Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center

Levitt Speaker Series

Breena Holland: "Public Health and Environmental Justice in an Era of De-Industrialization: A Role for Community-Engaged Academic Research"

By Grace Fulop '13

Breena Holland delivered a lecture to the Hamilton College Community on February 7th, 2013. Her lecture, entitled “Public Health and Environmental Justice in an Era of De-Industrialization: A Role for Community-Engaged Academic Research” was presented by the Sustainability Program of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. Holland is associate professor of political science and the environmental initiative at Lehigh University. Her research focuses on environmental political theory and analysis of government environmental policy, particularly the valuation of resources. Holland draws on a broad range of environmental problems to show why a society that values justice must change the value it attributes to environmental protection in its policy decisions, and how societies can address global concerns about the environment on a local level. She hopes that her research has more of a real world impact on the local community level than traditional data-based academic research.

Environmental justice theory, or the environmental conditions that make it possible for communities to thrive in a just society, becomes more complicated in the context of deindustrialization because environmental threats are often concealed. In order to illustrate this, Holland used the case study of Bethlehem, PA. Bethlehem is one of many cities along the United States’ Rust Belt, or what used to be the Manufacturing Belt of America during industrialization. Throughout its years of operation, the Bethlehem Steel Mill emitted large amount of PM10 particulate pollution, a visibly dusty substance. Since deindustrialization, especially after the 1980s, factories were abandoned and much of the pollution from prior decades of industry was left to sit. In addition, the brownfields, or abandoned industrial facilities such as the Bethlehem steel factory, complicate future redevelopment because of the environmental contamination. Brownfield land is frequently contaminated by low concentrations of hazardous waste and pollution. 

Although the environmental footprint of deindustrialization is often not as visible as the pollution caused by industrialization, deindustrialization can be equally, if not more, harmful. Air pollution and toxic waste persist, and even without manufacturing the aggregate impact on the environment is no lower, due to the costs of transportation and energy. In addition, with the rise of the service economy the United States is producing more solid waste from food and the medical industry that contain dioxin compounds. PM2 particulate pollution from deindustrialization is especially dangerous to public health. PM2 particles are so tiny that people cannot see them, and have an easier time getting into people’s lungs than the earlier PM10 particles because they are able to pass through the body’s natural defense mechanisms. The particles are made up of several different kinds of pollutants, the most serious being black carbon. Particulate pollution is an enormous problem today because there are many lung level sources (from vehicles, burning trash and wood, etc), there are more PM2 particles being produced after deindustrialization (especially from traffic), and these particles remain localized and suspended in the atmosphere. High levels of particulate pollution correlate to high percentages of asthma, as in the case of Bethlehem, PA.

The city of Bethlehem was built around the Bethlehem Steel Mill in 1861, and was one of the largest producers of steel for decades. Just as other companies in the United States could not compete with foreign labor, however, the mill declined in the era of deindustrialization and went bankrupt in 2001. After the mill shut down little was done to remediate the area after years of being affected by industry. Then, in 2008 the Sands Casino Resort came in and built on top of the Bethlehem brownfield. Now, the casino brings in two million more cars today. This traffic produces disproportionate pollution, affecting the low-income neighborhoods around where the steel mill was more than any other part of Bethlehem, producing a situation of environmental injustice. Furthermore, the children living in the low-income areas of Bethlehem have particularly high rates of asthma, so Holland decided to investigate the connection between asthma rates and particulate pollution.

Holland began by looking into the legal context of the issue of particulate pollution. To begin with, not all counties in the Rust Belt are attaining the standards set by the Clean Air Act. Lehigh Valley, where Bethlehem is located, ranks third worst county in Pennsylvania for air quality. Fuel efficiency standards and emissions tests for vehicles also exist, but not all laws are effective or sometimes even followed, and there is no law that regulates the quantity of cars. Furthermore, the extreme income disparity in Bethlehem makes it difficult for people to come together over the issue, especially when the economically-disadvantaged part of the community is mostly affected. The issue was a source of contention: some community members claimed that the economic development brought by the casino was more important than the cost of its pollution, while others, such as Holland, opposed the casino from the beginning. Some suggested limiting the number of vehicles passing through by shuttling people into the casino from a farther away parking lot, but the idea was shut down because the casino claimed it would be too expensive.

Holland and her research team received funding and tested the air on the streets with the highest amount of traffic. They found that the black carbon particulate matter far exceeded the standard set by the EPA. Upon testing the air on streets with less traffic, they found that the levels of black carbon particulate were much lower. This suggests that the particles were so small that they dissipated like gas by the time they reached the secondary routes. Holland concluded that if they were unable to keep vehicles out of the city, they could try to keep children away from the traffic and see if this change could positively affect asthma levels. Getting the community involved in the solution was a challenge, however. The town-university relationship has traditionally been fraught with distrust and inequity, as the university community is a more transient part of the larger community and is more affluent than other parts of the city. Furthermore, differences of language and culture posed barriers for communicating with the parents of children in the low-income neighborhoods. Without cooperation from the parents, the experiment could not be carried out.

Rather than becoming discouraged, Holland viewed the situation as an opportunity for academia to engage with the community and work together. She started working through the schools, which was successful because the children’s involvement became a source of pride for them. Holland realized that community action had to have a dynamic quality so as not to seem like charity. Some parents were worried that walking on the less trafficked streets would be more dangerous for their children, but Holland worked on a local level to form alliances (with hospital workers, for example) and presented information to parents about mollifying asthma symptoms through various changes in behavior, including exposure to pollution.

Holland believes that academic research and local community involvement can work together to confront local policy makers with evidence, and have an influence on stopping the global and economic forces that are undermining local communities. The case study of Bethlehem shows how local citizens can take action and fight against larger industries and their seemingly unstoppable consequences. Raising awareness and organizing collective action are two ways that academic research can utilize its extensive resources and become engaged in the community and bring about positive change.