The hurricanes that devastated parts of Texas and most of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico have revealed a continuing story of environmental injustice. Millions of people’s lives in Puerto Rico were disrupted by Hurricane Maria, and Texans are still recovering from the destruction of Hurricane Harvey. In Puerto Rico, rural and poverty-stricken areas were especially impacted, resulting in devastation of resources and hazardous waste contamination that have already raised serious health concerns. These catastrophic weather events were accelerated by climate change.
As Roberto José Thomas Ramírez, general coordinator of the Eco-Development Initiative of Jobos Bay in southern Puerto Rico says, “Maria didn’t just hit the island and strip the trees and the infrastructure. It also laid bare the inequalities and injustices that existed for many years.”
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the South, Cuba, and the Bahamas, the federal response sparked a huge sense of outrage among marginalized communities due to the failures of rapid response, preparation, and the ability to get accurate information. The hardest-hit areas were, of course, filled with oil refineries and other infrastructure of the petrochemical industry—similar to the parts of Texas that were most affected by Hurricane Harvey. For example, there were explosions from the Arkema Inc. chemical plant that caused a release of vast amounts of chemicals into the air and water. The contamination from the explosions resulted in extended chemical exposure towards residents of the frontline community of Crosby, Texas.
The recent disasters highlight a long history of environmental injustice, in Texas as well as in Puerto Rico. Governmental agencies such as FEMA have improved their emergency procedures somewhat but they have not addressed the root causes of failures to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable communities. Instead, the Trump Administration is planning to dismantle the EPA’s Environmental Justice program. We must reduce the economic disparities that are aggravated by these climate disasters. As UK’s Sue Hayman stated at her Labour Party’s SERA (Socialist Environment and Resources Association) rally, “there is no social justice without environmental justice”.