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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: Climate Justice Means Putting Frontline Families Like Mine at the Front

Climate Justice
The smokestack of the Wheelabrator incinerator, a waste recycling facility that converts trash into energy. Capital News Service photo by Joe Ryan.

By Sandra Lovo

The writer is a 20-year South Baltimore resident.

Like many immigrants fleeing poverty after a natural disaster, my family and I immigrated from El Salvador after the 2001 earthquakes devastated our country. With a lot of hard work, we opened a family restaurant where we all worked, and we bought houses in the neighborhood of Brooklyn to live close to each other.

Baltimore became our home, and we feel we’re part of the hard-working and diverse community that lives here.

During the pandemic, we lost income when our restaurant was forced to close. But the hardest part to overcome has been the loss of my father shortly after we reopened. My father was the leader of our household, always supporting my siblings and mother, as well as a leader in his community, fighting for immigration reform with the organization CASA.

I decided that using my voice for change would be a way to honor him, and I’ve been working with CASA and neighborhood groups to continue creating a better Brooklyn for everyone.

Brooklyn is located in South Baltimore near the Wheelabrator incinerator, a waste-to-energy plant that releases tons of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals into the air. In operation since 1985, it is the single largest source of air pollution in Baltimore.

Today, Brooklyn has the worst air quality in the state of Maryland and residents are more likely to develop chronic respiratory illnesses, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun. Despite protests from the community, in 2020, the Baltimore City Council agreed to extend the incinerator’s contract until 2031.

For the next decade, the incinerator will continue to poison the air our children breathe, and Black and brown working-class communities like mine in Brooklyn will be left to endure the consequences of polluted air.

It is unacceptable for our children and families to suffer respiratory illnesses when we have fewer resources to overcome them or treat them. My 16-year-old sister and 13-year-old son are victims of this environmental racism. When we arrived in Brooklyn, my sister was a healthy 4-year-old with no asthma, but over time, she developed asthma and an ongoing skin problem. I was already living in Brooklyn and exposed to the polluted air when I became pregnant with my son.

Like any mother, I was anxious to bring my newborn home from the hospital, but the doctors told me he’d been born with pulmonary hypertension and needed to stay an additional month in the critical care unit receiving treatment. Now my son lives with asthma, and if he doesn’t take his medication daily, he’ll suffer an asthma attack.

It’s painful as a parent to see your kids suffer from this disease, and I wouldn’t wish this fate for anyone.

This year, Maryland passed the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022. With it, a promise to fight climate change through reducing emissions. But it’s not enough to fight climate change without recognizing and prioritizing the communities that suffer the worst impacts of the climate crisis and environmental pollution.

Neighborhoods like mine that have suffered the most burden should be at the front of the line when we are investing in reducing emissions and transitioning to clean energy. While the Maryland General Assembly failed to pass legislation that would have ensured that at least 40% of all new investments would be directed to overburdened and underserved communities, it did take a strong step towards environmental justice by amending the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 to include definitions of “overburdened” and “underserved” communities.

The Climate Solutions Now Act is only the first step.

Action to fight climate change without justice for overburdened communities will only deepen social inequalities. That is why I testified to include this amendment during the legislative session.

From my father who was forced to immigrate due to more destructive earthquakes caused by climate change to my son who needs to take asthma medication daily from breathing the polluted air in Brooklyn, communities like mine can no longer be forgotten as we make efforts to stop climate change and protect the most vulnerable.


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Opinion: Climate Justice Means Putting Frontline Families Like Mine at the Front