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Keenan Williams

Sussex Academy, 11th Grade 

Environmental Injustices: Everyone is or will be impacted by threats to the health of our natural environment and, most profoundly, by the effects of a warming planet – but some of us more than others. All too often, those most negatively affected by these threats are both least responsible for contributing to them and lacking the resources to adapt to them. How do you define environmental justice? Have you or someone you know suffered the consequences of environmental injustice? What specifically can youth do to redress these injustices in Delaware? 

A mother wakes up suddenly, aware of the rain thrashing against the ceiling and walls of her miniscule trailer home. Her two children are in the next room, under their beds, covering their ears, blocking out the thunderous noise the rain creates. If she listens closely, she can hear the steady, faint tapping of water droplets falling from the crack in the roof down to the almost full collection pot. She lets this steady tapping lure her back to sleep, until her alarm wakes her again. She wanders into the kitchen, packing her children’s lunches, as she knows that the school provides them with lackluster nutrition at lunchtime. It’s almost the end of the month though, and her food stamps are running dangerously low, so she stares sadly into the two meager lunches she’s prepared for her two growing boys. She sends them to school with an empty water bottle, telling them to use the water fountains they have at school, because she knows that if she turns the tap on, a murky, brown stream will be all that runs out of it. These are just some of the struggles of a person who suffers due to a low income and environmental injustice. 

Environmental injustice can take many forms. It could be a person who lives near a landfill, chicken house or coal-fired power plant and has to constantly breathe in toxic fumes and pollutants; a person who does not have enough nutritious food to eat due to an incompetent federal nutrition plan; or an indigenous person whose culture and quality of life suffers after development, deforestation and the mass destruction of habitats surrounding them. I am Keenan Williams, and as a highschool boy who has two parents, lives in a sturdy home, drives a car to school, has pocket money to spend how I want, and doesn’t have to ever worry about food, I am not exposed first-hand to the horrors of environmental injustice. I do not know what it is like for people to have to worry about not having fresh drinking water or breathing in air that is poisoned with toxic metals, ammonia, and heavy particulate matter. However, these are real problems that most take for granted, and that is why I have tried my best to learn about these issues that I am unfamiliar with. 

I live in Lewes, where there are a lot of well-off people: retired folks and families with kids my age who have steady, well-paying jobs. If you live or have been to Lewes, you know that we have a water tower and a wastewater-treatment plant for those living in the city of Lewes, providing everybody with competent waste removal and clean drinking water. What people do not know is that immediately outside of the city limits, there is a development called the Donovan Smith Trailer Park. This is nearly the polar opposite of downtown Lewes. In fact, it has almost none of the necessities or amenities that all Lewes residents hold near and dear to themselves. There is a bike trail running right past that outside of this development, and most people, including myself, walk, run or pedal right past it, unaware of the true situation unfolding within. When I was a freshman in highschool, I went to visit this trailer park as well as some of the people who live there. My father, who is currently mayor, but at the time was a councilman for the city, went with me, as did one of his colleagues, and a local environmental expert. I was appalled at the state of the place: I noticed a septic tank was getting removed or replaced, there was a lot of unfinished construction occurring, rainwater was pooling up and forming very large puddles. I was told to avoid these puddles at all costs – likely because there were some vile substances in that water. Some trailers looked very old to the point where I questioned if they were abandoned, but I saw cars in front of them, so I ruled that out. We got the chance to talk to a few residents, one whose name I will leave out. As an older lady, she lived alone and told us briefly about the living conditions she was subjected to. The smell some days was too awful to stand, her toilet would clog, overflow and cause even worse odor, and whenever it rained, there was no way to keep the water from coming inside. We thanked her for meeting with us and giving us some more insight and made our way out. Not long after, the Lewes City Council made it a goal to annex Donovan Smith Trailer Park into Lewes, in hopes of providing them safer living conditions and cleaner drinking water. This is a prime example of environmental injustice, seen in the way people living in that area do not have the same resources that others have to live a safe, healthy life. 

I am a junior in high school now with a strong passion about the environment, and recently attended the Youth Environmental Summit at the University of Delaware. There I learned a little bit more about what exactly environmental injustice entails. This, just like the example about the trailer park, was environmental injustice that was happening in Sussex County, right in my own backyard. Everyday I drive by chicken houses on my way to school. I never thought much of them, but I knew that hundreds of chickens eat, drink and poop in those houses. What I didn’t know was the process of removing that waste, and what would then become of it. Fecal matter is a very effective fertilizer, and some farmers like to spray it over their fields before planting, to fixate some nitrogen in the soil. The issue with this is that fecal matter has now been sprayed in the air, and the wind can carry that anywhere. People who suffer because of this practice are normally low-income people who live near these chicken farms, and that is why they are marginalized in this way. The fecal matter in the air makes its way into people’s homes, contaminating things that are vital to life, such as the refrigerator, microwave, bed, and so on. Fecal matter going anywhere in a person’s home other than the toilet is always a bad thing, and people get very sick from just inhaling the contaminated air. 

Environmental injustice doesn’t only happen in faraway developing countries – it happens right here in the United States, in Delaware, in all of our towns. Contributing to the solution doesn’t necessarily mean solving it yourself, but raising awareness and getting informed are small steps in the right direction. Human health shouldn’t be a privilege that only a certain class has the ability to obtain, but a necessity that everyone should have. It is up to the people who have the opportunities to act to protect the rights of the people who have the misfortune of suffering from these issues. That is why young people like myself should learn more about the issues that plague our communities and come together to make the world a safer, cleaner, healthier place. 


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