Hazel Johnson was a pioneer in environmental justice, and her work is as important today as it was in the 1980s as the threat of contaminants from leaking underground storage tanks is still very real.
Hazel Johnson might not be a name that jumps out at the average person, but she was undoubtedly an agent of change. Miss Johnson passed away this past week but will be remembered by many as the mother of the environmental justice movement. Johnson founded the People for Community Recovery oraganization that was designed to hold the EPA accountable to minority communities rife with pollution.
Miss Johnson set up her office in the Altgelds Gardens neighborhood of Chicago and her activist career started by way of housing improvements, but quickly moved into environmental activism as her neighborhood experienced the highest rate of cancer in the city. After some research it was discovered that there were more than 250 leaking underground storage tanks contaminating the local well water. Due to Miss Johnson’s efforts, much of the contamination was cleaned up and new water and sewer lines were put in. While this happened in the early 80s, leaking underground storage tanks continue to be an issue in many communities, however.
The average life expectancy of a steel storage tank is 30 to 50 years and since many were put into use after World War II largely to store petroleum products at gas stations. As of 1999 the EPA was monitoring a whopping 370,000 LUST sites in the United States. If that number seems shocking, now take into account that the benzene content in 10 gallons of leaked gasoline from and underground storage tank can contaminate 46 million gallons of water. Obviously, this should be a concern for any potentially at risk community. The three major contaminants that come out of leaking underground storage tanks are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Benzene is a carcinogen and the other contaminants have been known to harm the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.
With some credit to Miss Johnson, there is more transparency these days in terms of the information available. Nearly every state has available information that is readily accessible. An example would be Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, which has made information available here. So if you’re concerned about a possible LUST in your area checking out the information made available by your local government agencies. A quick Google search should allow you to find it. If you have a storage tank that may need removal, there are many environmental consulting companies that have experience in removing these tanks. Your local agency can probably give you direction on who to contact in this situation as well.