• Lesley Joseph

Friend or Foe? Fighting for Environmental Justice in the Engineering World (Pt. 1)

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, I had an interesting conversation with two of my favorite professors, Dr. Joseph Flora and Dr. Nicole Berge. They probably do not remember, but I will never forget. At the time, I was doing water treatment research in the water/wastewater lab, but I was also doing environmental justice research, and I was (and still am) all about environmental action and advocacy. I was telling them about my desire to be an environmental engineer and how it would allow me to truly fight for change with like-minded people in the engineering world. The assumption that I had was that someone who was doing environmental engineering must have a deep desire to protect the environment and the people who are impacted by pollution. I mean, why else would you be an "environmental" engineer, right?

Of course, like good professors, they challenged my assumption:

Dr. Flora: So you think that an environmental engineer will care about the environment like you do?

Me: Of course. Environmental engineers are supposed to care for the environment. If not, they could just be a different type of engineer.

Dr. Berge: I wish you were right, but I would not just assume that they have the same commitment that you have. It may just be a really nice job to have.

Me: Maybe, but then how long could you last if you just doing that type of job and you don't really care?

Dr. Flora: You would be surprised. Everyone does not think like you do, even in environmental engineering.

Me: Interesting....

And after 10 years of working as an environmental engineer in water and wastewater design and construction, I can say that they were absolutely right. When I meet other "environmental engineers", I have to ask myself: Do you actually care about the people and how they are living? Because so many of them constantly complain about the current regulations that are in place.

They complain about the EPA and its "rules, rules, rules". (These rules are destroying the economy.)

They complain about NEPA and its "rules, rules, rules". (These rules are delaying my project.)

They complain about the United States Army Corps of Engineers and its "rules, rules, rules". (No one can deal with these people.)

And it's still happening.

During my first month on this new job, I met a nice woman who is responsible for ensuring that we meet all environmental regulations on the site. I really thought we would connect around a shared desire to protect the environment around us. She took me around and talked about endangered wildlife, various plants and waterways on our site, and her extensive experience as an environmental compliance officer. Okay, finally someone who care like I care.

Then she made a relationship-altering revelation to me:

"And over there is one of our coal ash piles. Back when this site opened, everyone used coal for energy, but no one wanted the waste. Everyone was complaining about it, so we had to pile it up here. All these stupid lawyers are making it hard for us to do our jobs."

OK. But coal ash makes it hard for people to live, given the heavy metals and the damage it causes to waterways. That's what I was thinking. However, what followed was a diatribe about those "environmental justice people" who (in her mind) are just teams of lawyers all around the country who are trying to get paid.

And all the paperwork that I have to do just to get a project permitted.

And "the Yucca Mountain stuff". (You will have to google it to learn more; there is not enough space here to talk about it.) However, her problem is that "the Indians don't really care about what's going on; it's all these other people who don't live there". I did not have the energy to address the environmental racism spewed in her Yucca Mountain view. I just didn't.

And on and on, she went. (I think I can get about 3 blog posts out of my conversation with her.)

Just remember this: If you are on the front lines fighting for environmental justice (or any type of justice), make sure that the people you are with are truly WITH you. Don't be convinced simply by a title or position.

And if they are not truly with you, don't waste your time with them. It's not your responsibility to convince them or change their views. The problems are too big for you to waste your energy on them. We need you focused on the issues! Let's get to work...

Not everyone who is WITH you is FOR you. And don't let anyone denigrate your passions and your desire to make this world a better place. We need more people like you!

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