Environmental injustice continues to grip two communities in southwestern Ohio. One, a predominantly African-American urban village that suffers the echoes of gunfire and the absence of green spaces. The other, a low-income, chemical-infested neighborhood, where black soot visibly resides on the roofs of cars and homes. Lincoln Heights and Middletown are both fighting to be heard on these issues.
I have worked with these communities over the past few months, and it has been an eye-opening experience. Separated by a 35-minute drive, these two communities have been battling local environmental issues for decades. As these issues have become more prominent, government agencies are reluctant to fight. Residents have expressed the devastating effects to authorities, but they are met with radio silence. In environmental disasters in small communities, it is all too common to find that residents are the ones who take sides, rather than those who represent them.
In Lincoln Heights, residents worked to improve green spaces, reduce food insecurity and eliminate noise pollution from a local police firing range. After years of frustration with government inaction, residents have finally decided to leave local authorities out of the solution. Why? A local resident said their government leaders often do not live in the community; they are on a completely different plane when it comes to creating solutions. For this reason, the voices of community members are often not heard.
The case is the same in Middletown. Residents have fought fiercely against the steel plant whose pollution they say has caused medical and psychological problems. For decades, the community has been plagued with toxic emissions like benzene, particulates and other pollutants. Residents have filed numerous complaints with the EPA over the past few years, but most have received the same response: specious field action taken, little or no follow-up, nothing changes, investigation terminated.
A Middletown resident said “the smell coming from AK products or air, or Sun Coke – can’t take it. I have COPD and (I’m) on oxygen.” Others noted metallic particles, soot, fallout and a strong smell of sulfur among other harmful pollutants.
Residents of the Lincoln Heights and Middletown areas have had enough. Recently, the two communities partnered with undergraduate students and professors from the University of Cincinnati to seek justice through community-based participatory research. Both projects reveal that residents are unhappy with the circumstances in which they live. Early results from the partnership suggest that residents see a need for drastic improvements in their quality of life.
Despite the injustices they face, the power of these communities shines through, thanks to those who have risen to the challenge. A resident of the Lincoln Heights community explains that environmental injustice excludes the voices of BIPOC and low-income communities: “We need to hold our government and big business accountable and give our residents the tools to fight back.” These communities have been empowered to plan forums, create websites and organize events to bring residents together to prevent polluters and ineffective governments from harming them any longer.
For years, these communities have sat and watched those responsible flee the battle. Years of waiting for victory turned into frustration and lost lives. Now more than ever, locals are taking matters into their own hands and demanding change, and you can join them in their fight for justice.
Mackenzie Mason is a freshman environmental studies student at the University of Cincinnati where, as part of an experiential course in Writing for Justice, she worked on the Middletown Community Campaign for Environmental Justice.