Written by Amari Wylie, who works in BBJ Group's Pittsburgh office
We are locally dedicated with international scale.
By BBJ Group February 14, 2023
Written by Amari Wylie, who works in BBJ Group's Pittsburgh office
Today, we honor Black History Month by discussing the woman known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice”; however, as we will discover, she was much more than that.
Hazel M. Johnson (1935-2011) was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mrs. Johnson was the eldest of four children born within an area of New Orleans known as “cancer alley.” According to a 1995 Chicago Tribune interview, “she was the only one of the siblings to reach their first birthday. One brother was stillborn, another died of meningitis at nine months, and her 2-month-old-sister died of pneumonia”. (Ramirez and Reporter)
When Mrs. Johnson met her husband, they had two children and moved to Woodlawn, Chicago. The Johnsons would eventually move to Altgeld Gardens Homes, a South Side, Chicago housing project managed by the Chicago Housing Authority, in 1962. She spent most of her adult life in the Calumet Region, an industrial area along the southern tip of Lake Michigan. This region was famously dubbed by Mrs. Johnson as “the toxic doughnut” due to the widespread pollution in the area. Altgeld Gardens Homes is located in the center of this area. To understand Hazel M. Johnson’s story and environmental activism, it is necessary to understand the conditions she lived in while staying in the “toxic doughnut.”
Altgeld Gardens was a public housing project for Black American veterans returning from World War II and other factory workers. It was also built in response to the Second Great Migration of thousands of Black families from the Southern United States to the Northern United States. It was nicknamed by Mrs. Johnson Chicago’s “toxic doughnut.” It was surrounded by a sewage treatment center, 382 industrial facilities, 50 landfills, 250 leaking underground storage tanks, multiple hazardous waste sites and uncontrolled dump sites, and the Little Calumet River to the south. This area was known to have the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the United States.
Many of the industrial sites, such as the Acme Steel Plant and Pullman factory, were unregulated (note that pollution was documented at these sites before 1972 when the Clean Water Act was enacted) and regularly dumped hazardous waste into the Little Calumet River, which empties into Lake Michigan, making the Little Calumet River unsuitable for human consumption and recreation. “Several toxicology studies conducted in Altgeld Gardens since the 1980s have revealed dangerous levels of mercury, lead, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and xylene” (Environmental Justice Atlas, Chicago’s Toxic Doughnut).
Mrs. Johnson’s husband died of lung cancer in 1969, which spurred her into environmental justice action in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She started by documenting illnesses within Altgeld Gardens to use as evidence that air and water pollution was causing chronic health problems. Eventually, researchers caught wind of Mrs. Johnson’s findings and teamed up with her to confirm her findings.
In response to toxicology studies uncovering widespread contamination within Altgeld Gardens, Hazel M. Johnson founded the People for Community Recovery (PCR). Mrs. Johnson’s work within the PCR is widely recognized as the foundation of the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement. The PCR partnered with universities and hospitals to conduct independent health surveys to document the severe health impacts on the community due to uncontrolled industrial waste releases.
“One 1992-93 survey, conducted by the University of Illinois School of Public Health, found a high incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis, with a quarter of respondents reporting asthma. It also found that half of the pregnancies resulted in either miscarriage, stillborn births or babies born prematurely or with birth defects” (Roewe).
The Altgeld Gardens case is also known as one of the first instances of successful community-led research and evidence gathering for the study of environmental racism. Johnson and the PCR succeeded in convincing several government actors, such as the Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Department of Public Health, Illinois Department of Public Health, and EPA, to address several health issues. Her work in Chicago eventually led her to the national stage, where she teamed up with other activist groups to urge President Bill Clinton to sign the Environmental Justice order, which held the federal government accountable for urban communities exposed to pollution. She was deemed the “mother of the environmental justice movement through this national attention.”
Mrs. Johnson and the PCR took the University of Illinois findings to Chicago city leaders and health officials to pressure them to close and clean up pollution sources affecting Altgeld Gardens. She was active in community meetings and government hearings. Mrs. Johnson, the PCR, and other community members tried to convince government officials to cancel permits for landfills and contaminated lagoons. They also demanded that the Chicago Housing Authority cease toxic dumping and the use of asbestos in Altgeld Gardens.
Their first big victory occurred in Maryland Manor, where Mrs. Johnson and the PCR convinced the city to install water and sewer lines, for which residents had been paying for 25 years, even though the lines did not exist. Additionally, Mrs. Johnson convinced Maryland Manor health officials to test drinking water quality in 1984, which revealed cyanide and other pollutants in the drinking water. The PCR also managed to get the city to remove asbestos and lead paint from multiple other housing complexes. Finally, in 2004, over twenty years after the initial findings of industrial waste contamination within Altgeld Gardens, the PCR reached a $10 million settlement with the city of Chicago Housing Authority over the Altgeld Gardens residents’ exposure to PCBs and industrial pollutants.
Mrs. Johnson told the Chicago Tribune in 1995, “Every day, I complain, protest and object. But it takes such vigilance and activism to keep legislators on their toes and the government accountable to the people on environmental issues. I've been thrown in jail twice for getting in the way of big business. But I don't regret anything I've ever done, and I don't think I'll ever stop as long as I'm breathing.” (Ramirez and Reporter).
Hazel M. Johnson pioneered the Environmental Justice Movement and brought the issue closer to the forefront of Americans’ collective consciousness. She made it her mission to educate minority communities about environmental hazards and often struggled to get low-income residents involved in her efforts. Mrs. Johnson said, "These people are so engrossed in the struggle for survival that they have nothing to give. Their mindset is, 'I've got to put food on the table today,' rather than, 'I'd better protect the environment for my children's tomorrow.' It usually takes a personal, immediate, and urgent concern, such as a proposed waste incinerator or a family member's illness or death, to motivate low-income and minority populations to become involved.” (Ramirez and Reporter).
Mrs. Johnson died of complications from congestive heart failure in 2011. Yet, her legacy lives on through the work of countless environmental justice organizations across the United States, such as the Climate Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environment Network, and Black Millennials for Flint, among many others. Her warnings from decades ago are now more prescient than ever, “We have abused the planet mercilessly for years, and now we are paying the price,” she told the Tribune in 1995. “If we want a safe environment for our children and grandchildren, we must clean up our act, no matter how hard a task might be.”
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