From Grassroots to Policy: Stories of Environmental Change

The push for structural change often begins at the grassroots level with local leaders and community members identifying a problem, raising awareness, then acting to remedy an issue as change agents. This is especially true in the environmental justice landscape where citizens are often in unique positions to observe immediate impacts of pollution at a local level.

One prominent early example is from 1979 regarding the case of solid waste stations in a Black community in Houston. Citizens of a majority Black, middle-class neighborhood in Houston contested the building of a municipal waste station and ultimately brought a lawsuit claiming racial bias in the sitting decision. Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, commissioned a first of its kind study highlighting the bias in waste facility siting in majority Black neighborhoods. Ultimately, the suit was unsuccessful but it unlocked a new way of thinking about community empowerment, data gathering, and options to pursue justice that persist to this day. 

This early example of community action illustrates the strength of both community and local government action against environmental hazards. Fighting for cleaner air and environmental justice is too often a lifelong battle. In this article, we’re showcasing positive examples of community actions taken to protect the 20,000 breaths we take each day. These examples illustrate how community driven and local governments leverage data to implement sustainable policy and improve air quality. 

Citizens Raise Concerns in Dearborn

City of Dearborn Environmental Health Manager Samir Deshpande speaks at an air quality press conference in South Dearborn with local environmental justice activists in May 2024.

Citizens in Dearborn, Michigan noticed excess dust and debris coming from a local scrap business and recorded videos to share with local leaders. The business had previously been cited 16 times for violation of the city's dust fugitive dust policy. Fugitive dust is a dangerous physical element largely due to the potential for particulate matter exposure which can lead to respiratory system damage.

The videos submitted by citizens were just one of the proof points that enabled the city to bring a lawsuit against the company - an action that is too rarely taken by local governments. In an interview with Capital News Service, Dearborn’s director of public health, Ali Abazeed, stated the lawsuit was a major tool in “[Signaling] to everybody in the community that health and well being of our residents is paramount.” 

The lawsuit was ultimately settled in September 2023 with the company agreeing to over a million dollars in abatement and mitigation measures. The EPA identifies several possible fugitive dust mitigations including regular washing of driveways and pavement and chemical treatments, which may be utilized in this process. 

Top Down Approach in London

Structural change can also come as a result of broad government policies. One such program is illustrated in the City of London’s Low Emission Zone and Ultra Low Emission Zone. Emission zones, which were first introduced in 2008, function as geographic constraints on heavy emission vehicles to reduce tailpipe emissions within the greater metropolitan area. Daily fees are levied toward vehicles that do not meet the emission standards creating an economic incentive to reduce unnecessary heavy vehicles and pollution sources within city limits.

In 2023, despite the emission zone reductions, the city government reported that “every borough of London exceeds the World Health Organization’s guideline limits for air pollution, putting Londoners’ health at risk.” This led to the formulation of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) (and its subsequent expansion) as a policy mechanism to impose stricter emission controls. The ULEZ currently covers nearly 44% of Londonders and initial reports show significant emission reductions after its first year of deployment

As the primary enforcement mechanism relies on financial penalties, critics have raised concerns about the equity of a program that may punish lower income citizens with older vehicles. In order to promote equity, a fund has also been established to subsidize vehicle retrofits or purchases of compliant vehicles for citizens and small businesses. The program also promises that money raised in excess of the it’s costs are used to improve public transit networks. Nevertheless, policy changes and enforcements must be viewed through a lens of equity to ensure net benefits for the most vulnerable citizens.

There are many ways to bring about structural change at the local level whether it begins with a grassroots movement or with a city wide study. The key components remain similar however, in the need for observable data by which policies can be measured. At JustAir, we are leveraging air quality monitors to gather data, spread awareness, and serve as a critical first step in long-term policy decisions. 

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DeVynne Farquharson, Ph.D
May 10, 2024
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