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Civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis is being honored this week before he is laid to rest in Atlanta. There have been some beautiful and moving tributes, but his own words and calls to action — written days before he died and now published in the New York Times — are the most powerful. "You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others."

There are, of course, countless examples of powerful people profiting from the exploitation of others. Our work at Southerly examines many of those happening across the American South, and how people are fighting back, responding, and working for change and progress. 

Here's one challenge I'm thinking about this week: About 2,000 official and potential Superfund sites — which are sites contaminated by hazardous chemicals — are located within 25 miles of the East or Gulf Coast. Millions of people live within a few miles — a disproportionate amount of them people of color. 

As a new Union of Concerned Scientists study led by a former EPA researcher shows, many of these sites are located directly near the coast and are at a high risk of flooding during extreme weather or from sea level rise. As with other climate change effects and environmental hazards, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are most at risk. One recent report cited in the study said 70% of the Superfund sites listed on the National Priorities List are located within one mile of government assisted housing, home to 77,000 people. The UCS study found "2.5 million more people of color than expected for counties along the East and Gulf Coasts live within five miles of a Superfund site at risk of flooding in the high sea level rise scenario." Under high rates of sea level rise, 15 sites would be at risk of extreme coastal flooding by 2040 in Houston. (The scenarios are from NOAA data, laid out here in a helpful chart, and range anywhere from 2.4 to 78.7 inches from 2020 to 2100 depending on the low or high level scenario).

Photo by Rory Doyle

This report doesn't include sites that are hazardous but aren't considered Superfund sits, such as coastal coal ash ponds or hog farms, often sited in Black communities. It's a problem inland, too: A contaminated Kentucky nuclear plant site has been on the Superfund list since 1994, and locals know very little about it. In West Virginia, a whole town has been designated a Superfund site, and while the county attracts the outdoor industry, residents — many of whom have long struggled with health effects likely from the pollution — are wondering when it'll be cleaned up. 

The costs of cleaning up these sites are huge. While the Trump administration has rolled back environmental regulations, making it easier for industries to dump chemicals and contaminants into the environment, the EPA's Superfund program has long been underfunded and slow. Figuring out who does the work is an entirely different challenge, and as we've seen with contractors' cleanup of TVA's coal ash spill in 2008, it can be dangerous for workers if not monitored properly. 

While we're all beginning to see the effects of climate change in our own backyards, its harms are unequal — which is why tackling it has everything to do with achieving racial and economic justice, with Black Lives Matter protests, with calls for police reform and defunding. To make it through, America has to clean up its messes in ways that protect workers, improve community health, and, as Lewis wrote, build union. 
—Lyndsey Gilpin, Founder, Editor, Publisher

Stories worth your time

Bitter Southerner profiled the hosts of the Trillbilly Worker's Party, Tarence Ray, Tom Sexton, and Tanya Turner, who met in eastern Kentucky. “You can’t grow up in eastern Kentucky and not hear union stories and not know about some type of labor history,” Turner said. “That class consciousness is in the water.”

Texas Observer has a Q&A with Andrea Roberts, founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies project, which publishes interactive information on planning, heritage, preservation, and ecological threats in Freedom Colonies—settlements or towns founded by independent Black Texans between 1865 and 1930. She spoke about her research, urban planning, and connecting Black Texans to their history. 

A year ago, laid-off Blackjewel coal miners were blocking a coal train in Harlan County, Kentucky, to get the money they were owed. Ohio Valley Resource has a look back at how some of them have been faring since. (And read our profile of a father and son who helped lead the protest)

How water sustains movements from North Carolina to the borderlands

Destroying water sources is a tactic used by police and border patrol agents to control social and migratory movements.

 Read the story

‘Give us a break, Lord’: Amid active hurricane season, pandemic halts recovery in Florida two years after Michael

With federal money running out, slow rebuilds, and a lack of affordable housing, many Panhandle residents are vulnerable to this year’s storms. Read the story, published with Climate Central.  

News flying under the radar 

A mysterious plume of 300 metric tons of methane was released just north of Gainesville, Florida, in May — and there's still no information about where it came from. 

Joe Biden released his climate change plan, which outlines strategies on implementing electric vehicles and more renewable energy. But it doesn't explicitly ban fracking — something many Democrats are pushing for — and Texas oil and gas company executives are happy about that. 

West Virginia regulators are urging a small, struggling water utility in Fayette County to consider allowing a larger provider to take over its water assets

Four contract workers at the Wacker Chemical plant in Charleston, Tennessee were injured Friday while performing maintenance. In 2017, a chemical explosion injured 13 people, including workers, a firefighter, and residents, and sent hydrochloric acid into the air. 

Houston's Fifth Ward is one of the city's oldest historically Black communities, and one of the poorest. It's woefully unprepared for another hurricane like Harvey to hit, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Forty-five residents in central Georgia filed a lawsuit alleging Georgia Power has unlawfully released, discharged and deposited coal ash from Plant Scherer into their community’s drinking water source. 
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