In Kansas City, Communities Fight Environmental Injustice

Facing Multiple Threats, Neighborhoods Left Behind by Regulators Take Environmental Monitoring into Their Own Hands

Published Nov 15, 2021

KANSAS CITY (November 15, 2021)—Across the Kansas City region, communities of color and low-income communities are facing severe threats to their health and well-being. CleanAirNow, a local environmental justice organization, is building community power and fighting for environmental justice in communities overburdened by the cumulative impacts of industrial pollution in the air, water and soil.

These neighborhoods are exposed to pollution from diesel-spewing trucks on major highways and emissions from major railyards, as well as chemicals from current and former industrial sites. The challenge facing at-risk neighborhoods is documented in “Environmental Racism in the Heartland,” a new report from CleanAirNow and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“Environmental policy simply isn’t meeting the challenges faced by many neighborhoods in Kansas City,” said Beto Lugo Martinez, executive director of CleanAirNow and a co-author of the new report. “Pollutants that cause severe harm to our health and climate are under-regulated, and both monitoring of pollution and enforcement of standards are far too weak. Most importantly, the way we address the health risks of pollution ignores the fact that families in the area are chronically exposed to multiple sources of pollutants, not just one at a time.”

Today’s environmental standards don’t account for the cumulative effects on people’s health from multiple sources of dangerous pollution, say the report’s authors—and without listening to the most affected communities and understanding their lived experience, government agencies can’t begin to address the problems.

“Access to clean air, clean water, clean land—those are basic human rights,” said Kansas City resident Atenas Mena. “People of color like me, we are just trying to breathe, trying to live, and are faced with great challenges.”

To add data to community expertise and raise the alarm about the severe health risks these neighborhoods face, CleanAirNow has set up pollution monitors in some of the most impacted communities, including Armourdale, Argentine, and Turner. These air monitors are deployed based on engagement with affected communities. This monitoring vividly illustrates the harms that members of the community have known about for years. In the Armourdale neighborhood, for instance, an air monitor operating from late April to late May of 2021 showed nine days that the local concentration of fine particulate matter pollution exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of safety. This exposure comes at a tragic cost: one recent study showed that residents in Armourdale have a life expectancy 22 years shorter than people living elsewhere in the county.

“The EPA has only a handful of sites where they monitor harmful pollutants, and those sites don’t cover the hardest-hit neighborhoods,” said Casey Kalman, a researcher for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and a co-author of the new report. “Some of the most dangerous chemical facilities have gone months or even years since their last inspection and aren’t required to monitor their emissions, even when they’re working with known or suspected carcinogens, including chromium, ammonia, lead compounds and ethylene oxide. Communities aren’t getting the information and the protection they need.”

Community members are already making use of the data from local air monitors.

“Living near a source of contamination is very worrying, because I have a child care center and I see multiple sources of pollution,” said Kansas City resident Ivonne Gutierrez. “I was able to connect with CleanAirNow and installed an air monitor in my home. The data keeps me informed about environmental pollution and how to reduce our exposure. These airborne pollutants affect the health of children and of everyone who lives in the area. Having the right information in the community is how we can make change in our community.”

The findings in the Kansas City area are a clear illustration of how systemic and environmental racism is a danger to people’s health. For decades, discrimination in housing and decisions about where to place industrial facilities and major highways have left low-income neighborhoods and communities of color more exposed to dangerous pollution. This disproportionate exposure has been revealed in countless scientific studies, but problems persist. Residents in neighborhoods like Armourdale have known all along that they face greater threat, but their voices have historically been left out of federal, state and local policymaking processes.

“We deserve a chance to live a viable life, with dignity,” said Kansas City resident Louise Lynch. “I got involved with CleanAirNow because it is important to know what my family is being exposed to, because I have to protect my family. If we don't think about equity, we are going to lose the most vulnerable—those with low economic status, primarily black and brown people—because that’s where the environmental hazards are the worst.”

In the new report, CleanAirNow and UCS offer recommendations for stronger safeguards and more community input into the decisions that affect them. CleanAirNow’s network of local monitors and their work to organize Kansas City residents are critical to elevate the importance of environmental justice to policymakers.

“There’s real power in data that support communities’ lived experience and their ability to speak out about the harms they face,” said Lugo Martinez. “No one should have to fight to be able to breathe safely in their own neighborhoods.”