Q&A: Heather McTeer Toney Reflects on the Ongoing Struggle for Environmental Justice in America

From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview on Juneteenth by Host Steve Curwood with Heather McTeer Toney, former Southeast regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama. 

STEVE CURWOOD: On June nineteenth of 1865, enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, finally got the news that more than two years earlier President Abraham Lincoln had already emancipated three and a half million enslaved people in the Confederate States in rebellion against the Union. 

And though we’ve come a long way since then, true freedom and equality for all have yet to arrive. Generations of Black Americans have faced racism, redlining and environmental injustices, such as breathing 40 percent dirtier air and being twice as likely as white Americans to be hospitalized or die from climate-related health problems.

So, the quest for justice now must include addressing the climate emergency, writes Heather McTeer Toney in her 2023 book, “Before the Streetlights Come On: Black America’s Urgent Call for Climate Solutions.” Black kids were often told to “Get home before the streetlights come on,” words of caution to avoid situations that could endanger young Black lives. 

Now, Heather McTeer Toney is saying Black America, along with everyone else, needs to take climate action before the darkness of climate catastrophe descends. The former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, Ms. Toney served as the Southeast Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama. And she is now the Executive Director of Beyond Petrochemicals. 

So one of the examples that really opened my eyes to the challenges of both government and officials, when they try to make changes, is the North Birmingham story that you tell in your book. 

HEATHER MCTEER TONEY: North Birmingham, Alabama, had been fraught with environmental injustices of a local coke plant and that’s not Coca Cola, like the product we drink, but coke, which is a byproduct of coal, and burning of coal. And this particular community had been inundated with years of air pollution, so much so that you could feel it in the air and on the street. 

People talked about how it left almost like an itchy, filmy residue on the skin. And they had been for a long time asking for help to not only clean the land but also to recognize the impacts of this pollution on their health. There was a high rate of cancer, a high rate of airborne illnesses, asthma, impacts that really were directly related to the air pollution, but nobody really recognized it or acknowledged it as such. 

So when I came into the North Birmingham community, it was incumbent upon me as a part of the Obama administration, but also as a part of this community, as an African-American woman born and raised in the South seeing what look like myself, to be as much help as I could be in this space in this moment. So together, we worked on how we could reclaim the land through Brownfields funding. 

What I did not know was that the state of Alabama, and I think historic and systemic racism that is prevalent throughout our country, was going to be just as strongly involved in that space, even with or without me. And there was a very active investigation that was taking place in North Birmingham around bribery; in fact, there were elected officials that were indicted during that time period, all to keep this community from receiving the justice that they really deserve. 

So it was eye opening to me, that it really spoke to the struggles that communities, particularly communities of color across this country, face when dealing with environmental justice.

CURWOOD: You write in your book that you first rolled through there in the parade of black SUVs, befitting a high federal official, somebody approached you there and said something.

MCTEER: Yeah, there was a Mr. Smith, who lived in that neighborhood. And I remember we had a community meeting. And he came up to me at this community meeting and I will never forget, he was holding a picture of his deceased loved ones, his family members and he said to me, “So what are you gonna do … that’s different than all these other folks?” He said, “I want you to do something for me, I want you to come back here, and I don’t want you to come back here with all your people. I want you to come back by yourself because they cleaned up for you today, they cleaned up all of the pollution and they cleaned up the streets for you, they washed it all down.”

And I did … I drove through the back way to get into the neighborhood and he was absolutely correct. The streets were covered with a film. I stopped and I put my hand like on a fence and I could wipe my hand and could see residue on my hand from what had been blowing over from this coke facility. People know what’s happening in their spaces, and we should listen to them more. 

And that was my experience of understanding the historic legacy of housing discrimination and social injustices that had impacted places like North Birmingham. How real they were today and how much they connect it to environmental justice. And that’s what I wanted to write about. 

I think that was the importance of telling that story in my book, because it connected the dots between legacy pollution, legacy discrimination and how and why we are experiencing disproportionately environmental injustice in Black and brown communities today across this country.

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CURWOOD: There’s an area colloquially called cancer alley. It’s this 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and I think there’s over 200 petrochemical plants and refineries and now communities there have been speaking out about the plethora of health issues, thinking of cancer and miscarriages that are associated with the constant exposure of chemicals from these plants. 

And a lot of people living there are descendants of slaves and, in fact, some of these plants are next to slave gravesites. What does this tell us about the historic legacy of slavery and environmental justice in the United States that this highly toxic area is a cradle of descendants of slaves?

MCTEER: There is an irrefutable connection between the footprint of enslavement and the travesties that we experience today. Joy and Jo Banner, both sisters that have been working on a project called The Descendants Project in cancer alley, I think have expressed this beautifully in their work of protecting the community in the space that they come from, the site of a grain elevator. 

And they have been successful in making sure that the site itself is listed on the eleven most endangered sites by the National Historic Preservation Trust. And the reason they were able to do that was because they were able to show not only is this an 11-mile stretch along cancer alley, that has not yet been inundated by industry that needs to be protected, but also because their ancestors are buried in this space. 

There’s an Atlantic article that showed this footprint where you could overlay the boundaries of plantations in Louisiana and put on top of that the existing facilities that almost matched identically. Do you know how scary that is? Let’s just think about that for a second, the places where Joy and Joe Banners’ great, great, great grandfathers were enslaved are the same places that their aunts and cousins work at today, just for a different industry. 

CURWOOD: By the way, those plantations in Louisiana were sugar plantations. And sugar made people fabulously wealthy in the way that, say, the internet boom did. It was a path to a lot of money, although as many as a third of the enslaved persons sold down the river from places like Kentucky and Virginia in the North would succumb in the frequent yellow fever epidemics. 


CURWOOD: So, we’re speaking at the time of Juneteenth. What can we learn about the petrochemical industry and its impact on environmental justice as we move forward with the celebration?

MCTEER: The beauty of Juneteenth and the fact that our United States of America acknowledges this as a federal holiday. Enslaved Africans were in Texas when they got that message. And today in Texas, this is where there is an extraordinary amount of petrochemical facilities that are already seated, but also a place where people are being falsely told that this will be an improvement to their lives, versus the reality of the chemical impacts, the environmental injustices, the travesties that take place to the human body by putting more chemicals into this space. 

So, what better time than Juneteenth to help and let our folks know that we are all free and we can be free from the petrochemical industry. We don’t need more of the industry to be placed in communities, particularly communities of color, but we certainly don’t need more plastics in our body. We don’t need more economic disparity and we don’t need to be told lies about how this is going to make our lives better when we have history that tells us that it is not.

CURWOOD: What can we learn from the recent elections about the power of the Black community when it does come to voting, especially with environmental issues? In Georgia, for example, research showed that a considerable number of people of color came out to vote, even people who hadn’t voted before and they had a very strong connection to concerns about the environment. In fact, some surveys show that Black and brown people are among the most concerned of registered voters about the environment. 

MCTEER: Absolutely. 

CURWOOD: So, what about voting as a solution to the problem of environmental injustice?

MCTEER: Absolutely. That was a Yale study that showed Black and brown people are more likely than any other demographic to vote on environmental issues. It’s also the demographic that’s the most attacked, because over the past three years, the number of pieces of legislation that have attempted to be passed through in states where they have limited who can vote, how they can vote, and where they can vote, is targeted specifically to the demographic of people that will turn out to vote the most for environmental issues. 

Which is why I tell everyone at the end of every single one of my chapters, make sure you vote. Do everything that you can to vote, it is one of the most powerful levers that we have to be able to speak to how environmental policy is shaped and putting the right people in office to shape that policy.

CURWOOD: Towards the end of your book, you have some fascinating numbers, you say that about 75 percent of African Americans say that religion is an important part of their lives, compared to less than half of whites and maybe a bit more for Latinos. And the large environmental movement in this country is fairly agnostic. 

I’m not sure that I’ve been to a major environmental advocacy gathering where people have stopped to pray in advance. Now, we know that social movements in this country had been led, I think the civil rights movement, of course, coming out of the churches. 

There’s a “Reverend” in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. How can the connection be made to really engage the Black community, those who are church going, to take on this whole question of the climate emergency, the toxics emergency and bring their strength to the table? Because I only see them in little bits and pieces right now?

MCTEER: It is the sleeping giant, it really is. And I think it’s gonna take us seeing environmental action, climate action, and civil rights action, because you’re absolutely right, in the Civil Rights Movement was so staunchly led by the community of faith. It’s hard to not connect Earth and nature to your responsibilities for being a Christian.

CURWOOD: You mean caring for creation. So, what can be done to change that? You call it a sleeping giant, what can be done to wake up the sleeping giant?

MCTEER: I think it is encouraging and giving space and freedom to do it. Green the Church is growing every single day. Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that has been infusing faith and climate action, and now we’re beginning to see it on the right, so much that there’s like evangelicals for the environment. 

We’re coming to this place of having to have climate hope and if there’s any entity on this planet that brings hope, it is the faith-based community. And faith-based community, regardless of faith, we think about our Muslim brothers and sisters, Christians, Jews, Hindus, there’s always this element of faith that speaks to the hope of tomorrow.

Climate issues have been framed as such an existential crisis that is so big, people feel hopeless, they don’t see a path out of it. Faith requires the hope of us every single day living our lives and that there is a hope for future generations, a hope in tomorrow, and that we have a responsibility and connectivity to that. 

So, I think the more that we say that, the more that we bring to bear our responsibilities from spaces of hope and do that in a way that is open, it is fearless and it is connected to science, the more people feel comfortable, and we’re able to talk about some of those solutions.

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