Excerpted From: Mary Finley-Brook and Environmental Justice Researchers, Racism and Toxic Burden in Rural Dixie, 46 William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review 603 (Spring, 2022) (557 Footnotes) (Full Document)


MaryFinleyBrookStruggles for survival and well-being in Indigenous and Black communities come to the fore during controversial rural economic development projects like mega-landfills, open-pit mines, and interstate gas pipelines. Energy colonialism, like other resource exploitation, forces low-wealth areas to bear high costs from infrastructure (e.g., living with pollution, noise, stress, conflict, etc.), while outside investors gain the majority of financial and other rewards. For example, rural areas have the lowest cost easements for oil and gas (“O&G”) transmission corridors with less stringent safety protocols. Peripheral areas often serve as pollution sinks for exported waste or contamination, as remote localities often have less capacity for environmental enforcement. At the same time, rural areas remain essential sources for key natural resources, including timber, minerals and agricultural production.

Extended social, economic and political inequalities manifest in material and symbolic means of exclusion and oppression known as structural violence, with the extreme forms of violence leading to structural extermination. and Brown people have been--and continue to be-- erased from Appalachian geographies, while white, low-wealth Appalachians are disproportionately impacted by coal extraction and now fracking. Genocidal treatment of Indigenous Peoples contributed to present-day fragmentation and marginalization, while anti-Blackracism led to strategies to 'divide and conquer’ these minorities by pitting them against each other. Infrastructure expansion reinforces displacement and racial injustice embedded through centuries of exploitation and unfair treatment based on race, class, age, health status and other characteristics.

Part I of this review involves justice-centered analysis of legal geographies attending to how complex social and ecological spaces relate to limits under state regulations and the spatial extent of laws and normative frameworks. Part II presents illustrated cases in Buckingham, Pittsylvania, and Charles City Counties. While gas permits in all three hotspots originally received approval from Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”), some later hit legal, financial or regulatory roadblocks. Industrial corridors and landfills expand in two hotspots, while mining operations grow in all three. Market and power analysis in Part III discusses why environmental injustice becomes entrenched and persists, while Part IV highlights transformative initiatives under development.

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The 2020 EJ Act must be strengthened so procedures become more participatory and fairer. Evolving environmental justice norms often focus on quantifiable data to verify equitable treatment; while it is important to assure numerical fairness in costs and benefits, these assessments can overlook that environmental justice is a process. Invited spaces will not allow for the transformation necessary, as documented in our lived experiences, where residents used every opportunity to try to influence the process and were frequently still excluded. Their concerns were seldom addressed, encouraging front line communities and supporters to become relentless, and to use and refuse the law until justice occurs. Our examples of created and claimed spaces demonstrate collaborative efforts to transform risks into opportunities. Join us.

Corresponding author, Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Richmond; academic liaison for the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative (“VEJC”).