The Audit: From environmental disasters to eco-grief — CSU’s Center for Environmental Justice aims to find sustainable ground

The Suncor oil refinery sets as the backdrop to a bike trail in Commerce City. Photo courtesy of RobotBrainz/Flickr Creative Commons

A train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, leads to the dumping of 100,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals and forces the evacuation of the small, working-class community. 

Lead and other contaminants are discovered in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, where more than 40% of people live below the poverty level. It takes more than seven years to replace the lead pipes and leads residents to develop a deep distrust in the city’s water safety. 

An 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River is lined with so many oil refineries and petrochemical plants that it’s nicknamed “Cancer Alley” because its residents — who are predominantly Black — are 50 times more likely to develop cancer. 

When people typically think of environmental injustice, they often only think of these kinds of big, headline-grabbing events. But according to Stephanie Malin, associate sociology professor and co-founder of Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Justice, the issues of access and inequality are far more ubiquitous. 

Audit host Stacy Nick spoke with Malin about the center’s research into cases of environmental injustice, what impact a renewed focus from the current political administration could have, and how we as individuals can turn climate grief and fatigue into hope and action.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Center for Environmental Justice began in 2020. Tell me a little bit about what the goal is with that program.

Environmental justice has always been important, but right now is kind of the zeitgeist moment for environmental justice in a lot of ways. It’s almost hard to miss the environmental injustices going on around us, but also, this exciting movement is an opportunity to build better systems. So, the goal of the Center for Environmental Justice is to be a conduit for that. At a land-grant university, those of us — I’m a co-director of the center now — and one of our central goals is to make sure that we are creating space across multiple different kinds of communities to work for environmental justice. 

We work in research and teaching and especially in community engagement and outreach. We’re trying to build some active research platforms for folks at CSU that are working in areas of environmental justice, but also working with folks who are already doing that and a lot of their own ways and figuring out ways to translate that research to community so that it’s as useful for people as possible. We’re building curriculums at the undergraduate and graduate level around environmental justice. We are developing a graduate certificate in environmental justice, and so our center is very invested in kind of looking at these problems we face head on of environmental and climate injustice and trying to create space where as a land grant we’re able to interact with and bring together folks that are working here on campus, but most importantly, connect them with community. 

Our goal is to really become a source of support for E.J. priority areas. So E.J., is this a short term for environmental justice. And environmental justice activists in Colorado have really taught me and have taught others that the E.J. priority area term is really useful. And that means spaces that have been impacted by this kind of historical and ongoing set of inequities, right, dealing with an overabundance of pollution and the health problems that might emerge from that, for example, but really being a conduit for those spaces. So, we are trying to apply for internal and external grants to situate ourselves so that we can be useful for folks who are dealing with environmental justice issues.

Your work as a sociologist focuses both on looking at communities that have these types of environmental injustices occurring and also in communities where new systems are being put in place to undo some of this harm or even prevent it. Throughout your career, how are you seeing things change, or are you seeing things change?

What I’ve seen changing is the awareness of environmental justice. It’s been strong in many of these communities for a long time, so it’s continuously inspiring to me and also edifying that when I go into these places that have these experiences — people invite me in as a researcher, I do a lot of ethnography and I spend a lot of time with people — they know what’s going on and they’ve known what’s going on for a long time. Often these community organizations and groups are the most savvy researchers I’ve ever met. 

center for environmental justice
Farmland sits in the shadow of a drilling site in Weld County. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Malin

I think what’s encouraging to me is that what they know and what they’re learning has now become a bit more, I don’t want to say mainstream, but we’re seeing federal funding for this. Unfortunately, that can be really dictated by the federal administration that’s in power at the time. We’ve seen, for example, the EPA budget fluctuate wildly in the last 40 years. But it’s encouraging that there is more awareness of this, and the funding is also being funneled towards the communities and spaces that need it. I think there’s much more attention on people on the ground who know what they’re doing, they know how to regenerate their communities better than anyone else, and so, they deserve those kinds of resources. The movement in that direction is slow going, but I’ve been so inspired by the hopeful things that I see on the ground. 

I had a book come out last April with Meghan Kallman; she’s a state senator and a sociologist on the East Coast. She and I were just constantly encountering students that would hit eco-grief or a feeling of paralysis by about halfway through the semester because of climate crisis and all the other just the ecological crises, not to mention the economic crises that we face which are daunting. We wanted to highlight that and this book, Building Something Better, tries to do that. We focus on the spaces where all these amazing distributive and regenerative alternative kinds of systems are being built from small communities to organizations. 

The infiltration of that, I think, has also been very different. The idea that we can build a very different political and economic system in a place like the U.S. and at smaller and larger scales. I even see that awareness and that kind of motivation to do that in my students, much more so in the last four or five years than I did. So, I think there is — for all the paralysis we can feel in terms of these big capitalist systems or these big extractive systems, that are daunting and needs a lot of work — there’s so much already going on that resists that in productive, community-centered, actively hopeful ways. That’s been really edifying and gratifying to see.

You talked about that idea of eco grief. I wonder how people who may feel hopeless about many things regarding the environment can find hope when the problem is so big and daunting?

That’s a huge question. That’s a wonderful question. I think that I’m still very much learning this, and I think a lot of folks are, too. And I’m designing a course around this for students at CSU as well. So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s not about suppressing or burying the feelings of paralysis or grief, really the sadness, often the feelings of shame and complicity that can come along with being embedded in a system where many of us, all of us, have to use petroleum products at some phase of our lives, even if, you know, it’s in the clothing or the cosmetics that we wear because of the lack of bigger systems to plug into, like public transportation that might be affordable and accessible and actually get us from maybe Fort Collins to Denver, for example. 

But meeting people where they stand is what I found in terms of just understanding where that grief from paralysis comes from. I, as a sociologist, tend to think about things in a multilevel or multi scalar sort of way. So, we tend to process things a lot on the individual level, especially in the United States, where we’ve been socialized to think of ourselves as individuals and particularly since about the 1980s, right, with neoliberal ideology and policies really becoming hegemonic in places like the U.S. 

We’re so socialized that everything is at the individual level. If you’re not doing well, if you’re unemployed, if you have some economic hardship, that is all your fault, and the only solution to that problem is what you can do for yourself. I’m bringing this up because that really maps on to some of the narratives, we have for how you might deal with something like climate crisis or the eco grief that we might feel more broadly. And self-care has kind of become this buzzword, right, in terms of well just take time to take care of yourself. But it’s such an individualized and in my opinion, counterproductive kind of response. Like, of course we want to take care of ourselves. But even on the individual level, it’s about cultivating mindfulness and…

A mud mask and a bath are not going to solve the climate crisis.

Right. It might make you feel better for a little while, but the root of what a lot of research shows us is that what makes individuals feel better is feeling like they’re part of a collective. So, even though the mud mask and bath might feel good, it’s not going to connect you with something bigger than yourself, that we know from a lot of research. 

Close your eyes and think about your own experience. When we feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, when we feel awe — there’s a lot of work on happiness that points to awe as being a really important component of how we continue to feel happy even in the face of grief. It’s that connection to the collective that really inspires that. 

Beyond that, though, it’s a little bit of a trick when we look at big oil and other large fossil fuel and industrial interests that have a vested interest in business as usual. Climate denialism was kind of the first strategy to halt action in the direction of maybe renewable energy, reducing or getting rid of fossil fuels, etc. And climate denialism was essentially the narrative that climate change isn’t happening or if it is, that’s not human cost, right? That’s not as convincing anymore, even though it worked really well for a while, because it’s pretty evident the climate crisis is happening even to skeptics, and you see polls moving in that direction. So, the new goal is complicity, preying on complicity, and this idea of inducing feelings of complicity in people to paralyze their action. It’s why BP helped develop the idea of carbon footprints, to individualize our sense of what’s going on. 

It’s that understanding of mindfulness at the individual level, having tools like meditation and mindfulness techniques to get us to the point where we feel taken care of and like we can function as individuals. Because it’s a very real problem that a lot of us feel paralyzed, we just stop in the face of the daunting challenges we face, which is understandable. I feel that on a regular basis, I know most folks do. But then the step is understanding the systems and structures in place that have created these issues and then how to build different systems and how to plug into those at different scales. 

Ayana Johnson developed a really cool climate Venn diagram that’s all about: what brings you joy, what skills do you have, how do those two things intersect, and then what needs to be done? In the middle of that you can find your climate action. It’s an excellent way of connecting your own individual passions and joys and skills to the broader collective of what needs to be done and figuring out how to plug in to that. Through the Center for Environmental Justice, increasingly we will try to point people in directions in Fort Collins, in the state. How can you plug in? So, it’s that multi-scalar approach that doesn’t stop with the individual but almost demands going to the collective.

You’re currently working with some community organizations like the LatinX health equity nonprofit, Cultivando, in Commerce City and the Suncor oil refinery area. Tell me a little about what you’re doing there.

This has been a deeply community-led, community-based project, and that’s the work that I typically do. But this has been an incredible example in that direction. Cultivando and other community organizers around Commerce City. There are so many groups, I won’t name them because I don’t want to leave anyone out. But they were working primarily with Cultivando on the study. They invited me on as one of the social scientists leading the social science component of the study. 

Folks like Detlev Helmig and other air quality researchers have been doing mobile and in-place air monitoring around the Suncor facility for over a year now, I believe. They will be talking about their results. In terms of being able to do monitoring, that is much more scattered in terms of where they’re able to get measurements. They’re also taking measurements in much more nuanced ways than you might see reported by the EPA, which might be averages of benzene or averages of methane over a week or a month or even a year. 

Malin is currently working on a project with the Denver group Cultivando to study the impact of the Suncor oil refinery on nearby residents. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons

What we’re seeing in our project and from the air quality researchers on it, is that focus on when do we see spikes and that more nuanced kind of moment-by-moment kind of monitoring scattered around that area. What we’re looking at and the social science component that I’m leading with, Ramona Beltran from University of Denver, is looking at what it is like to live or work near the Suncor facility. The Suncor facility is the only oil refinery in Colorado. It’s one of the state’s largest polluters, if not the largest polluter, and it’s currently partially shut down because of some accidents and fires that happened just before Christmas. So, it’s been around for decades, and it deeply impacts environmental justice and health issues for folks living especially right around the facility, which I want to mention to Commerce City and the GES areas. It’s one of the most polluted zip codes, if not the most in the U.S. because of these layered extractive sites, but also sites of industrial contamination. The Suncor facility is just one of them. There’s also I-70 going through a legacy of those interstate policies I was talking about. So, decades of policies and sightings of different facilities have led to these layered environmental injustices that we see. 

A few years ago, there was a release of toxic chemicals released from the Suncor facility, and it rained down on the neighborhood around it like snow. Suncor responded like it was nothing dangerous, saying, “We’ll pay you to get your cars washed.” What ultimately happened is that they were fined for that release, and how that money has been used by the health department is to fund this kind of research on what happens when you live around these facilities. And so, we have very preliminary research that we have also been talking to the community about in meetings and delivering through Cultivando. But what’s really encouraging is that we are able to collect these stories that people have been trying to tell for a very long time about the health impacts that they see, especially if they’re living in households with young children or kids, a lot of asthma and other respiratory problems, pretty consistent health problems related to things like nosebleeds and headaches and health problems that are often dismissed as being part of somebody’s own individual lifestyle. What’s your diet? What’s your exercise like? What are the things that you’re doing in terms of your individual exposures or choices, your genetics, that might predispose you to these sorts of things when people are experiencing this, you know, in a radius around facilities like Suncor across the United States. This is where they’re connecting those kinds of health problems to exposures from the facility. 

We are capturing those stories. We are also doing a photo/voice component of the study where folks who live in community are taking pictures that capture what it’s like to live around the facility and telling us narratives of what that photo represents to them. It gives us a good visual representation of what that’s like on a daily basis. The goal really is to have this kind of holistic set of data that shows what air pollution or what kinds of air pollution are people being exposed to, what might be the health outcomes of that kind of exposure, and then on a sociological and environmental justice side of things, what does that mean for people’s stress levels? What does that mean for their quality of life? What does it mean when they feel like they have to buy water every day to be able to drink water and take showers and baths and wash dishes safely? And these are things that we’re seeing in places as we do interviews. So, we will have a lot more coming down the road from the study. Keep an eye on Cultivando because they are doing amazing work not just in this, but across many issues within the Commerce City community. 

I feel lucky to be part of the study, part of telling those stories. And I think it’s important to capture because as we move to hopefully a new just transition towards different kinds of energy systems and ways to employ folks who work in those fields, I think it’s important to think proactively about what current facilities are doing and what that means for quality of life in our state.

When we think of environmental injustices, we often think of these big recent events. We think about Flint. We think about the train crash in Ohio. Those big “Erin Brockovich” moments that end up getting a lot of media attention. But what about some of the smaller ones that don’t find their way into the media spotlight? How do we make sure that we’re helping fight those injustices?

What I try to think about when I look at those situations, and as a sociologist who works in community and works in rural communities a lot, I’m often working in spaces where we might never hear those stories so especially in terms of uranium exposure and uranium nuclear related accidents. 

The largest nuclear accident in the United States was around Church Rock in New Mexico. But because this happened around a Pueblo nation and native communities, most of us have never heard of this. It’s just one example of what we call sacrifice zones, spaces where there have been multiple hazardous land uses or dangerous, risky activity. A lot of folks will refer to those as the sacrifice zones, spaces seen as, well we can just get rid of those. While we were developing nuclear technology, parts of the western United States, especially parts that were populated by Native nations, if you look at Department of Defense memos, they will also refer to Mormon populations in those areas of southern Utah, for example, as being expendable. So, this is kind of part of the history of environmental injustice, certain groups being seen by other groups and power as being invisible or expendable. That’s a pattern throughout these cases of environmental injustice. 

As a sociologist, what I try to focus on is what’s the through line from these more sensationalized or focused on cases. Thank goodness the derailment in Ohio finally got some media attention. It took a little while. The through line with these communities was that they’re embedded within a set of social structures that doesn’t counter environmental injustice. One of the key reasons was that we see either a complete lack of regulation until the late 1960s or early 70s in terms of industrial production, chemical production, plastics production — a lot of these industrial activities that led to contamination of places like Love Canal and Warren County, North Carolina, where we think about the environmental justice movement as starting — and so paying attention to what rules are in place to protect humans, to protect all humans equally, we want to look at that.

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A drilling staging site in Weld County taken on a LightHawk flight. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Malin

The way that I’ve started to study and understand this is that environmental regulations, like I said, weren’t really strong in the U.S. until the late 1960s and early 70s. That’s when we saw this massive uptick in popular social activism around environmental issues, not environmental justice per se, but seeing Earth for the first time right after the moonwalk, the Cuyahoga River starting on fire, the Santa Barbara oil spill. All of these things that happened really precipitated this big movement towards a suite of environmental regulations. By the early 1970s, under the Nixon administration, the Environmental Protection Agency started. But by the 1980s, neoliberal policies start to really take off in the United States. Neoliberalism is an ideology, but also a set of policy measures. So, it can look different in different places, but it really refers to this focus on liberating markets, making markets as free as possible. And we do that by focusing on private property rights as much as possible, privatizing resources like water. 

I teach a lot of courses on looking at privatization of water and the justice impacts of that, but then also getting rid of as many or rewriting rules and regulations as much as possible so that there are as few environmental and labor regulations in place as possible because the goal is to be able to do business as freely as possible within that neoliberal kind of viewpoint. So, what’s connected these less visible spaces to these more visible spaces is that deregulation and that lack of environmental protection. Really, it was just getting started in a place like the United States when under neoliberalism, if you look at the budget of the EPA, for example under the Reagan administration, it was cut to such an extent that it didn’t recover again until the late 1990s. Then it starts all over again with the next administration that tends to cut regulations. This is a pattern across all political groups in the United States — I should say, the major two parties in the United States — since the 1980s. It’s not just Republicans or Democrats. We see this pattern across. But it’s really facilitated the environmental injustices that we see. Because even if there are environmental regulations on the books, if you don’t have people actually enforcing those rules, it doesn’t matter. So increasingly at the federal level and as individual states and even counties, regulators rely on corporate self-regulation. An example in Colorado is that with unconventional oil and gas production. 

The 2005 Energy Policy Act essentially deregulated the industry even more than it already was, so that it was exempt from about seven out of 15 major federal environmental. Regulations list included the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. When operators who wanted to do unconventional drilling — vertical and horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — wanted to set up operations, they didn’t have to follow those regulations at the federal level. Instead, they could go to individual states like Colorado or North Dakota, Texas or Pennsylvania. They really just had to follow the regulations within that state. So, control had been devolved and states often didn’t have the budgets, didn’t have the staff, didn’t have the knowledge or regulations on the books to enforce anything related to that kind of production. So, production could speed ahead of protection over environment and public health. 

For example, in Colorado, we have — last I checked, the numbers shift a little bit — around 55,000 operational wells at the peak and around 24 inspectors for those 55,000 operational wells. So, you might imagine, even if those inspectors were able to check multiple wells every day, I think the numbers are something like two and a half or three years, maybe even more to get to all those wells. So, the system is set up to rely a lot on corporate self-regulation. 

A drilling site next to farms and homes in Weld County, Colo
A drilling site next to farms and homes in Weld County. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Malin

Oil and gas is just one example I’m mentioning. This is the case across a lot of different industrial sectors. This is that pattern of deregulation that we can see tying together those less visible accidents and spaces in cases of environmental injustice to the ones that end up being bigger. The Ohio train derailment, for example, is really related to a lot of different deregulations, including deregulation around trains carrying hazardous substances and notifications around that, but also length of trains and their braking systems and how often they have to be inspected or if they have to be inspected. I’m giving that example because fairly simple things like rules and regulations being in place are what we have been socialized to demonize. Who wants rules and regulations? Right? But they’re there to protect multiple generations. They’re there to protect other species. They’re there to protect folks living in East Palestine, Ohio, from having to breathe toxic chemicals if a train derails. And that’s the through line back to these other spaces that we don’t hear about as much that are dealing with similar outcomes because of the lack of oversight and protections in place. It’s not only that there’s a lot of other structural factors, but I give that example because if we can focus on how do we build systems that are more about distributive regenerative approaches and having some protections in place so that the public trust can be met, we can offer future generations clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and bathe in and enjoy. That is the essence of the public trust and the role of the state in protecting those resources so that we have something to hand down and there’s some intergenerational equity. 

My approach and the way I teach my students as well and talk about those through the Center for E.J. is to think about what we know about those really visible sites is often also what’s being played out in those less visible sites. So, if as organizers or community groups, we want to focus on how we can inform policymakers or how can we become part of a community organization like 350 Colorado, that’s moving in the direction of trying to just have some accountability and some checks and balances. That’s a way to start to address some of those last visible injustices that we might not even know the names of. 

In the last few years, we’ve seen Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signing the Environmental Justice Act and President Biden’s executive order signing of the Justice 40 Initiative. Does it seem like the environmental justice movement is getting real traction now that, as you said earlier, we’re in a zeitgeist moment?

I’m hopeful. But I do think that we’ve already had a zeitgeist moment in the early 1990s, the first executive order under the Clinton administration for the Environmental Justice Executive Order. That was also seen as a zeitgeist moment for E.J. and then it’s kind of ebbed and flowed. So, all of this is very encouraging if it helps meaningfully support and build sustainable relationships among all these different places that are E.J. priority areas. 

But more importantly, and I’m going to be blunt here, there are two parallel and diametrically opposed things going on. I really think that we have to examine the notion that we can green capitalism or we can take this very austere version of capitalism that we call neoliberalism, which pulls away our social safety nets, alienates us as individuals, deregulates, privatizes and gets consistent results of environmental injustice on many levels, unless that system shifts drastically and is shifted by people, I fear that we’re going to see the same results no matter how much money or executive orders or state level legislation we throw at the problem. If there’s not a shift in the system in which it’s all embedded, I think that we know the conclusion. 

That’s why I focus on places, communities and organizations that are actually building fundamentally different systems that are not about privatizing wealth, that are not towards an uber elite, that are not about trying to extract as much profit as possible in a short period of time, and that really cares about the repercussions for our kids or their kids. If those conventions don’t change, then I think all the E.J. acts in the world are not really going to work because they’re trying to thrive within a system that doesn’t really match those goals and values. I’m incredibly inspired, though, by the sheer number of people that want something very different and are actively building those systems and it doesn’t have to be this enormous life altering, for you, sort of thing. But it’s finding your passion and your joy in your skill set and where that fits in. And that’s how we build collectives where we’re all bringing our little talent or skill and that can change over time. 

I do think that that’s gotten Gov. Polis and President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris actually interested in environmental justice. It’s people pushing and agitating and being persistent for decades and organizations persisting even longer than that. But you can only persist against this kind of hegemonic system for so long before we start to say, hey, let’s pay attention to the water that we’re swimming around in and see if we can change that water so that it helps us swim a little better and a little more easily.

About Stephanie Malin

Stephanie Malin, associate sociology professor and co-founder of Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Justice.

Stephanie Malin is an associate professor of sociology and co-founder of CSU’s Center for Environmental Justice. Malin specializes in environmental and natural resource sociology, governance and rural development, focusing on the community impacts of resource extraction, energy production and environmental deregulation. 

As an environmental sociologist, Malin’s main interests include environmental justice, environmental health, social mobilization and the socio-environmental effects of market-based economies. She co-leads a Water Center Research Team project examining environmental justice issues among various water users in the Rio Grande Basin. 

Malin is also the author of “The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice” and has published her research in journals such as Social Forces, Environmental Politics, the Journal of Rural Studies, and Society and Natural Resources. 

Malin has served in elected leadership positions for the American Sociological Association’s Section on Environmental Sociology and the International Association for Society and Natural Resources. She holds affiliate faculty positions with the Colorado School of Public Health and the CSU School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

About The Audit

Recorded at the KCSU studio, Colorado State University’s new podcast, The Audit, features conversations with CSU faculty on everything from research to current events. Just as auditing a class provides an opportunity to explore a new subject or field, The Audit allows listeners to explore the latest works from the experts at CSU.