A marsh in Richmond: what a restoration project taught me about racial bias, white privilege, and environmental justice

IMG_8286The people of Richmond did not like our choice for a restoration project; they wanted a different one. They called us racist. At first, we were perplexed. Eventually, I realized they were right.

As a natural resource economist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, it was my job to assess injuries to wildlife and habitat due to pollution events, and to seek compensation, thru restoration, to “make the public whole.” Working with partners from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and other state and federal agencies, we enjoyed our work— suing oil companies and using the recovered funds to do habitat restoration. We were “the trustees”; we represented the people and the natural resources and acted on their behalf. We were the Lorax; we spoke for the trees. We had been as innovative as we were successful, pioneering seabird restoration on breeding colonies in Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and even New Zealand to benefit bird species killed by oil spills in California. Those were the only places they nested, so we did what made the most biological sense.

In 2012 we began assessing damages to Castro Cove in San Pablo Bay near Richmond. It had been contaminated by oil, mercury, and lead associated with the adjacent Chevron refinery. To compensate for the injuries (in addition to cleaning up Castro Cove), we proposed to restore saltmarsh wetlands at Cullinan Ranch, part of San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, about ten miles to the north. We immediately met opposition from locals. They wanted the settlement funds to stay in Richmond; Cullinan Ranch was too far away.

We have project selection criteria set in federal regulations. Top of our list is always nexus— we aim to restore the same type of habitat and species that were injured. But there are also other things to consider: feasibility, partnering funds to make the project bigger, cost (bang for the buck), etc. When it came to evaluating restoration options, Richmond had little to offer. The refinery was merely one of several industrial or former industrial sites along their bay front. Contamination issues were everywhere. A poster child for environmental injustice, Richmond is also poor and predominantly non-white. We thought Cullinan Ranch was a good solution.

The people of Richmond wanted us to spend the funds restoring Breuner Marsh. This was a 238-acre parcel just north of Castro Cove wedged between the bay and the railroad tracks. Across the tracks was Parchester Village, a housing tract built after World War II to house African Americans enticed to move there and work in the nearby factories. It was one of the few places offering FHA home loans to non-whites. They came primarily from Louisiana, a land of marshes. They would cross the tracks and enjoy the wetlands as a place to hunt and fish. To this day, Parchester Village remains predominantly black. Whitney Dotson, and his father Reverend Dotson, have been fighting development proposals there, by a man named Breuner, for decades.

Initially, we, the natural resource trustees, fought the people of Parchester. The Cullinan project exceeded the Breuner project by most criteria. It was already part of a protected refuge. It had ten feet of elevation gain to buffer sea level rise. And the project, modifying the levee system, promised to restore 1500 acres; it had serious bang for the buck. And we asserted that ten miles away was no big deal.

But the distance was a big deal, and we didn’t understand why. I did not understand that other subcultures in the US don’t hop in their Prius and drive an hour to see a rare bird like me. They don’t throw their kayak on their Suburu and head for the boat launch. Nor were the people of Richmond, working two jobs and long shifts, going to drive to Cullinan, which had little parking and no bus service. They wanted to protect and restore their own marsh across the tracks from their neighborhood. They knew, better than we, that using our criteria, places like Marin County across the bay, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, would win every time. No prior contamination? Check. Partnering funds? Lots. Contiguous with other protected areas? Of course.

When the people we are supposed to be compensating are complaining about our proposal, that’s a red flag that perhaps our criteria are biased, our evaluation is wrong, and that their values are not the same as our values. And they are the ones who matter. As trustees, we were supposed to ensure the compensation of the impacted people. We are obligated to see the world through their lens.

IMG_8341

The $14 million dollar project has re-contoured the wetlands and planted native grasses, as well as extended the Bay Trail with a paved bike path, parking lot, and restrooms. When I visited recently, two Golden Eagles, normally rare next to the Bay, skirmished over a kill in the grasses. 

A similar conflict arose in Mississippi after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At a contentious public meeting between the predominantly African American public wanting one type of restoration and white agency scientists proposing another, one exasperated woman stood up and asked, “Why are you all white?” When the government officials told me about this, they were scoffing. But it’s a great question. We all know the answer. They got their positions in government because they had college degrees. This in turn was highly correlated with a good high school and a good neighborhood. The money that financed all that started with their parents or grandparents, who probably began accumulating their family’s wealth after a subsidized college degree and home loan thru the GI Bill, or an FHA home loan, or maybe even a free plot of Native land via the Homestead Act, all programs that built the white middle class—and largely excluded people of color. The odds of a black person qualifying for one of these government positions were slim. That’s why that panel of restoration experts was all white. And they brought their cultural values with them.

In the end, we caved in and split the funds between Cullinan and Breuner (begrudgingly). I went to the Breuner Marsh project dedication ceremony, which featured speeches by both Whitney Dotson and Representative George Miller. There I learned everything I should have known earlier. That the people of Parchester Village had been fighting to save that marsh for decades.

They have since renamed the marsh; it is now the Dotson Family Marsh.

Oceanography, plastic pollution, and Big Ag in the Amazon: What you can learn from the beach in the Yucatán

Yuc3

Plastics and rotting sargassum, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Quintana Roo, Mexico

The beaches south of Cancun, Mexico were once famed for their talcum powder white sand and leaning coconut palms. Now they tell you a lot about the world.

Waves pile sargassum seaweed up to ten feet high along the waters edge while the sun cooks the rotting vegetation higher on the beach. I saw it about two feet high. It smells and traps baby sea turtles, preventing them from reaching the sea. And it’s not from Mexico. Sargassum is a floating algae, different from the seagrass that is anchored to the sea bottom offshore. Fed by warming seas and nutrients from agricultural runoff from the Amazon and other rivers to the south, sargassum has bloomed in recent years. Wind and currents bring it to the Yucatán Peninsula, where it has affected tourists’ enjoyment of the beaches.

CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

But that’s not all. The beaches are littered with plastic garbage— mostly bottles and containers associated with beverages, personal care products, or automotive fluids. I couldn’t read the labels on most of them— they had clearly been at sea too long, drifting from too far away– but it appears most of them are not from Mexico either. Of the 47 labels I could read, here are the results.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Yuc5map

I searched about 400 meters of beach at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum, Mexico on the Yucatán Peninsula. There were about a thousand plastic containers. I could only read the labels on 47 of them. They came from all over the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, and even West Africa and Asia.

The countries of origin based on the labels on the plastic containers are correlated with distance and currents. Cruise ships are an unlikely source– dumping plastics at sea has been banned for over a decade in the Caribbean.

Yuc1

Skin cream from Togo.

The disproportionate percentage of plastics from Haiti (mostly energy drinks) suggest this trash comes primarily from land-based sources, not cruise ships, and is correlated with poverty and the ability to address garbage. The high percentage from the US may be from local tourists or even Puerto Rico. Mexico is undoubtedly over-represented in my sample– those plastics come from the nearest and are likely less degraded and easier to read. Given that over 95% of the containers were so worn they were unreadable, it is likely they drifted from far away.

Yuc2

This beach, the lee of a point, was the cleanest one I encountered.

 

The Coming Green Wave

This op-ed in the New York Times boldly declares:

“if just one unorganized voting segment, the 60 million bird-watchers of America, sent a unified political message this fall, you’d have a political block with more than 10 times the membership of the National Rifle Association.”

There are other fun stats, like there are more yoga instructors in the US than there are coal miners. Enjoy. And vote.