NAACP environmental justice webinar

A group of experts gathered for a Wednesday evening webinar hosted by the Lancaster branch of the NAACP to bring attention to “environmental injustice."

Decades after historical segregation shaped the neighborhoods they live in, Black people and other people of color are still more likely to reside in homes that leave them subjected to poor environmental conditions.

That's according to a group of experts gathered for a Wednesday evening webinar hosted by the Lancaster branch of the NAACP to bring attention to “environmental injustice."

“The most vulnerable people are the least protected," said Carolin Mejia, the local NAACP's environmental justice chair.

And that's also true in Lancaster city, she said.

Mejia was repeating a point earlier made by Jacqueline Patterson, who described how systems built on racism have largely kept minorities from amassing the type of wealth that would allow them to own modern properties in more environmentally friendly areas.

“The wealth differentials start there," said Patterson, director of the national NAACP's Environmental Justice Program.

Instead, those marginalized groups often are left to buy — or more often rent — old homes in neighborhoods with fewer environmental benefits, she said.

In Lancaster, those older homes have often been coated in lead paint, according to Susan Baldrige, director at the Lancaster County-based Partnership for Public Health.

When ingested that led paint can damage children's brains, leading to cognitive breakdowns that cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems, Baldrige said, advocating for lead removal programs.

“Down the road you are paying way more in costs to society … than the amount it would take to remediate the house," she said.

Removing lead

It's with that information in mind that Darren Parmer, the city's housing rehab and lead specialist, leads a local remediation program funded by millions of dollars granted by officials at the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Last year, the city was awarded nearly $10 million, enough to address more than 700 older homes in southern Lancaster where information about the program is to be circulated, Parmer said. Funding also exists to address problems elsewhere, he said.

That funding, he said, is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, with related shutdowns that have forced many children inside of homes, where lead paint flakes off of old window and door frames to coat floors, the same floors children crawl across.

“By nature, they are putting their hands in their mouth," Parmer said, again pointing to the potential for cognitive damage. “Once it actually does the damage in your body, it's a lifetime damage."

Parmer said eligibility for the income-restricted program has been expanded from only owner-occupied to also address rental properties.

But it will take more than lead remediation to remedy poor environmental conditions, Mejia said, pointing to Lancaster County's historically poor air quality, though she admitted a most recent report on air pollution from the American Lung Association showed some improvement.

“We are seeing some positive things come from all of the progress that we are making," she said.

Furthering that progress could mean looking to clean energy, specifically community solar projects capable of supplying energy to more than one property, said Yesenia Rivera, director of energy, equity and inclusion at the D.C.-based advocacy organization Solar United Neighbors.

“All of those things have to be addressed as a whole to make sure that the system works for everybody," she said.

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