The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where 56% of the population is black, is invoking a national conversation about environmental racism.

As a result of the lead-laced water, 4.9% of Flint children have elevated levels of lead in their bodies. These children are potentially going to suffer from neurological damages in decades to come. Irwin Redlener, the co-founder of the Children Health Fund, has called it “state-sponsored child abuse.”

Simply put, environmental racism describes the phenomenon where people of color disproportionately drink more polluted water, breath more polluted air, and are exposed to more polluted soil than their white counterparts. It’s often the result of poverty, segregation, and a lack of political power to counter racial discrimination in environmental policy making.

This is a familiar problem for Mychal Johnson, an environmental activist in South Bronx, New York. As of 2010, South Bronx was the poorest congressional district in the country, with 37% of residents (and 49% of children) living below the poverty line. It’s population is more than 96% Black or Hispanic.

South Bronx Unite, the environmental activism group Johnson co-founded, is fighting to stop further air pollution in his community, which has one of the highest children asthma rates in the country, and rates of death from asthma are triple the national average.


“Our community breathes different air than the white community in Battery Park,” said Johnson, standing next to one of South Bronx's 15 waste transfer stations. “All of the Bronx’s waste and 25% of Manhattan’s waste come here to this community…even where we stand, a stench of garbage is in the air.”

A few blocks away, FreshDirect, an online grocery delivery service, is building a 500,000-square-foot warehouse plus a fueling station, bringing approximately 1,000 more diesel trucks a day to the area.

The company said in a statement that its fleets are one of the cleanest in the city.


“We are currently 93% compliant with 2010 EPA emission standards—that means 93% of our fleet meet the highest emission standards, resulting in emissions on par with natural gas."

But activists say simply meeting the EPA standards is not good enough for a community suffering from a health crisis. Children who live in South Bronx are 21 times more likely to have asthma than those who live in Manhattan.

“Any time you bring in trucks that are polluting, using diesel and not clean [energy], that’s gonna increase the air pollution,” said Matthew Perzanowski, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. “Diesel exhaust has been linked to asthma exacerbation and other health problems, cardiovascular and cancer risks…so more of that exposure is obviously not good.”


More actions should be taken to mitigate existing damages, Johnson said. The FreshDirect warehouse occupies a site environmental activists and community members were hoping to turn into a waterfront park. Johnson brought the dispute to the courts, but in 2013 a New York state judge dismissed the South Bronx Unite challenge. Instead, the state offered $128 million in subsidies to FreshDirect to keep the company from moving to New Jersey.

The company in turn promised to bring about 1,000 jobs to the impoverished community. David Helfenbein, the spokesman of FreshDirect, said in a statement that “FreshDirect is extremely excited about our future in the Bronx and proud to have strong support from the local community, including numerous tenant leaders, Bronx elected officials and local business owners.”

But the company also has a stained record when it comes to labor. FreshDirect has been accused on multiple occasions of underpaying workers, in one case allegedly withholding more than $23 million a year in overtime wages and tips from its drivers.


“We are still boycotting,” Johnson said. “We still have legal cases pending in court and we are going to make Fresh Direct and anyone who supports them the face of environmental injustice as it occurred to south Bronx for decades.”

South Bronx Unite is suing Freshdirect, the state of New York, and the lease holders of the land they are building on, Harlem River Ventures. They are alleging a state constitution violation on public property, saying the state can't give public property—the land is owned by the New York State Department of Transportation—to a private entity without an overt public benefit.

Isabelle Niu is a digital video producer at Fusion.

Freelance videographer and reporter