Mozhgon Rajaee Brings Passion for Environmental Justice to the Classroom

October 22, 2018
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Rajaee teaching her Environmental Justice course

DURHAM, N.C. – Recent disasters like Hurricane Florence and the ongoing Flint water crisis have once again brought environmental justice (EJ) issues to the forefront. Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Health and Justice Mozhgon Rajaee, who joined the Nicholas School faculty this fall, is passionate about studying these issues and proposing solutions.

Rajaee’s course this semester, ENVIRON 790: Environmental Justice, covers the origins, core concepts and impacts of the environmental justice movement by examining how race and class interact to produce or sustain health inequities. The class focuses on how factors such as systemic racism, segregation and colonialism contribute to disparate exposures to pollution or health outcomes. 

Duke Environment corresponded with Rajaee to discuss environmental justice, how Nicholas students are preparing to be part of the solution and what can be done about issues in North Carolina and beyond. 
1.  What does environmental justice mean to you?

Mozhgon Rajaee: Broadly speaking, environmental justice is a continuation of social justice. There’s widespread evidence that people of color and poor people are exposed to greater levels of pollution. There are well-known cases of environmental injustice: The Flint water crisis, the Dakota Access Pipeline sited along the Standing Rock reservation, and the heavy presence of massive hog farms in rural communities of color here in North Carolina. 

Environmental justice is an acknowledgment that a person’s race, income, or neighborhood shouldn’t mean that they disproportionately bear a larger burden of pollution or have the historical legacy or expectations that some level of pollution is acceptable. It’s the process of reconciling our lifestyles with treating each other with dignity and equity in regard to environmental contamination. 

2.  What is your approach to examining these issues?

MR: As many people in the environmental sciences know, most of our environmental health issues are driven by human activities. Environmental justice issues are steeped in historical context and policies, cultural norms, and economic forces, many of which come out of the reign of systemic racism and class oppression. 

What sets environmental justice apart from other areas of environmental science is that it requires the historical and societal context. Environmental justice issues must be examined through the lens of systemic racism and class oppression. I try to unveil historical forces that led to a situation or outcome and look for leverage points for change. 

3.  What was at least one lesson or finding from your research in Ghana that you think can be applied on a macro level to environmental justice?

MR: My research in Ghana focused on artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities, and the health impacts of mercury (used in gold mining) and dust on respiratory health. While this has a relatively narrow focus, the health concerns around mining and resource extraction generally are often fairly similar: Water and soil contamination, respiratory health problems, injuries, ecological degradation, metals contamination, violence, social disruptions, etc. You can find similar stories in many mining communities. 

Researching the health and environmental impacts of mining reminds us of the external costs that aren’t accounted for in the costs of the goods we purchase, called externalities. Gold, silver, coal and oil would all be significantly more expensive if we accounted for the ecological damage of the mining and health care costs for worsened health outcomes of workers and communities. It’s the communities where the mining occurs that feel the burden of this pollution and ecological degradation most acutely. 

EJ seeks to account for these external costs to create less polluted communities everywhere, which means we likely need to alter some of our practices, subsidies and policies around mining and consumer trends. 

4.   What are the key environmental justice issues facing North Carolina right now?

MR: It’s worth noting that I’m new to North Carolina and still exploring the local EJ issues, and local nuance is critical to many EJ issues. That being said, there are glaring issues here. 

Hurricane Florence highlighted a major environmental justice issue facing North Carolina: Massive confined animal farms. These huge farms, knowns as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are primarily hog and chicken farms. There are 9 million pigs and over 830 million chickens (and another 32+ million turkeys) in the state. 

These CAFOs are disproportionately located in counties that are lower income and communities of color. CAFOs produce large quantities of waste which are often stored in large lagoons until it’s sprayed on nearby fields. The presence of CAFO hog farms can impact respiratory health, mental health, odors and water quality. 

Hurricane Florence gave a distinct reminder (as did Hurricanes Matthew and Floyd) that these lagoons can flood with heavy precipitation events, as we saw with many this past September, which put additional contamination burdens on these host communities. 

There’s an intersection here of the growing CAFO and waste problem and the problems that arise from major weather events that are becoming increasingly more common with climate change. The burden of these climate-driven events disproportionately impacts low-income and minority communities, who struggle in the aftermath of natural disasters. Climate justice is a critical part of environmental justice. 

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Rajaee in discussion with a student in her class

5.  How are Nicholas students preparing to be part of the solution to these sorts of issues?

MR: While many Nicholas students won’t be working in EJ specifically, there are elements of it in most (if not all) environmental issues. The environmental justice class aims to impart an approach to examining environmental issues through a lens that acknowledges and accounts for the historical context. 
If students end up addressing problems of ecological contamination or fragmentation, for example, this equips students with the background to examine and understand disproportionate impacts on communities. By taking an intersectional approach in examining ecological and environmental health issues, students bring cultural humility to their work, allowing them to work more effectively with communities to promote ecological and human health and justice. Especially in our current times, an intersectional approach to addressing environmental problems is vital. 

6.  If you had the power to get one piece of environmental justice legislation passed, or legal precedent established, what would it be and why?

MR: This is a difficult question! One of the things that makes achieving environmental justice so difficult is that systemic racism and exploitation of the poor are so imbedded in our societies. No one policy can rectify the impact and legacy of centuries of these systems. There are small changes that can move us on a path toward equity and justice, however. 

One of the limitations that frequently comes up around environmental laws and EJ is that they often require the proof of intent to discriminate by race, which is not always easy when race and economics intermingle. A tool to regulate and restrict the outcome of disproportionate siting of hazardous facilities or the burden of pollution, without having to prove overt intent would be a game changer for reducing the legacy of disproportionate pollution in low-income and minority communities.