Environmental Justice in Rubbertown

By Sarah Caine, former UUMFE Young Adult Board member and Starr King seminarian

Louisville is an honest and proud city. There are markers for historical events and places throughout the Downtown area, some marking moments of enlightenment, some marking darker parts of history such as a former slave auction site. I was in Louisville during the Final Four and the Championship NCAA games and everywhere I went people were sporting the bright red denoting their loyalty to the University of Louisville. When Louisville won the car horns could be heard all night long.

I came to Louisville with the UU Ministry for Earth Board of Directors in order to meet the local activists and religious leaders in preparation for the upcoming General Assembly in June. The UUMFE and other social action branches of the UU community are coming together to offer a plethora of environmental justice centered workshops and a tour of the areas of Louisville disproportionately affected by environmental injustice. Once in Louisville the immediacy of the environmental inequity gets in your very lungs, though how much depends on where you are in the city.

This geographical variable is a textbook example of environmental inequity/racism/classism/injustice. How does environmental justice vary from environmentalism? Environmentalism was started by people of privilege and tends to focus on conservation and preservation of non-human animals and the non-animal world. Sometimes, at the oppression of native peoples or the oversight of communities of lower income’s needs for survival. Environmental justice focuses on the needs of traditionally oppressed communities and the ways that immediate environmental concerns negatively effect them – for example, toxic dumping in lower income areas, traditionally communities of color. The EJ movement started back in the 60’s with a sanitation workers strike and was picked up by the United Church of Christ as a social witness process. Ecological Justice is another movement that looks at the health of systems, including human, but often lumps humans into one group and misses the politics within the human community. I like to mix both EcoJustice and EJ for my own personal outlook and mission in this work. As part of this interdependent web (Principle Seven, one of my personal favorites!), I believe that when one part of the web is weakened we all feel it, and we must be able to examine the smaller and bigger details of such.

Back to Kentucky.

The air in Rubbertown (the area of Louisville next to the Ohio River that came to be an industrial and residential mix during WWII) is so heavy you can feel it as you inhale. On a clear day, like the one during which we took our Environmental Justice tour, it takes a little longer for you to notice. You have to start walking. Within a few feet your breathing is heavier than normal. This is thanks to the particulate and ash in the air from the plants that synthesize rubber–for PVC, for shoes, for tires, so much of our lives are wrapped in plastic. Rubbertown was created because rubber production needed to be faster than importation of the plant from Southeast Asia would allow. This “town” was built between the river and the freeway, houses built between the factories and the freeway.

At one point in the tour, we came to a pile of coal ash thirteen stories high. It’s packed beyond a publicly maintained cemetery, behind a screen meant to stop erosion from destroying riverbanks but not capable of keeping the toxic ash from blowing around and over it. This ash is toxic and has caused health problems for the community neighboring it. Local activists are working hard, against powerful opposition, to better contain the ash.

Near Rubbertown, there is a community called Lake Dreamland, which was originally built as a resort in the 1930s but is now a lower income area with an unlined dump hidden beneath the green of the area before the tree line. This community is right on the river, and the water table is being affected in unknown ways. The soil has who knows what in it, and the “lake” that was originally the center of the community is a sludgy looking pond with nasty in it.

Both of these communities have houses beyond the flood protection walls and levies, they are set up to be underwater if the river raises above its banks. What does that say about the “disposability” of some people? First, their communities are poisoned, and then their homes are ruined in floods. This is looking like injustice. Luckily, groups like Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light are working with the community councils of the area to try and bring help to these neighborhoods. It’s trickier to address the issue of the coal powered plant across the river in Indiana, one that is only fired up during peak electricity months (like the upcoming Summer) and whose noxious fumes get blown over to Louisville from the eastward winds. The communities in closest proximity to the plant? … those of low-income, mostly people of color. Issues like these do not stop at borders. That interdependent web, it extends past neighborhoods.

We are all on one planet. The pollution in Indiana affects Kentucky. The pollution in China affects the US. Spreading it out doesn’t change that it’s still there. We need Eco and Environmental Justice.

Our first (“The inherent worth and dignity of every person”), second (“Justice, equity and compassion in human relations”), fifth (“The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”), sixth (“The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all”), and seventh (“Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part”) principles circle around justice work. Our faith is one of action. The people in Kentucky are connected to us, to the planet, and deserve justice and equity. As UUs, we are called to stand with the people fighting for their voices to be heard because we believe that all people have worth and dignity and should be able to participate in their own governance. Let’s join the struggle for Environmental and Ecological Justice!

Here is an article that quite aptly discusses the evolution and necessity of the EJ movement – James Cone’s “Whose Earth is it Anyway?” from Sojourners Magazine 2007.

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This is an administrative account for UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE).