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SEJ 2022 Focus on environmental Justice

Christine Heinrichs
News Feed
Monday, May 16, 2022

A Roseate Spoonbill flew over our heads as our group of about 20 assembled in the parking lot of the High Island Bird Sanctuary in Texas. We caught our breath. Welcome to SEJ 2022, the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference.

A Roseate Spoonbill flew over our heads as our group of about 20 assembled in the parking lot of the High Island Bird Sanctuary in Texas. We caught our  breath. Welcome to SEJ 2022, the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference.

The birding tour was one of nine all-day tours to kick off the annual conference. Birds, Conservation, Diversity and Inclusion brought several of the conference’s themes together. Other tours explored sustainable fishing; the implications of climate change solutions for Houston, the Oil and Gas Capital; wildfire; clean energy; flood protection; environmental racism in Houston’s Ship Channel; corporate stonewalling to climate threats; and changes to highway construction to consider environmental justice. 

Just under 600 journalists, experts in these subjects and generalists filling in their background, gathered in Houston March 30-April 3 for the conference. SEJ worked with the Uproot Project, a free network for journalists of color who cover the environment. Uproot is a professional organization to support career advancement among journalists of color. SEJ awarded 26 Diversity Fellowships to attend the conference. 

In my 20th year of SEJ membership, I greeted old friends, those who had led the organization in earlier years. Experienced conference attendees were matched with first-timers. Mine were three young women, full of energy and ideas. 

That vibrant energy powered the conference. SEJ’s work to broaden its ranks with minority journalists is succeeding. More black and brown faces mixed at meals and inspired discussions during sessions. 

Rice University sponsored the conference. Houston prides itself on being the Energy Capital of the World. Thanks to its location at low elevation on the Gulf of Mexico, it floods frequently. Sea level rise puts its oil, gas and petrochemical plants at risk, along with those of neighboring Louisiana. Flooding and chemical contamination disproportionately affect communities of color.


The focus was on helping reporters do their job of standing in for the public and providing information that their audiences, in their personal lives as well as their political lives, need. News affects how the public navigates climate crises, from the immediate of fire and flood, to the policy side of breaking through industry-packed political functions. 

Sessions included digital tools to deal with hacking, doxing and working with data to track toxic contamination, oil and gas extraction, mining and mapping environmental justice. 


Clean renewable energy is key to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate crisis. Sessions explored various strategies forward, such as hydrogen as a green fuel. Sammy Roth, energy reporter for the LA Times, raised questions about hydrogen production products such as nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog; as yet unknown costs; pipeline requirements; and the danger of explosion. He called it “a combination of hope and skepticism.” 

Natural gas, promoted as a clean alternative to coal, is another fossil fuel. Industry lobbying has opposed laws requiring new construction to be all-electric, which can be produced from renewable sources. Advocating for substituting one fossil fuel for another prolongs the transition to clean fuel.

Carbon capture, use and sequestration sounds like a solution, but as Sara Sneath reported for Southerly, that path is fraught with pitfalls. No carbon capture plant has met its goals, and many emitted more greenhouse gas (GHG) than they captured. Preventing the production of GHG is a more direct route to reducing GHG.


Oceans got attention in an all-day workshop, plenary discussion and related sessions. Oceans have absorbed substantial carbon, but at the cost of acidic changes that affect the animals and plants for which they are habitat.

Plastic pollution contaminates water and beaches. According to The Nurdle Patrol, policy and business practices, and stopping plastic production at the source can reduce this aspect of ocean trash.

Sea level rise is already causing regular flooding in coastal areas. the National Oceanic Administration (NOAA)’s sea level rise viewer shows Gulf Coast petrochemical facilities can expect to be inundated.

“Failure to plan is planning to fail,” one participant said.

Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud, executive director for Bayou City Waterkeeper, made the case for the Personhood of Water, as a way to advocate for the environment. Corporations have legal standing in court. “It sounds a little radical, but it might be what we need right now,” she said.


Participants examined the spiritual side of their work in sessions on religion. Katherine Hayhoe, who has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, is a climate change scientist serving as chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. She speaks from a Christian perspective.She quoted examples of Bible scripture to support stewardship of God’s Earth and caring for the poor. 


Journalists overflowed the session on When the Truth is Not Neutral: The Myth of Absolute Objectivity in Reporting. The panel was led by Emily Holden, founder and editor in chief of Floodlight, and included LA Times’ Sammy Roth and Sara Shipley Hiles, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. Roth devoted one of his Boiling Point newsletters to discussion of the issue

Traditional journalism required early climate change coverage to include “both sides” in news stories, even though editors and reporters understood that climate change was questioned only by a fringe group of scientists. Their efforts were later unmasked, as paid work for fossil fuel companies, in Merchants of Doubt. Journalism’s struggle to call Donald Trump’s false and misleading pronouncements “lies” indicates the continuing issues for reporters.

While environmental reporters separated themselves from the advocacy of 20th-century environmentalists, using objectivity as a shield served the power structure and obscured the real stories. No one questions that political reporters favor democracy or that education reporters favor good education. It’s not controversial to be in favor of a clean environment. 

“Advocating nothing is advocating for the status quo,” Holden said. 

Framing environmental transition stories as Jobs vs. Environment is inaccurate. The workforce is not the industry. Renewable energy creates new jobs, and fossil fuel jobs are declining. Policy makers are in position to address the transition.

Holden recommended reporters read their own stories with an eye to asking, Did I miss the message? The historic journalistic View from Nowhere objectivity is being re-evaluated, to a View from Somewhere.

How reporters cover the news, what stories editors select, the words and images we choose to tell the stories, continue to evolve. One of the guidelines I like to use is, How would I tell a friend what happened? Sessions like this one, bringing thoughtful journalists together for frank, if uncomfortable, exchanges, strengthen all of our work. 


Saturday afternoon mini-tours invited everyone out of the conference center, to see Prairie Chickens, paddle kayaks around Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve, bike the bayous, take a pontoon boat on Buffalo Bayou, or take a walking tour around Houston or the Rice campus.  

Rice put on a party Saturday night, with art events and live music for dancing.


The Houston Arboretum set up tables for breakfast under the trees. Historian Douglas Brinkley discussed the political background of his new book, out in November, Silent Spring Revolution. It’s the third in his environmental politics trilogy, from Theodore Roosevelt, through Franklin Roosevelt, to this volume, covering World War II to 1973. It explores the legacies of Rachel Carson, JFK and LBJ in the “great environmental awakening.”

A panel of Rice professors who have written books followed. Two have experienced Houston’s flooding, and wrote about how that affected them and their neighborhoods. Dan Cohan, who teaches civil engineering, found that his entire curriculum needed revision after he studied climate change.


Most sessions were recorded and will be made available to the public through SEJ. Some are already available, thanks to Bernardo Motta.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of
Christine Heinrichs
Christine Heinrichs

Christine Heinrichs writes from her home on California’s Central Coast. She keeps a backyard flock of about a dozen hens. She follows coastal issues, writing a regular column on the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Her narrative on the Central Coast condor flock will appear in Ten Spurs 2021 edition.

Her book, How to Raise Chickens, was first published in 2007, just as the local food movement was starting to focus attention on the industrial food system. Backyard chickens became the mascot of local food. The third edition of How to Raise Chickens was published in January 2019. The Backyard Field Guide to Chickens was published in 2016. Look for them in Tractor Supply stores and online.

She has a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Oregon and belongs to several professional journalism and poultry organizations.

“Cancer Alley” Residents’ Zoning Lawsuit Cites “Racial Cleansing”

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Making the case that their local government was built on a culture of white supremacy, Black residents of St. James Parish in the heart of Louisiana’s “cancer alley” have filed a federal lawsuit claiming land-use and zoning policies illegally […]

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Making the case that their local government was built on a culture of white supremacy, Black residents of St. James Parish in the heart of Louisiana’s “cancer alley” have filed a federal lawsuit claiming land-use and zoning policies illegally concentrated more than a dozen polluting industrial plants where they live. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in US District Court in New Orleans by the environmental justice groups Inclusive Louisiana and RISE St. James, and the Mt. Triumph Baptist Church, traces Black history since European settlement in the 1700s through the legacy of slavery and post-Civil War racism, to assert that parish government officials intentionally directed industry toward Black residents and away from white residents. Outside the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans on Tuesday, leaders of the two environmental justice organizations and the church said “enough is enough” and called for a permanent moratorium on chemical plants and similar facilities along with a cleaner, safer economic future in their communities. “This is the right team of lawyers to do it… It’s the right clients and the right state.” The plaintiffs said they have been calling for a moratorium and relief from heavy industry for several years, but to no avail. “This is the day that the Lord has made and we shall rejoice and be glad therein because we smell victory,” said Barbara Washington, co-founder and co-director of the faith-based group Inclusive Louisiana. “Every one of us has been touched by the parish’s decisions to expose us to toxic plants. We all have stories about our own health and the health of our friends. It’s time to stop packing our neighborhoods with plants that produce toxic chemicals.” Shamyra Lavigne with RISE St. James said: “Over and over, the St. James Parish Council has ignored us and dismissed our cries for basic human rights. We will not be ignored. We will not sacrifice our lives.” The Center for Constitutional Rights based in New York and the New Orleans-based Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic are counsel for the plaintiffs. Chief among their claims: the parish’s land use system violates the Thirteenth Amendment as a vestige of slavery as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which bars discrimination. “To our knowledge, this (lawsuit) is the first of its kind in the way it uses the Civil Rights statutes and Constitutional provisions to challenge this kind of pattern and practice,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The harms that persist today, she said, are linked to “slavery and its afterlife.” St. James Parish officials did not immediately return requests for comment. Legal experts not involved in the case on Tuesday described the lawsuit as ambitious, timely and significant in its ambition and approach. Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold, a land-use and property rights lawyer at the University of Louisville’s Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, described the lawsuit as “strong and innovative.” “Typically, environmental justice groups have raised allegations of discriminatory local land-use practices in lawsuits against specific land-development projects or specific regulatory decisions,” said Arnold, author of the 2007 book, Fair and Healthy Land Use: Environmental Justice and Planning, and the forthcoming Racial Justice in American Land Use. “When environmental justice groups have addressed systemic environmental injustices in local land-use practices, they’ve often worked with local governments to seek regulatory and policy reforms, although perhaps in the shadow of threats of lawsuits.” What makes the St. James lawsuit distinctive, Arnold said, is that it challenges  “the entire set of local land use practices and supports its arguments with a detailed history of how these land use practices have discriminated against and unequally harmed Black communities, which have ongoing impacts.” Because this pattern of racially unjust land use practices isn’t unique to St. James Parish, “perhaps we will see more such lawsuits in the future,” Arnold said. “As a result of the vestiges of the slavery…plaintiffs’ members reside in some of the most polluted, toxic—and lethal—census tracts.” The lawsuit illustrates a continued and welcomed emergence of the significance of environmental justice within the field of environmental law, said Patrick Parentau, an emeritus professor of law and senior fellow for climate policy at the Vermont Law and Graduate School. “This has been a long time coming,” Parentau added. “This is the right team of lawyers to do it,” he said of the lawsuit. “It’s the right clients and the right state.” Still, Parentau said, proving intent won’t be easy. It won’t be enough to merely map out the location of the industrial plants in Black neighborhoods, he said. “You have to get inside their heads,” he said of the parish land-use decision-makers. “You have to have minutes of meetings. Is there something in writing? Do they have recordings?” The plaintiff’s lawyers could potentially face skeptical appellate judges and a Supreme Court with its 6-3 conservative majority, should the Louisiana case get that far. Louisiana is in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been described as the nation’s most conservative. Despite those obstacles, Parentau said he is “happy as hell to see this, God love them.” Pokharel agreed proving intent can be a challenge but said the team’s lawyers have been looking closely at the history of decisions that were made, statements by people who were making the decisions and various land use practices. “We have facts throughout our complaint about how racially discriminatory these actions were, not just the consequences,” she said. She cited as one example a decision by local officials to offer two-mile buffer zones separating industrial sites that protected certain buildings in white communities but not Black communities. The lawsuit claims that officials agreed, for example, to establish buffer zones for Catholic churches, which were majority white, and schools in white areas, but not churches or schools in Black areas.  In Louisiana, parishes are like counties; St. James has five electoral districts. The 5th District is 89 percent Black and the 4th District is 53 percent Black, the only two that are majority Black. The plaintiff’s group’s members live in the areas where their enslaved ancestors labored on brutal sugarcane plantations, and want access to the graves of their ancestors, which have been covered over or fenced off by industries, infringing on religious liberty, according to the lawsuit. “God gave us his clean land and we have desecrated what God has given us.” The parish had no zoning ordinance or land use plan until 2014, a practice that the lawsuit claims benefited white people with large landholdings at the expense of long-marginalized Black residents. “White landowners and corporations who could sell their large tracts of land to petrochemical companies benefited from this approach; small, Black landowners with no resources to leave, were harmed by it,” according to the lawsuit. “As a result of the vestiges of the slavery in Louisiana and in St. James in particular, plaintiffs’ members reside in some of the most polluted, toxic—and lethal—census tracts in the country, situated within a stretch of land along the Mississippi now widely known as ‘Cancer Alley.’ The defendants, obviously mindful of this historically segregated land distribution, have intentionally chosen to locate over a dozen enormous industrial facilities in the majority Black 4th and 5th Districts, while explicitly sparing white residents from the risk of environmental harm,” the lawsuit claims. Cancer alley is a 130-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge that is dotted with more than 200 industrial facilities including oil refineries, plastics plants, chemical plants and other factories that emit significant amounts of harmful air pollution. The industrial plants in the region have stirred a vigorous environmental justice movement,  largely led by Black women of faith.  Plaintiffs Inclusive Louisiana and RISE St. James are both faith-based environmental justice groups, and Mount Triumph Baptist Church is led by the Rev. Harry Joseph, who is active with RISE and previously fought against an oil pipeline planned for St. James Parish. “We need to listen to what God has said to the people,” Joseph said. “God gave us his clean land and we have desecrated what God has given us,” he said. “God gave us clean air, and we have destroyed all that.” The suit claims officials have “granted every single request by heavy industrial corporations to locate their facilities in majority Black districts.” In recent years, St. James Parish has been a focal point in part because of the massive proposed $9.4 billion Formosa plastics manufacturing complex on 2,400 acres in Welcome, Louisiana. A state judge last year blocked Formosa, but the company is still fighting for its permits. The lawsuit cites Formosa’s large environmental footprint—emissions of 800 tons per year of toxic pollution and 13 million tons per year of greenhouse gases, roughly equivalent to the emissions of 3.5 coal-fired power plants—and a decision by local officials to approve the plant as another example of environmental racism. A land use plan adopted in 2014 and amended in 2018 designated large swaths of the 4th and 5th District as “industrial,” despite the heavy residential concentration in those districts. It marked residential areas as “Existing Residential/Future Industrial,” clearly signaling their planned demise, a zoning category the lawsuit describes as a “racial cleansing plan.” The suit claims that parish officials have “granted every single request by heavy industrial corporations to locate their facilities in majority Black districts in the Parish while rejecting requests to locate them in white districts.” “As much as we love St. James Parish, it has also been the site of grave injustices,” said Gail LeBoeuf, a co-founder and co-director of Inclusive Louisiana, citing industrial pollution. She said in the press conference that she’s currently fighting cancer. “I cannot say for sure what caused it,” she said. “But no one can tell me that a known carcinogen did not cause it.” Myrtle Felton, another co-founder and co-director of Inclusive Louisiana, said the lawsuit is intended to help build a better future. “We want to imagine a new economy for St. James Parish, one that isn’t weighed down by pollution and dying industries, and one where everyone has an opportunity and no one needs to suffer.”

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