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Science as a Double-Edged Sword

Research has often rewarded polluters,
but EJ activists are taking it back.

By Azibuike Akaba

Historically, powerful and dominant institutions such as polluting industries have manipulated science to serve their own profit-making interests, with poor communities and communities of color paying the severe price in our health and well-being. Yet as more communities are learning, when science is “taken back,” it can also be a powerful tool to equalize the playing field and bolster our struggles for safe and healthy environments.

EJ and Science

The Environmental Justice Movement has come a long way in a short period of time. While people of color have been fighting for environmental justice for decades, recent media exposure has propelled EJ into the mainstream. Community struggles are receiving more attention in local news media and several large, traditional environmental groups have embraced the core concepts of EJ—that people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards and that they should participate in decision-making that affects their communities. The EJ Movement has sent a strong and clear message that we have the right and ability to demand self-determination.

However, science is less commonly considered part of a community’s arsenal. We have embraced tools such as community forums, protest and legal action. Science, however, has often been seen as an arena in which our opponents have the upper hand.  The reasons for this are understandable. Science has been used by industry and the government, typically against our interests and safety. Furthermore, the industry-backed model of “innocent until proven guilty” clearly favors polluters over community safety.  Naturally, activists are turned off by science because they are accustomed to the “corporate institutional” approach to science.

Yet science can be a tool that community organizations use to realize our agenda for social and environmental justice. My work at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) enabled me to use science on behalf of the community. By demystifying the science, advocates and community residents can learn to use science for their own benefit.

Science is Not Neutral

In 1996, I came to the Environmental Justice Movement after eight years of working in various technical and scientific capacities. When I was 22, I began working in an industrial shipyard as an industrial hygienist, where I was responsible for ensuring that factory employees of the shipyard—from workers re-moving asbestos and pipe-welders, to sheet metal workers and painters spraying and sandblasting the hulls of ships with organic solvents—were kept safe from occupational harm. This seemed a nearly impossible task in such a relentless work environment. It was here that I got my first taste of how people were exposed to environmental hazards. Later, I worked as a medical laboratory technician in an U.S. Army hospital and as a research scientist for a military research center. During these years, I gained a detailed understanding of the fragility of human biology and the effects of various environmental exposures on human health. I also grew to recognize the malleability of statistics and the unjustified claim that science and scientific studies are “objective” endeavors devoid of any biases on the part of those who stand to benefit from the research results.

With that background, I joined CBE and worked for the next seven years as a staff scientist. Whether I was researching ozone-depleting chemicals that were released into predominantly low-income communities and communities of color by private corporations, investigating troubling practices of the oil industry, helping communities conduct their own air monitoring, or critiquing Environmental Impact Statements, my work enabled me to use science to protect the interests of communities. 

In this capacity, I learned that modern science is not neutral. It often produces results skewed by the vested interests of the funders of science and research. Scientists tend to hold class privileges that often prevent them from identifying problems from a sociopolitical view-point. All too often, they see political action as detracting from their role as an objective scientist, resulting in a lack of accountability. For political reasons that stem from corporate or government funding, many scientists are careful not to criticize environmental pollution cases that are encumbered with race and class issues. Medical professionals working for government or industry can also be reluctant to speak out. Indeed there is significant self-censorship that emerges from the vested interests of those who define the agenda. Many mainstream scientists will work for any company that pays well and maintains their status, regardless of the merits of the research. It follows that the interests of the funders, the scientists and the potential market dictates the type of research and science that is produced, even science that claims to be produced in the “public interest.”

Reclaiming Science

The most common encounter with science for EJ communities is in the review of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) or Statements. EIRs involve a process that allows companies to make a negative declaration, i.e., a statement that there is no significant adverse health or environmentally degrading impacts from the implementation of a project. Engineers and consultants typically write these huge technical documents to address the mitigating circumstances prescribed by the state and federal regulators. In order to assess such issues as air quality, health risk assessment, water quality, socioeconomic resources, needs versus benefits, and public health, communities often need independent auditing and their own technical experts to examine the EIR. More and more, EJ communities are successfully challenging EIRs by educating themselves and strategically promoting their own technical expertise.

For example, in 2002, the Sun Law Corporation proposed to build the Nueva Azalea Power Plant Project, a natural gas-fired combined cycle power plant, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles. They were promising to “produce air cleaner from the 550 megawatt plant than you are already breathing.”[1] CBE intervened on behalf of existing neighbors of the site through the formal California Energy Commission (CEC) process in August 2000. We reviewed the EIR and determined that in spite of the claims of innovative pollution prevention technology, the plant would still contribute an additional 150 tons of particulates in a community that was already burdened with heavy industrial pollution and suffering from epidemic rates of asthma.
To protect the community, CBE had to fight the city and state legislators who had conflicts of interest and wanted the power plant. We organized, educated the community about the CEC process, health issues and the science of power plants. Then CBE launched a campaign to stop the power plant from being built. We won in spite of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by Sun Law Corporation because of diligent work that included the use of scientific research. 

How else might we use science more strategically? Science is often viewed as information given to us by government agencies; we are just supposed to accept it as opposed to questioning it or generating it ourselves. However, new models of community-based research have allowed community organizers to strategically use science as a tool that provides vital information to support organizing campaigns. For example, in July 2000, residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico worked together to fight the Intel facility in their neighborhood. They documented “suspicious smells” and built a cheap but accurate air monitoring device out of a modified five-gallon plastic bucket that took a “snapshot” of the air quality instantly like a Polaroid camera. They collected data and used it to educate the public. As a result, they found over seven different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that cause cancer, respiratory illness and developmental harm to humans. The data led to stepped up enforcement by the New Mexico Depart-ment of the Environment, increased cooperation with the community on the part of Intel, and reduced emissions. 

Steps for increasing the research capacity of the EJ Movement:

•  We have to push for stronger roles in developing research questions by working with researchers and graduate students at the inception of research projects.
•  We must demand transparency in research.
•  We should know the projected outcomes of research.
•  We should know the sources of funding that supports research and science.
•  We, as poor communities and communities of color, have to push for and support more students of color, especially young women, to go to school for science-related professions.
•  We must advocate for a discipline of public interest science, one that establishes programs throughout the country in which young scientists are trained to promote public health and protect the environment.

Science and Social Justice

Communities in the United States and around the globe are increasingly using science, research and technology as part of their arsenal to fight for social justice. Science may not be appropriate for all campaigns, but it can be a tool to strategically strengthen our position when used properly. Although communities are rarely invited into the esoteric offices of government agencies and the industries they regulate to participate in major decisions, we have found ways to challenge corporate-driven science. EJ activists have taken the tools of epidemiology, environmental engineering, technology and community-based participatory research, and turned these into weapons and strategies that serve to defend our communities.

Because of these efforts, EJ advocates now work with scientists that introduce themselves and stay awhile in the communities they study. We have worked with graduate students to develop new research questions that are of use to the community, and have integrated the data collected by community members into final reports and public records. We have public representatives who walk down our streets, tour our neighborhoods, speak our language, and want to know how we feel and what we want to have cleaned up. The perspectives and experiences of working classes, low-income, people of color and Native Americans now have greater legitimacy. Our input makes for a more holistic view of public interests in public policy.

However, we are under no illusions—people of color are still living in the most polluted and impoverished neighborhoods in the country. We are still suffering a disproportionate amount of ills from diesel emissions, power plants and multiple chemical exposures. For these reasons, when we are not welcomed, we demand to sit down at the decision-making table. We demand respect for our cultural traditions, local knowledge and common sense. While fighting to retain our community integrity, we have pored over legal and technical documents marred with our blood, sweat, tears and grease stains. We have trained ourselves to become scientists, policy analysts and experts. Because of these efforts, we can now promote our own scientists, influence their curriculum, and create institutions that develop science in our best interest. And, at the same time, we can continue to corral the current system and steer it in a direction that benefits us.

Azibuike Akaba is community technical assistance coordinator for the Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project ( in Oakland.


  1. CBE letter to California Energy Commission quoting Sun Law executive.



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