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Even in Death, Black Bodies Face Environmental Racism

Many Black grave sites are vulnerable to disasters due to systemic racial disparities in planning and development.

A woman stands at the burial site of George Floyd in the Houston Memorial Gardens cemetery in Pearland, Texas, on June 9, 2020.

Less than a week before George Floyd was laid to rest in a Pearland, Texas, cemetery, a California-based risk analysis company published a report highlighting how three major Houston-area petrochemical plants — about 20 miles due east of Floyd’s burial site — were unprepared to deal with the increasing incidence of severe weather linked to climate change. “The estimated damage of extreme flood events at the three facilities will balloon by 3-8 times within the next decade,” the report stated. Presently, models show a 100-year caliber flood resulting in 35-40 percent of the facilities being inundated by water. Due to factors like sea level rise, the same caliber storm is estimated to inundate 80 percent of the operations by 2030. And that estimate was a low-ball figure. The report acknowledged it didn’t take into account the risk of exposing surrounding communities to hazardous materials.

The cemetery where Floyd is buried is outside of the three petrochemical plants’ standard evacuation zones, though scientists have noted that the full extent to which natural disasters mobilize contaminants is not yet fully understood because there tends to be a lack of baseline data before a storm occurs. But the Houston area is home to 40 percent of U.S. capacity for chemical production, along with 3,600 energy companies. It’s also the fifth most vulnerable city in the U.S. to the impacts of hurricanes. Emissions from petrochemical facilities, like arsenic and cadmium, increase residents’ risk of death by brain, bladder and lung cancers. Those threats are further exacerbated by intense storms, which not only extend the reach of long-lasting soil pollutants, like the fire ant-killing compound chlordane, but negatively impact recovery rates by disrupting cancer treatment.

Within a five-mile radius of Floyd’s grave, 12 facilities report to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory. And as is the case with another cemetery on the other side of town, which flooded after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the burial ground lies in a 100-year floodplain.

In contrast with Floyd’s home-going celebration, which attracted thousands in the Houston area following memorials in North Carolina and Minnesota, the location of Floyd’s burial — next to his mother, but also surrounded by flood zones and chemical hazards linked with conditions like asthma and cancer — call into question whether justice can be had when precarity surrounds, even postmortem. “We are not fighting some disconnected incidents,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the crowd at Floyd’s June 9 funeral. “We are fighting an institutional, systemic problem that has been allowed to permeate since we were brought to these shores,” he said.

Other Black people killed by the police or by lynching in the past few years rest in similar geographies. Yvette Smith, a 47-year-old Texas woman who was killed in 2014 after calling 911 for help settling a dispute between friends, is interred less than two miles from a natural gas burning power plant in a small town outside of Austin. Charleena Lyles, the 30-year-old mother of four who was killed by Seattle Police in 2017, is buried in a Washington State cemetery in an area that was surrounded by phase 4 floodwaters in February 2020. Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old man who was killed by police after selling homemade CDs, was laid to rest four miles from an Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old runner who was killed by two white residents in Georgia in February 2020, now lies 15 miles away from the last nuclear power plant under construction in the United States, well within the ingestion exposure range– the surrounding area where pollutants may contaminate food and water — as defined by the U.S. Regulatory Commission.

Little scholarly attention has been devoted to the potential devastation of cemeteries by natural disasters, according to an article co-authored by Eastern Illinois University Professor William Lovekamp. Lovekamp and his colleagues have called for the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping software to develop spatially accurate digital inventories of headstones and monuments. As climate change brings water into new places — eroding graves once six feet under or above-ground vaults from Alaska to California and threatening tribal burial sites — graveyard owners may consider relocation, reporting by E&E News has found. But the enormous cost to do so and strict regulations sometimes requiring permission from next of kin complicate the process.

Burial grounds tend to be segregated by race and ethnicity, Albright College history professor, Kami Fletcher, has pointed out in her co-edited book Till Death Do Us Part. But while Black cemeteries and funeral homes originally formed the foundation of Black business in many communities — as was the case for Baltimore’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, which is the subject of Fletcher’s research — a disparity in preservation resources for Black cultural and historic sites across the country has led to neglect of Black cemeteries, some of which happen to be located in now flood-prone areas, like Olivewood Cemetery — another Houston graveyard.

George, Yvette, Charleena, Alton and Ahmaud, among so many others, are buried near big polluters and in flood zones, explains senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Khalil Shahyd, because that’s where they lived. “There is no reason to assume that the fate of our burial grounds would be any different from our living communities themselves [which] are more likely to be in harm’s way,” he told Truthout, of where his own ancestors are buried in southeast Louisiana. The site where one side of his family is buried is protected by a levee. But his grandmother is buried in another family plot in Morgan City. “In a matter of years, this land will be lost to the bayou,” he said.

As organizers like environmental justice advocate Kari Fulton have pointed out long before George Floyd’s murder, deeply entrenched racism manifests in multitudinous ways. “The same system that hires and trains cops to racially profile African-Americans, also trains urban planners, developers and politicians,” Fulton explained in a 2016 forum published by The Black Scholar on the relationship between the Movement for Black Lives and climate justice organizing. Those same professionals are trained to place polluting industries in minority communities, she said. “And to develop emergency management plans that protect affluent white neighborhoods, while destroying low-income minority communities.”

Shahyd echoes Fulton’s sentiment. The location and vulnerability of many Black grave sites is tied up in generations of settlement patterns, development and urban growth, he says. Which is all the more reason that responses to calls for racial justice must be comprehensive and intersectional. Many existing policy prescriptions that aim to tackle the inequities brought by climate change, like attempts to regulate carbon emissions, are based on the notion that the reasonable target is bringing Black communities into social parity with white middle-class consumers. But those same economic development patterns are dependent upon and further drive the devaluation of Black lives, bodies and property, Shahyd says.

Federally backed home buyouts, for instance, have become a go-to program that cities offer to try and build more climate resilient communities. But for families such as Shahyd’s to collect money based on the market value of the structure of a house in exchange for leaving their land “does nothing to compensate us for loss of family heritage and history represented by that graveyard which dates back to the late 1800s,” he says.

More holistic solutions, Shahyd argues, entail projects like building green communities, “where homes, livelihoods, recreation and even sacred spaces for those who have passed are all accessible,” he says, and where resources are invested in supporting workers, families, towns and regions dependent on fossil fuel economies to find alternatives. Funding for projects that make for more secure communities and pay tribute to Black lives lost could come from defunding the police, some activists say.

The three Houston petrochemical companies assessed to be unequipped to deal with climate change-related flooding — Dixie Chemical, Carpenter Chemical and Athlon Solutions — have not responded to Truthout’s requests for comment on how they’ll mitigate that risk and protect surrounding communities from the flooding and related toxicity. A yearlong Houston Chronicle investigation has revealed that Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency regulatory loopholes continue to enable the manufacturing and storage of hundreds of chemicals that pose serious threats to public safety.

But activists are reclaiming space to remember the victims of police violence and other incidents of racial terror. On a lawn in Minneapolis, a short walk away from the site of George Floyd’s murder, 100 makeshift headstones have sprung up to pay tribute to Black lives lost, in what’s now known as the Say Their Names Cemetery. In the Independence Heights neighborhood of Houston, “Black Towns Matter” is painted in bright red and yellow letters on the 3300 block of Link Road, rolled out on Juneteenth. On that same day, June 19, 2020, a Louisiana community sang, danced and prayed at a cemetery of unmarked graves on the grounds of a former plantation in spite of a Taiwanese plastic company’s attempts to prevent the remembrance on land where it is building a $9.4 billion petrochemical plant.

At this moment in history, Fletcher pointed out in a recent talk, African American last rites rituals are on full display. “I don’t know anyone that did not see George Floyd’s funeral,” she said. “That gold casket was the centerpiece. You tried to caricature him as a thug, as a nobody.” Through public rituals like Floyd’s funeral, Fletcher says, stereotypes can be challenged and the dead can be humanized. The proximity of climate hazard zones to Black burial sites and decorous community rituals is yet another reminder of the contradictions that have led to this uprising. As Fletcher co-writes in the introduction of her new book, “Deeper explorations of the dead in America can tell us [much] about American identity, nationhood, and national belonging.”

Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Kari Fulton is no longer with Empower DC.

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