should address it in our local communities as well as on a broader scale.
Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade