Environmental Justice in Alaska Native communities

By Elizabeth Kovacs, DU Quark intern

One thing that I enjoy about this internship is that it allows me the opportunity to research and write about topics that not only interest me, but that I think deserve more groundwork and attention in science. Environmental justice is a term that I was previously unfamiliar with, but that was introduced to me fairly early in my environmental science studies. The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” While this may sound like common sense, environmental justice is a huge issue today.

The lack of clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan, is arguably the most prevalent instance of an obstruction of environmental justice within the past few years. However, this is just one of the numerous issues of environmental justice and there are far too many that receive even less media attention. As issues of pollution and climate change continue to worsen, the consequent environmental and health repercussions for vulnerable populations continue to worsen as well. Hazardous wastes, poor air and water quality, and failure of corporations and government agencies to provide a solution to pollution and waste have been building for years and something needs to be done to protect those who are most affected. 

An instance of environmental justice that receives even less attention than the norm is environmental justice in Native American and Alaska Native populations. The United States has been notoriously poor at upholding responsibilities to tribal communities and issues of pollution and contamination are no exception. In addition to severe neglect in regard to the source of the problem, there are a number of factors that make Native Alaskan populations especially vulnerable to the repercussions of pollution. While this is an issue that desperately needs more research and attention, there is one subset that is relatively well-researched. The Yupik and Inuit tribes are two Alaska Native communities that have had a significant amount of research conducted about the problems they face as a result of pollution caused by the government. 

Most of the research is centered around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. The main source of contamination near the island is formerly used defense sites (FUDs) from the US military. There is a large number of FUDs in Alaska that are classified as containing toxic and hazardous waste, and the government has not taken steps to decontaminate or contain the toxic waste despite the FUDs having not been in use for decades. The chemicals that are given off by the FUDs have been found in the fish and sea mammals such as seals that are an integral part of the diet of Alaska Natives. Because of this, humans consume high levels of these harmful chemicals and have suffered a multitude of health problems that are directly correlated to the presence of these chemicals. This is especially true for women in these communities, who can be more sensitive to the effects of pollution and more likely to pass these chemicals on to children through pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

There is not one distinct way in which these chemicals affect Alaska Native individuals. Instead, there is a variety of health problems that can be traced to the pollution. Cancer, infant mortality, and reproductive issues have all been linked to the chemicals. Despite this being an issue of public health, environmental justice, and reproductive justice, little has been done to stop the source of the pollution and no reparations have been made in regard to the health problems that these communities continue to suffer from. This is completely unfair to force these populations to suffer from these issues solely for existing in their communities and participating in important cultural practices. The lack of attention by the US government to remedy the problem is upsetting and discriminatory. 

Everyone deserves the right to a healthy environment and to having their cultural practices and communities treated with respect and dignity. This very clearly goes against the definition of environmental justice set forth by the EPA and there is a substantial amount of work that needs to be done. Not only is there work to be done to decontaminate and halt the source of pollution, but there are reparations that need to be made. Nothing can make up for the fact that these communities have suffered for decades, but an attempt to fix the problem is a step in the right direction. There is a need for more research and attention in the scientific community to issues such as these, and hopefully those who can fix the problem will follow. 

If you would like to read more on this topic, a full review will be available shortly at duquark.com


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