Fishing isn’t sport for everyone. Many urban residents rely on rivers and lakes to supplement their diets. In Oregon Humanitiesmagazine, journalist Julia Rosen looks at the people of color who once relied on the Willamette River for food, pleasure, and work. The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, Oregon. After industry and urbanization polluted it, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland Harbor a superfund site, and many locals quit fishing it. A new 13-year, billion-dollar plan has the potential to clean this beautiful river, which could reconnect certain communities with what Rosen calls the city’s lifeblood. But gentrification has already displaced many black families, physically separating them from the river. The question now is whether the cleanup can create jobs for impacted communities and right the city’s many racial injustices.
Historian Ellen Stroud has written that the pollution of the slough reveals a story of environmental racism. North Portland has been associated with African Americans since Henry Kaiser built Vanport, a housing development for his shipyard workers, along the Columbia’s southern bank. From 1942 until 1948, when it was destroyed in a catastrophic flood, Vanport housed the majority of Portland’s Black population.
That association, Stroud writes, seems to have contributed to the decision to sacrifice North Portland—and the slough—to industry. North Portland also housed the city’s primary garbage dump from 1940 to 1991, and has long suffered from poor air quality.
“Whenever you look at where those toxic substances and hazardous substances lodge,” says Robin Collin, “it inevitably follows color.” Collin is an environmental justice expert and law professor at Willamette University in Salem. She says this pattern has been documented repeatedly, and often emerges from the perception that fear and disenfranchisement will keep communities of color from protesting the pollution.
At the request of a high school friend, Lacy M. Johnson began investigating an area north of St. Louis where toxic waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1974. The resulting piece for Guernica finds Johnson diving into the human costs of America’s decision to end the war on Japan with expedient nuclear force.
The years of experimentation leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the years dealing with the nuclear fallout, have taken a lasting toll on the home front. Areas in St. Louis county near the Westlake Landfill Superfund site have higher incidence of lupus, rare cancers, neuropathy, and congenital defects than the general population. Although the EPA has maintained that the site is minimally hazardous, some residents have formed advocacy groups to raise awareness and demand immediate removal of the waste.
When Karen and her husband bought a house in North County for their own growing family, they chose one not far from the neighborhood where she’d splashed through the creek as a girl. But in the summer of 1999 she ran across a parking lot in the rain and then couldn’t get out of bed for days. Maybe she had come down with the flu, she thought. She visited her doctor, who didn’t know what to make of her symptoms. Karen’s blood work showed signs that antibodies were attacking the proteins in the nuclei of her cells. “Lupus,” the doctor told her, years later. He prescribed steroids to manage the symptoms of the disease, and mostly it did manage them. She felt healthy more often than ill. But in July 2012 she collapsed at her daughter’s softball game and didn’t bounce back, didn’t return to work, or to feeling healthy. Her doctor said this might be the new normal.
Karen went to a new doctor, who told her that there’s increasing consensus that lupus can be brought on by environmental triggers, including exposure to contaminants and chemicals, like cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury. In particular, he said, recent studies have shown a link between lupus and uranium exposure. That night over dinner Karen’s husband asked if she remembered a story on the news from a few months before about the creek that ran through her neighborhood. She remembered only vaguely. “Well, it was something about uranium contamination,” he said, looking up from his plate.