Chandra Taylor: The Impact of Everyday Environmentalists
Chandra Taylor is the leader of SELC’s Environmental Justice Initiative. Her ongoing work in North Carolina includes cleanups at contaminated industrial sites and an end to unchecked water pollution in Black communities.
“It’s not going to be just conservationists who turn the tide on global climate change. It’s going to take a lot of people. It’s going to take the everyday environmentalist.”
Chandra Taylor is the leader of SELC’s Environmental Justice Initiative. Her ongoing work in North Carolina includes cleanups at contaminated industrial sites and an end to unchecked water pollution in Black communities. “It’s not going to be just conservationists who turn the tide on global climate change. It’s going to take a lot of people. It’s going to take the everyday environmentalist.”
BROKEN GROUND: ONE-ON-ONE WITH CHANDRA TAYLOR
[THEME MUSIC IN]
HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South, and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. In this episode, we continue our series about women in the South who are taking on environmental injustices through their work, their engagement with communities, their contributions at the government level and their words.
CHANDRA TAYLOR: We have to grapple with the exclusionary aspects of a certain type of environmentalism.
[THEME MUSIC OUT]
CHANDRA: It’s not just going to be conservationists who turn the tide on global climate change. Like, it’s going to take more people. Like, it’s going to take the everyday environmentalist.
HOST: Chandra Taylor is the senior attorney and leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Environmental Justice Initiative. Not only is she an experienced attorney, she’s passionate about addressing both the internal and external barriers to equity that are found in the environmental movement. So I started our conversation by asking Chandra what drew her to environmental law in the first place. This conversation was recorded in November of 2020.
CHANDRA: So, so I wanted to be a scientist. That was something that I was always really interested in. I was like, oh, I love this. I’m going to be a scientist. And then I just wasn’t very good at that. Um, so I made that that’s, I would say like that is probably like, so it’s a combination of like a real strong interest in science, like the fascination with science. and just this kind of lifelong interest in social justice and there being a level playing field that everyone can, you know, everyone can have an environment that supports them being the best whatever they choose to be. So I always knew that I wanted that to happen. And I just thought the path that I would choose perhaps to achieve social justice it was going to be through my own personal volunteering. But then I got positive reinforcement on my advocacy for others. I’m always willing to go into a civil confrontation on issues that matter. There’s also that, that desire that what we do when we protect the environment, it feels good because you know how meaningful your work is to like a really huge number of people. It is an outsized impact from the effort that you’re putting in. Um, it’s not just one person or one family that is going to be the beneficiary of the work. It is neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, the nation, the world, like the work that we do has such a really huge effect. So that feels good, it feels motivating.
CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: I feel like I have seen a shift from environmental justice being considered an issue that we think about to being so much more mainstream, hearing about it in the mainstream press, seeing it show up in political campaigns. And, you know, I wonder you have this long view. Can you give me kind of a – not necessarily a history of environmental justice – but you know, how you saw that trajectory change over, you know, more than a decade.
CHANDRA: From my perspective, I’ve always been certain of the facts that underlie what I understand to be an environmental injustice problem. That you know, being from an African-American community, living life as an African-American, focusing on issues that are important and significant to people of color. So, really I’m shocked that I’m doing less of the work on educating, you know, providing that background of this is a problem, it exists, to now being in a situation of there being an acknowledgement of the problem in, in many different forums and getting to the place of, well, what can we really do that’s going to fix it. So that the long view to me is I’m, I’m, I’m still hopeful because I never gave up the desire, um, or the motivation to affect change. But the idea that now there are more allies who actually want to know that, you know, African-American communities, that communities of color, shouldn’t bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harm, to know that there are more allies to actually, uh, achieve that is, is exciting. And, you know, I’m not certain that, um, that people will maintain that focus or interest. Sometimes I’m a little skeptical, but still at the same time, moving forward with as much speed and deliberation at the same time as possible. Um, I’m excited about being able to get more things done.
CLAUDINE: For a lot of folks, they’re just starting to learn about the environmental injustices that exist in our country. Um, and in particular, I think sometimes in the South. Can you tell me a little bit about Badin, North Carolina who lives there? What is the neighborhood like? What’s the relationship between the folks there and this now shuttered aluminum facility?
CHANDRA: There’s an ongoing matter, you know, that is a site cleanup matter and I think this is also like one of these representative cases where you see a, a waste site that there’s just really slow cleanup or no cleanup. So the location is a former aluminum smelting site. So the aluminum smelting facility is no longer there, but the waste that was generated during the time that the facility operated is significant and the community that’s directly adjacent to the site is a predominantly African-American community. And there’s still, decades later, a hazardous waste permitting plan that is underway, but that is not aimed at removal, but is rather, at this point, aimed at looking at well, over time, let’s consider natural attenuation. Like, so the contaminants of concern are cyanide, fluoride, um, trichloroethylene, polychlorinated biphenyls, so PCBs are known carcinogens. Cyanide is a known toxic that’s harmful to people as well as wildlife. But you know, like this kind of noticing, seeing nationally where there’s extraction of labor, there’s extraction of the natural resources. Like this is a beautiful area, but now, you know, there are fish consumption advisories on Badin lake because of the polychlorinated byphenyls that have settled into the sediment and the fish that are in the lake, you know, they’ve consumed, you know, organisms that have been in the sediment and now, you know, the large fish are, you know, they have so many PCBs that there are limits on how much people should consume if they chose to fish there. And this position that the community is left in is now that the, the operator of the facility has closed up shop, they’ve moved – the contaminated land it is now in another corporate entity that doesn’t have the assets that the initial entity had. There’s like all of this backing away from what, the waste that’s left behind. And the community is still there and they have the expectation they want to see, you know, a restoration to the natural environment that it was before the operation of the polluting facility. And even though the local population has been advocating for themselves, you know, for over a decade to address this harm, we’re still in a situation that the waste itself is still onsite.
You know, the community has been, um, successful in some aspects in actually lowering the amount of contamination that, um, is entering the surface water in their community. Like, so they worked hard to organize themselves and find counsel. So we, SELC was able to provide counsel for the community and, and get a win on lowering the amounts of contamination, but there is still contamination on site. So it was like preventing it from going directly into the water in large quantities. But then it’s still there. And, you know, the, the, the reason that this is there in the first place, and it happens now, you know, we’re accustomed to seeing this also all over the country, all over the world, that a community that is less politically powerful or neighborhoods that are African-American neighborhoods or other neighborhoods of color or low wealth neighborhoods, that there are decisions made to cite certain polluting industries. And once that first decision is made, it, it ends up perpetuating the cycle of more polluting facilities in that same place. So it’s an industrial area and the possibility of more sustainable development goes out the window. Um, because now like, well, this is where, you know, all of these polluting facilities should go like, this is the, the, the land has been zoned that way. And the political powers that be have made a decision that operating these types of facilities is, is, is what that land will be used for. And that ends up being a typical representative, environmental injustice, and then that community has to deal with the air quality issues, the water quality issues, and even perhaps the health issues that are associated with, uh, operation, of those polluting facilities.
CLAUDINE: What can we do to let people know that there are resources like the Southern Environmental Law Center out there that can support their community if they feel like there’s an environmental harm happening? And how did you let them know?
CHANDRA: I was introduced to the community through, um, another one of our partners in North Carolina, Environmental Justice Network. Part of my job is, you know, making sure that we are letting people know that this is what we do, that we practice law in the public interest, that it is our, um, mission to take on cases that really we know, like, that groups wouldn’t be able to afford. But through my role with the Environmental Justice Network. I served on a board for several years, um, and even just being on what’s called a planning committee, we would travel from – whenever that group heard that there was, uh, you know, an environmental injustice issue in a community wanted to organize, then I was one of the people that would travel to that community to talk about strategies that the community could use to push back to either prevent an environmental injustice from happening or try to alleviate one that had already occurred. So I think part of what the environmental community should continue to do is to be present, but also to create relationships with our whole community, like, so the environment is not, you know, it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s definitely not an issue that’s just about one race of people. Like, so what happens to our environment eventually happens to all of us. But, you know, people who have been discriminated against for so long and currently end up suffering more. So, so let’s, let’s do what we can to, you know, be a community with those who we know are on the front lines and who are looking, you know, for their avenues to remedy the problem and offering, um, the assistance that we have the skills to offer.
CLAUDINE: And you mentioned talking to groups about the strategies that they can use. And I imagine some of those are policy strategies and some of them, given that you’re an attorney, probably are legal strategies. And I’m wondering what environmental justice laws are on the books, if any? And if those laws need to be strengthened, or if we need more of those laws, what do you think that looks like?
CHANDRA: Oh, wow. So we definitely need, we need actual law, like, laws on the books that provide like, this is when we deny a permit that, you know, we need laws on the books that say, like – North Carolina we have this one law that is, I’m super excited about it. I got to take part in the legislative session when it was passed. Um, but we need more like it, you know, it’s just one law in this one area. We have a law that says a solid waste facility shall not be cited if the cumulative impacts of that facility, coupled with like others nearby, will have a disproportionate adverse impact on communities protected by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or low income communities. So that’s a mouthful, but that’s a big deal. That says a solid waste facility shall not be cited. You know, that is the authority to deny a permit because of the state’s intention to not continue to perpetrate environmental injustices with regard to solid waste facilities. I mean, it is amazing that it exists and there are a few other laws that are comparable. To achieve an environmental justice to prevent environmental harm based on preventing a disparate adverse impact on a community of color, it’s rare. So it’s always a really hard road as we are raising these issues of environmental injustice, because we do not have adequate laws on the books. We have had the Environmental Justice Executive Order since 1994, which requires any, you know, federal action there has to be this analysis of whether the federal action it could cause a disproportionate adverse impact on communities of color or low wealth communities. That’s there, but there’s no, there’s no way to file a lawsuit. And even then, the actions of the federal government, if there could potentially be an environmental injustice, then the solution is often more process. Well, more process is not – has not been an effective deterrent for actually preventing the greatest harm. Um, definitely it’s important to have that, but eventually there has to be a place where the buck stops.
CHANDRA: Where, you know, the – a look at the health of the, the local community. Often communities of color and low wealth communities are going to have less access to, um, the best healthcare. So these communities, you know, part of that disproportionate adverse impact has to do with the community already being in a position of being vulnerable because of the impacts of systemic racism over a really, really long time. So even, you know, you could have two communities that are both, you know, uh, an African-American community and a White community that both are facing some new polluting facility. Well, because of the, like the fact that a White community is going to have most likely more economic resources, um, greater access to health care, more supports from the greater society, that dealing with that harm, they’re more able to weather the storm.
CLAUDINE: You know, I’ve seen the work that attorneys at SELC do to get to the bottom of cases, to get to victories. And it takes, it’s clear to me, an incredible amount of tenacity. Um, I think these last four years with environmental rollbacks from the Trump administration have been Particularly grueling for people in the environmental sector. And I think that the work that you’re doing specifically, as you’ve just, you know, laid out an example of how difficult it is to win cases can be very grueling. What is it that keeps you motivated?
CHANDRA: I think as – practicing environmental law, like, you know, that the, you know, taking on a case it’s gonna, it is going to take a long time. Like, these are not matters that are resolved quickly. So yeah, I would say, you know, there’s the moment that is giving me motivation and then there’s the knowledge that there are all of these different levers to press when one avenue becomes a more difficult than, you know, look for another way. And it’s still really helpful to be able to, at some point, file a lawsuit if there’s an action that lies.
CLAUDINE: I have had many conversations with folks about what, quote unquote, environmentalist is or what they look like. Um, do think that there is this kind of like generalized stigma of what an environmentalist is and are we getting to a place where we can, like, move beyond that so that we’re seeing who the actual environmentalists are out there that we never kind of, like, put in that box.
CHANDRA: Everybody wants the water out of their tap to not cause them harm when they drink it. Everybody wants to be able to go for a walk or a run and take a deep breath and not feel winded. I remember a part of, um, I did an environmental justice exchange that the State Department funded in cooperation with the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Vermont Law School, we went to Beijing because their environmental law system is much younger than ours. I mean, ours still kinda youngish – seventies, um, is when we got most of our environmental laws. But there’s is younger. And I remember I, I was going for a walk and I’m not asthmatic, like, I don’t have problems breathing, but I was out on the track in Beijing, and I really, I stopped and said to myself, I don’t have my ID, I think if I pass out, I don’t know who will know me, because the air quality was bad enough that I really couldn’t breathe.
CHANDRA: And, it just brought, I mean, I was there, I mean, I was there because I’m an, I’m an environmental professional, and I was selected to be a part of this exchange and, you know, exchange these ideas with Chinese professionals, but it just brought home to me, like, this is, this is why our, how our, how our environmental regulatory system is meant to protect us. And, you know, I see now, like, what if we didn’t have, you know, these protections in place, like how harmful it would be just to walk outside to do something as simple as just – look, I wasn’t walking that fast. So like, everybody has an expectation that their environment shouldn’t be, shouldn’t hurt them. Now what you’re saying about – like, I, I, so I think there are probably different types of environmentalists. So, you know, there are the environmentalists who have special gear to do outdoor activities and who are, like, this place is special and it, you know, we have to keep the people away. Well, I, you know, so there’s different types of environmentalists.
CHANDRA: But really we all have some expectations about what our environment should be for us and, and for wildlife. I mean yeah, So.
CLAUDINE: No, I love that because I think if you just take that word ‘environmentalist,’ like, who does not care about their environment? Like, who does not care about what’s happening around them? But somehow I feel like over the, I think it’s becoming untangled now, but I think over the years, it sort of took on this meaning of, like, It’s like a hippie and hiking boots with, like, camping gear and a Subaru, you know?
CHANDRA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean like, so it’s, so I think the conservation community, you know, has, we have to grapple with the exclusionary aspects of the, a certain type of environmentalism, um, that we have to deal with that because it’s gonna – it’s not, it’s not just going to be conservationists who turn the tide on global climate change, like, it’s going to take more people, like, it’s going to take the everyday environmentalist to do that. Um, you know, the person who’s like, yes, I like the outside, I want to be on this paved walking trail. I’m not, I don’t just need to be in the woods with no path. So it, it, it really does it takes all of us. So that is something that I think the, the, the funded environmental community, the funded conservation community has to deal with as we do the work to make sure to, to bring in the other everyday environmentalists like me. So I’m happy that SELC, you know, saw my everyday environmentalism and allowed me to do the work that I, that I feel called to do. I didn’t have any gear.
CLAUDINE: Yeah. Chandra, thank you so much.
CHANDRA: Thank you, Claudine.
HOST: Chandra Taylor is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center and the leader of the Center’s Environmental Justice Initiative. Join us next time for a conversation with the White House Chair of the Council of Environmental Quality Brenda Mallory.
BRENDA MALLORY: You know, one of our areas of unfinished business over the last 50 years of the environmental protection movement has been a failure to make sure that all communities are protected in the same way. And I think what the Build Back Better Plan envisions is we put in place the kinds of mechanisms in the federal government that will allow that kind of consideration to be front and center.
HOST: Broken Ground is available wherever you get your podcasts.
KELLEY LIBBY: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley and Kelley Libby and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson.