Opinion: Albina's history cries out for environmental justice
Portland, regarded as a leader in sustainability and environmental infrastructure, cannot be removed from the environmental racism pervading the city to this day. Behind the facade of white environmentalism exists a history of entrenched white supremacy siting disproportionate environmental injustices on Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and low-income populations.
One such community is the Albina district located in North Portland.
The Albina district is the most racially diverse community in Portland. Non-white residents make up approximately 24% of Portland's population. Of those non-white residents, 40% are located in Albina; the district alone is home to about a quarter of the state's Black population.
Compounding effects of redlining and policymaking gave rise to environmental hazards and presently manifest in gentrification and urban renewal. Today, the Albina district is ensnared by the polluted waterways of the Columbia Slough and Willamette River, the Interstate 5 freeway and industrial zones, but this is nothing new to long-term and displaced residents of the area.
The Willamette River and the Columbia Slough were a dump for Portland's raw sewage and slaughterhouse, industrial and chemical waste. St. John's landfill, which bordered the slough, leached toxins into the waterways until the 1930s. Of these pollutants, lead, PCBs and cyanide were the most common contaminating the river's sediment and fish. Industrial districts, including Portland's largest industrial zone, The Swan Island District, also surround Albina.
Both bordering industry and traffic accumulation on the I-5 release various air and water pollutants that threaten resident health.
In World War I, housing shortages resulted in redlining which restricted where they could live, buy property, and if they could secure a bank loan. Lack of economic mobility manifested in disinvested communities which contributed to the reputation Albina required as a dilapidated community. During World War II, in 1941, war industry workers flooded to Portland; of this population, many were immigrants, migrants, and Black Americans working for the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. The housing crisis came into view due to the influx of workers resulting in the building of Vanport, a temporary housing neighborhood.
Upon dissecting the history of redlining and racist policies in Portland, it comes as no surprise that Albina's residents face many environmental risks today. Covert institutional racism rooted in segregation and stigma are seen in blatant racism, conscious policymaking, and other discrete forms of racism contributing to higher environmental risks in the community.
Stigmas attaching low-income and BIPOC Albina residents to poor conditions were frequently used in policy to justify mistreatment and continue to pervade Portland in the forms of gentrification and displacement. Factor in physical distance from political spaces, exclusion from political participation due to language barriers or lack of accessibility to voting, lack of access to information, and the time and/or economic ability to participate in the political process and you have the conditions within Albina.
Justice for Albina must factor in distribution: equal and equitable siting of impacts and responsibilities, recognition: attention and response given to the issue of lack thereof, and procedure: handling of environmental justice systematically.
By this route, we can respect the agency and autonomy of each community and engage in restorative justice.
Madelyn Belden is a student at Portland State University and a legislative fellow for Our Climate Oregon.
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