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Grassroots efforts in Wyandotte County work to fix decades of pollution and disinvestment

Neighborhood advocates such as Ana Ramos are working to educate residents about how the environment affects health care outcomes.
Dominick Williams
Neighborhood advocates such as Ana Ramos are working to educate residents about how the environment affects health care outcomes.

After decades of pollution, redlining and disinvestment, Wyandotte County residents are demanding change and taking steps to make it happen.

Amanda DeVreise-Sebilla lives in a Wyandotte County, Kansas, house that dates back to 1908, just a block and a half from the railroad.

After decades of breathing coal and diesel emissions, she began having asthmatic symptoms.

That should come as little surprise. Wyandotte County currently ranks No. 103 among Kansas counties in health outcomes. Just to the south, neighboring Johnson County ranks No. 1.

DeVreise-Sebilla described her neighbors as mostly blue-collar workers and minority families often unaware of the things that are affecting their health.

“It’s important for us to educate the community and get people to advocate for themselves and come together to work for solutions,” she said. “We’re (nearly) the unhealthiest county in Kansas, which is extremely concerning. But people are working very hard, two and three jobs, just to be able to make a living, to contribute to this community too and they deserve to be cared about.”

Forty-four census tracts in Wyandotte County are identified as “disadvantaged” by the Council on Environmental Quality.

“In Wyandotte County, we often get overlooked, and people don’t care, because we have some disadvantaged individuals in the community. We have to be the voice for the people in our community that cannot be the voice,” DeVreise-Sebilla said.

How did that happen? Advocates cite decades of housing redlining, compounded by a concentration of nearby businesses involved in the production and distribution of industrial products, and an overall lack of investment of resources for the county.

A few organizations and community leaders are looking to change that.

Neighbors in need

According to a report by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Kansas City-based organization CleanAirNow (CAN), communities of color and low-income communities in Kansas City face a greater risk of exposure to environmental hazards. Those hazards range from cumulative exposure to hazardous pollutants from heavy freight and diesel-powered transportation to industrial emissions.

DeVreise-Sebilla uses one of the air quality monitors CAN installed in Wyandotte County. In July 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dedicated $50 million to a plan to improve air pollution in communities like Wyandotte County. She checks her monitor via the PurpleAir website, which helps her know the status of the air quality.

Many of the census tracts identified as low-income in both counties are near facilities that handle chemicals characterized as harmful for human health by the EPA. These facilities are monitored by the Toxics Release Inventory Program, which tracks the waste management of such chemicals.

Ana Ramos, an Armourdale neighborhood resident and CleanAirNow community organizer, has lived in both Wyandotte County and Johnson County. She said the differences could not be starker.

“I noticed the difference,” Ramos said. I “started thinking why in this neighborhood there’s pollution, the streets look different and the city doesn’t pay attention (to) what is going on in our streets in our community.”

When Ramos lived in Johnson County, she was regularly informed about county-wide alerts via text or letters. A direct public safety notification system does not exist for Wyandotte County, according to a spokesperson for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas.

For instance, when Advantage Metals Recycling had a fire in Armourdale, Johnson County residents were warned to stay indoors due to potential poor air quality. In Wyandotte County, residents found out five hours later via the NextDoor app.

“This is unjust because people (in Wyandotte) have less money and they are paying … for living there, so I started questioning and got involved with CleanAirNow,” Ramos said.

Much of the industrial base and the homes for blue-collar workers in Kansas City, Kansas, are built along the railroad yards.
Dominick Williams
Much of the industrial base and the homes for blue-collar workers in Kansas City, Kansas, are built along the railroad yards.

Magali Rojas began her journey in environmental justice after CleanAirNow visited El Centro Inc. She was a health intake specialist at the time, serving low-income communities in the El Centro and Argentine/Armourdale area. Now she runs a daycare in Armourdale.

“We saw a lot of asthma and respiratory problems in the children we take care of,” Rojas said. “Parents don’t realize that air pollution can also be in the house. It’s not just outdoors. So, that’s where they were receiving most of the air pollution: old housing. It’s hard for those communities to really be able to think about what they’re experiencing because they have so many other immediate needs to take care of.”

Rojas said community members knew the environment around them was an issue but didn’t have the means to do something about it. Their priority was making sure that they had food on the table, that their rent was covered, and getting their children to school or the doctor.

When the EPA comes in to try to measure one specific factor or a specific air pollutant, Rojas believes that’s just one part of the story. In addition to proximity to polluting industries, health outcomes are also influenced by quality of housing, access to food or availability of medical services.

DeVreise-Sebilla, who developed asthmatic symptoms as an adult, now uses the air monitors from CleanAirNow to track the air quality in her home and help protect her and her family.

Neighborhoods like Argentine (named after a silver smelter that spent over 100 years emitting toxins into the water and soil) and Armourdale (surrounded by rail yards, scrap yards and manufacturing plants) were deemed “toxic” by CleanAirNow. People in these communities often live 20 years less on average compared to residents on the western side of the county.

“Pollution in Kansas City is unevenly distributed to poor communities and communities of color,” said Dr. Elizabeth Friedman, director of environmental health at Children’s Mercy. “Race is the most significant predictor of a person living near contaminated water, air or soil.”

Wyandotte County is one of the most diverse communities in the country, with no ethnic majority. More than 70 languages are spoken throughout the county, according to the Visit KC website.

Language barriers have often kept residents uninformed and unaware of the health costs of living in Wyandotte County.

CleanAirNow’s Rayan Makarem said language barriers have made it difficult for community members to advocate for their needs and provide input; whether it’s accessing interpretation services at government meetings or getting tripped up on the legal language that can be difficult to understand, even in one’s native tongue.

Makarem said CleanAirNow’s initiatives are working to improve language access and justice through more available interpretation services and simpler language in laws and policies.

Regulations and loopholes

From the federal government to grassroots organizations, many groups are working to mitigate the environmental issues in Wyandotte County and beyond.

CleanAirNow has been working in Kansas City for over 10 years, Makarem said.

“We’ve been able to get a network of air monitors deployed, we’ve been able to have our voices heard in all levels when we go to the Unified Government,” Makarem said.

“We go to the state level for the state of Kansas, and we are talking to EPA employees or to federal regulators about how we can improve the daily lives of our communities down here in Kansas City, Kansas, and in the neighborhoods that really are most affected by all these issues of pollution, and what we call environmental injustice.”

CleanAirNow recently published a report called Environmental Racism in the Heartland, which details the relationship between land use decisions and health impacts. The report helps inform not just the local government, but state and federal officials, too, said Beto Martinez, the executive director for Rise4EJ and a community organizer.

Martinez emphasized the importance of community-based research to push for change and the environmental justice movement.

“It’s our own neighborhoods and our own people that live in these neighborhoods that know best, right?” Martinez said. “And so, I do want to ensure that that’s not lost — that credit does go to those that have paved the way for us and others in order to keep pushing against these systems. And we have seen a lot of progress. There’s a lot of work to be done. And we’re here to continue that work.”

Rayan Makarem of CleanAirNow works with neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, to advocate for environmental justice.
Dominick Williams
Rayan Makarem of CleanAirNow works with neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, to advocate for environmental justice.

Several state and federal laws and regulations exist to help mitigate the effect of harmful pollutants.

At the federal level, the EPA has 10 regional offices that serve multiple states and tribal nations. Region 7 serves four Midwestern states including Kansas and Missouri.

The EPA monitors sources of pollution, which include the inspection of facilities to ensure compliance with existing regulations, according to Shannan Beisser, the lead press officer for EPA Region 7.

The EPA also has the ability to set standards for air quality via the Clean Air Act, which was passed in 1970 and has been amended a few times since.

Officials at EPA Region 7 said they have worked with organizers in Wyandotte County to help reduce the risk of air emissions.

“EPA Region 7 has routinely met with community organizations including CleanAirNow, Rise4EJ, and the Moving Forward Network to provide information, resources, and responses to specific individual community member and local leadership questions or concerns,” said Beisser in an email. “EPA Region 7 chose to attend and speak at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Public Permit Hearing on December 4, 2023, at the Wyandotte County Health Department. The Agency also fielded questions from audience members at the event.”

However, some groups don’t think current regulations go far enough. According to ComingClean, a proposal by the EPA to crack down on toxic chemicals such as ethylene oxide would leave out some facilities that still manufacture or handle the chemical.

What can be done for Wyandotte County?

Why not just leave Wyandotte County? Many say they can’t afford to move elsewhere. Moreover, many residents and advocates believe they owe it to their community to stay and fight.

“I love my home and I have a sense of pride for being part of this community,” DeVreise-Sebilla said.

For Ramos, Wyandotte County is where her church is. She loves being able to access it easily across from her house in Armourdale.

“But if I had the opportunity to buy another house — my allergies are getting worse — maybe,” Ramos said. “I really want to do something better, because (the environment) still maybe not affecting me (poorly), but it’s affecting other people’s lives who cannot leave.”

Some potential solutions cited by advocates include:

  • Ensuring meaningful community engagement and input in decision-making processes that affect marginalized neighborhoods. 
  • Holding polluting industries and government agencies accountable to existing environmental regulations and enforcing compliance. 
  • Investing in infrastructure improvements like stormwater management, air quality monitoring and public transportation in overburdened communities. 

Makarem regularly gets asked why people don’t just move to somewhere safer when advocating for Wyandotte County’s environmental rights. He says the question typically comes from people from more privileged backgrounds.
“(We won’t move out because) these are our homes, these are our cultures, our families, our neighborhoods. There’s history associated here that doesn’t make sense to just up and leave or uproot ourselves and go somewhere else,” Makarem said.

“I don’t think the solution is for people to move away from their homes and their lives, because industry is polluting their life or because the way that our county is operating is causing them health issues, or food insecurity issues, or all sorts of pollution problems,” he said. “We need to address the problem at the root of why this is happening. Resolve it so that people can continue to live in the homes that they have, and where their families grew up. And they can have a healthier life growing there.”

This story was originally published by Flatland, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

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