The Kinder Morgan Pipeline Is One Of Many Examples Of Environmental Racism


Last month, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study indicating that Black communities and people of colour in the United States disproportionately experience environmental pollution (with Black communities as much as 3 times more likely to live amid environmental pollution), as many polluting industries locate themselves right in the middle of these vulnerable communities, with the state offering little to no protection. The study’s unsurprising findings contribute to an already vast wealth of formal and informal knowledge urgently informing the rapidly urbanizing and globalized world that it is poor and racialized communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental change and development.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of recent developments in the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from Edmonton, Alberta to Burnaby, British Columbia. Expanding the pipeline would entail constructing an additional pipeline following 90% of the original pipeline’s route to essentially transport larger quantities of crude oil. Inevitably, the twinning of the Trans Mountain Pipeline brings an increased risk of catastrophic oil spills. As the effects of a spill from bitumen, or crude oil, are under-researched, the outcomes could perhaps be more disastrous than expected.

Opposition concerning the twinning of the pipeline incorporates both environmental concerns and impediments to human rights. An oil spill could decimate ocean ecosystems. It could also affect the livelihoods, traditions and health of the countless communities living along its route. The negative consequences of the pipeline would more specifically affect indigenous communities, including the Upper Nicola, Coldwater, Tsleil-Waututh and Secwepemc bands, whose un-ceded lands are the site of the original Trans Mountain Pipeline which was finished in 1953.

When the original pipeline began construction in 1951, it was illegal for Indigenous folks to politically organize, or hire lawyers to give them a voice. With the Trans Mountain Pipeline’s extension (which was federally approved by the Trudeau government in 2016), not only were indigenous folks neither asked nor consulted before the planning of the project, but a recent court injunction has banned protesters from nearing the construction site, a large percentage of whom are Indigenous.

While addressing the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline on Indigenous land, it is important to consider the EPA’s recent report, and further understand environment in the context of race and how globalization, modernization and environmental change disproportionately affects Indigenous and Black communities and communities of colour in the Global South, but also in the Global North and in our own backyards.

Pitting Indigenous and Black communities and communities of colour against their environment is a longstanding practice that manifests in a variety of ways. Perhaps one can understand this phenomenon through the term “environmental racism.” While racism would entail discrimination with “power, privilege and institutional support,” environmental racism is the way in which racism experienced by marginalized and minority folks increases vulnerability to environmental change and disasters, as well as pollution and a lack of access to necessary resources like clean water and healthy food. As race and socioeconomic standing are inextricably linked due to flawed and racist neoliberal systems, environmental racism can manifest in ways that push vulnerable communities to live in cheaper areas that do not adequately meet good standards of living and are continually ignored, to name just one way.

The concept of environmental racism originated in the 1960s, but gained momentum in the 1980s, as Black communities and communities of colour protested the dumping of toxic waste and contaminated soil near their homes. In 1987, when the United Church for Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published a pioneering report on how hazardous waste facilities were disproportionately located in minority communities. In 1992, responding to mounting evidence that Black communities and lower income communities are more likely to bear the brunt of toxic dumping, George H.W Bush founded the Office of Environmental Justice within the EPA. Attempts by subsequent presidents to address environmental racism did not go far. Presently, Donald Trump has vowed to weaken the powers of the EPA and to cut funding, leaving poor communities and communities of colour even more vulnerable.

An example of environmental racism that differs from the Kinder Morgan pipeline, illustrating the broad scope of the problem, is the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the government’s response. Due to the link between socioeconomics and race, as well as historical and institutionalized discrimination from a variety of economic benefits, including mortgages and homeownership, many of New Orleans’ African-American residents were pushed into more dangerous areas of the Gulf Coast where infrastructure lacks investment; additionally, transportation in the city has generally served white suburban areas at the expense of other communities.

When Hurricane Katrina, the third worst hurricane on American continental shores, hit,  Black communities and/or lower-income communities experienced a disproportionate and exacerbated devastation. The government’s response to the disaster, which included tax relief for homeowners and certain incomes did not benefit many who were actually in need, as they did not own homes or have high enough incomes to pay taxes.

Water contamination is another example of environmental racism. In Canada, a large proportion of First Nations reservations do not have consistent access to safe drinking water; boil water advisories are 2.5 times more likely in Indigenous communities. According to Health Canada in 2009, the average boil advisory lasted 343 days. Similarly, Flint, Michigan, which is considered the second poorest city in the United States and is home to mainly Latinx and African-American families, has been providing residents contaminated drinking water from the polluted Flint River to cut costs. A state of emergency was issued only a year after residents began complaining.

Evidently, the scope of environmental racism is broad and unjust. Government acknowledgement is sparse and lacks focus, despite decades of evidence and protests. The twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is one of the hundreds of examples of environmental racism in North America. Additionally, the effects of natural disasters often disproportionately affect poor and communities of colour while contaminated water is guiltlessly provided to vulnerable communities.

Development, modernization and globalization accelerate without the input or consideration of those who shoulder their negative consequences, precisely because institutions have historically ignored and disregarded them. Although environmental movements have been fighting environmental change and damage since the early 1970s, the New Yorker reports that “the environmental movement has historically been white and upper-class.” For example, a 2014 study revealed that whites held 89% of leadership positions in environmental organizations. As power and decision-making abilities continue to be institutionally denied to Black and Indigenous folk and people of colour, not only will we continue harming communities, but will also lose valuable insight into how to properly care for our environment and for each other. It is crucial, humane and just to include and listen to minority voices when considering development and urban planning.