Leo Carney writes in this MFP Voices essay that neither political party has stood up for the Black community when it comes to racial disparities in environmental, social and economic policies. Photo courtesy J. P. Valery on Unsplash

Is Facing and Ending Environmental Racism Too Radical For the Left and the Right?

As a young man growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I worked in shrimp factories along the Coast. The shrimping and industrial institutions were the only source of income for young middle-school kids in the early 1990s before the casinos. Little did I know, there was a common ringworm that was prevalent in those days.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology, shrimp grown in captivity are very susceptible to diseases caused by microorganisms, and this dramatically affects productivity. Polluted waters along Biloxi’s Back Bay Area were home to the biggest seafood factories in Mississippi. 

If only I knew then what I know now! 

 The environmental impacts on these industries—as well as to the surrounding  communities and their families—are still felt throughout America today.

The National Center for Biotechnology reports that shrimp grown in captivity, such as along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, are very susceptible to diseases caused by microorganisms. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Marine Resources

As one of the co-founding members of a bipartisan political advocacy organization called American Descendants of Slavery of Mississippi, it is my and our chapter’s mission to address the racial disparities that affect these communities in Mississippi and across America. 

Our first encounter with environmental racism did not start in Flint, Mich. 

Once ADOS activists were notified of the human rights violations occurring in Lowndes County, Ala., involving a lethal hookworm epidemic, we notified Rep. Terri Sewell, a Selma Democrat, of this travesty and demanded that there be a remedy. 

Upon our research, we found that this intestinal parasite benefits from the effects of extreme poverty. Endemic tropical diseases are common in developing countries, not one of the richest countries in the world!

In 2017, Dr. Peter Hotez and Catherine Flowers of Baylor University completed a study of neglected tropical diseases. Their instrumental research revealed that impoverished residents in Lowndes County, Ala., were literally consuming contaminated wastewater from raw sewage being flushed back into sinks and bathtubs in their homes during flooding. One in three Lowndes County residents tested positive for hookworm. 

This disenfranchised area of Alabama has a history of racial discrimination and inequality. 

Marine fishing industries can, in turn, create environmental health problems, which can be focused in Black, Brown and other marginalized communities. Photo courtesy Mississippi Department of Marine Resources

A recent survey by the National School of Tropical Medicine found that 34% of these residents tested positive for Necator americanus (hookworm). Hookworm responds to deforestation, resulting in flooding, which then creates the ideal environment for hookworms to thrive: in moist landscapes with warm climates. 

Contaminated Water and Abject Poverty 

Small unincorporated communities have no access to city maintained sewage systems. U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and others have done nothing to mitigate this epidemic that has gone unnoticed among leftists who are calling for a Green “New Deal.” Meanwhile, 32% of residents in Lowndes County, Ala., live in abject poverty. 

Due to the persistence of ADOS activists in Alabama and across the country, the Alabama Department of Health spearheaded the Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Project. It began in November of 2018, headed by Environmental Services Director Sherry Bradley. 

This program was supposed to solve the public health crisis in Lowndes County—yet, it escalated an already dire situation.

The Alabama Department of Health offered to pay for the systems “up front.” The kicker is that the owner has to be trained to service the system and pay $20 per month for the “life of their system.” In addition to the monthly $20 “maintenance fee,” there is a larger one-time payment of $1,500 for the conventional system or a one-time payment of $1,000 for an engineered system. ADHP is partnering with private foundations instead of relying on a federal government and a president that has abandoned its environmental responsibilities. 

This is unacceptable leadership.

Both parties seem to be split on deforestation and fracking for natural gas. These actions continue to deprive impoverished rural communities of their tax dollars. Both parties should demand that the Alabama governor request FEMA funding to help Lowndes County pay the down payments for their constituents. We are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that could very well be tied to the underlying conditions caused by neglected tropical diseases. 

In January 2020, The USDA verbally approved the recent application for federal funding to assist the county residents with paying for the down payments, but only 100 homes are “chosen” on a first come, first serve basis. Why? This is a public-health crisis. 

As COVID-19 ravaged over 60% of  ADOS Mississippians  in April,  I could not help thinking about what I learned concerning neglected tropical diseases and how if left untreated, they could lead to underlying medical conditions for impoverished communities in Mississippi.

The Yazoo Backwater Project Resurrected

This made me wonder about the Yazoo Backwater Project that the Trump administration resurrected. The George W. Bush administration vetoed it under the U.S. Clean Drinking Water Act. 

Shrimping is huge industry on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But it brings environmental risks with it that must be mitigated. Photo courtesy Mississippi Department of Marine Resources

Theoretically, the plan was to help solve the backwater flooding. In reality, this is a Big Agriculture drainage project that would mostly benefit highly subsidized agricultural businesses while increasing detrimental flood risks downstream. This harms low-income communities that depend on those area’s natural resources. 

Both parties in Washington and in Mississippi have voted to support this project. The Yazoo Backwater Project would drain and damage up to 200,000 acres of ecologically significant wetlands along the Big Sunflower River near Vicksburg, Miss. This is home to the fertile lands of the Mississippi Delta and the Cotton Belt.

Construction would cost taxpayers $300 million and millions more in annual maintenance costs. I am calling for an environmental impact study of  neglected tropical diseases in Yazoo County and the areas surrounding Vicksburg.

ADOS makes up over 50% of coronavirus cases in Mississippi as a result of these underlying factors that are frankly under-reported. Gov. Tate Reeves continues to mismanage the public-health crisis of COVID-19. Also, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  and the “Squad” have been relatively quiet on this issue.

Neither party has stood up for American descendants of slavery when it comes to racial disparities in environmental, social and economic policies. ADOS of MS are seeking reparative justice that is a pathway for statewide and federal reparations for American descendants of slavery in Mississippi and across America.

 Is this too radical for the left?

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to donna@mississippifreepress.com. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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