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Environmentalism Sacrifice Zones

What happens when there’s nothing left to drink?: A look into Pennsylvania’s water Crisis

Written by Lauren Ariel Hoffman

Lauren Ariel Hoffman is a Pennsylvania-based photojournalist. A senior at The New School graduating May 2021 with a BA in Journalism + Design, she covers longform and investigative pieces on public health and healthcare, Jewish identity and the environment, in addition to writing personal essays. She often covers strikes and protests regarding the environment and human rights: covering the Climate Strikes in 2019, and the many responses to the 2020 election. Her reporting puts emphasis on finding local voices and making equitable representation for her sources. Hoffman has had pieces featured in Good Morning America, Earther and Hey Alma, and hopes to continue her post-college reporting in her home state, focusing on the city of Philadelphia and her hometown, Phoenixville. Check out the rest of her work here: https://laurenariel.github.io/.


When you grow up in Pennsylvania, dirt and decay are just a fact of life. Roadkill line the highways like mile markers, sewage plants touting rotten egg smell fill the already muggy summers, and abandoned iron, steel and gristmills break up the ever-rolling green farmlands. There’s a layer of grit to everything, but that’s part of what gives us that rustic charm we’re known for.

Unfortunately, this also applies to our drinking water. 

Pennsylvania is a state that is defined by its history of manufacturing exports: iron, steel, textiles, metals and chemicals. Cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were hubs for industrialization, with the latter being the main source of steel production for most of the United States throughout the majority of the 19th and 20th centuries. But by the turn of the century, emergence of manufacturing conglomerates, meant there was no longer use for our industry anymore. And while the farms still exist, many of the factories that helped build most of America were shut down, left to rust in a hilly field.




Carrying away and loading the pigs (pig iron), blast furnace, Pittsburg, Pa. | Library of Congress

Pennsylvania still makes iron and steel, but not nearly at the rate it used to. There are over 14,400 manufacturing establishments still active in the state, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development. Only now our manufacturing is dominated mainly by  pharmaceuticals. 

But that doesn’t mean the influence of the steel age is gone. The nostalgia for the olden days is alive and well, and its inside our pipes.

Abandoned facility of defunct Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.
Abandoned facility of defunct Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company | stu_spivack

In 2016, an article on my hometown of Phoenixville (which is in eastern Pennsylvania) was released, stating that the water in our area had tested positive for Chromium-6: a contaminant so toxic it can cause cancer, reproductive problems and liver damage even from the tiniest exposure.

In 2019, another article on Phoenixville came out, detailing seven previously identified contaminants in our water that had risen significantly above the town’s recommended level. The highest contaminants, trihalomethanes, were 344 times the rate of the recommended amount. All seven of these contaminants have the ability to cause cancer.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in February 2020 about the Philadelphia suburbs where most of the residents don’t drink the tap water. It stated that 80,000 people across three townships lived in an area where the groundwater had been contaminated by a decommissioned military base

In the town of Aliquippa, Beaver County, the town’s system of cast-iron and lead pipes caused its residents to fall ill with boils, rashes, headaches, and other skin conditions, according to a September 2020 article.

The town has been protesting for better water treatment, though the board of their water municipality insists it is fine.

The issue is less about the impact of Pennsylvania’s industry, and more about a lack of governmental oversight and urgency. For one thing, there isn’t a federal legal limit for the more recent “forever chemicals”, dubbed PFAS (per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances) by the Department of Environmental Protection. Because of this, states and nonprofit groups have taken it upon themselves to set their own limit, which wildly differs from region to region. In addition to this, the defunding of the Environmental Protection Agency under the now twice-impeached President has made it practically impossible for these departments to regulate clean water efficiently.

Pine Creek Gorge, Pennsylvania | NICHOLAS A. TONELLI/FLICKR
Pine Creek Gorge, Pennsylvania | NICHOLAS A. TONELLI/FLICKR

But do not abandon all hope, ye who enter Pennsylvania, because there is action being taken. In the past few years, citizen activism has proven to be more effective when it comes to handling environmental issues.

On March 27th, 2020, a labor and environmental coalition called Pittsburgh United partnered with the National Resources Defense Council and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project to negotiate a settlement that resulted in the city of Pittsburgh agreeing to eliminate its lead pipes by 2026. In July, just four months after, the city reported the lowest lead levels in 158 homes in over 20 years, and this is in addition to a chemical additive that was added in April 2019.

While there are changes being made, the burden of clean water should not fall onto the residents in these areas. It is my hope that in the coming years there will be substantial environmental change, but I worry that the impact on those in my state who are falling ill will be irreversible if immediate action is not taken, if our concerns are not listened to, and if our right to clean water continues to be treated as an industrial commodity.

Categories
Sacrifice Zones

Stop Dumping Death On Us: A case of the Dandora Dumpsite in Nairobi Kenya

Written by Peter Mwashi Litonde

Peter Mwashi Litonde is a proponent of social justice, social inclusion and equity. He is a community Development expert serving the vulnerable grassroots communities in Kenya. Born and raised in the slums of Korogocho, which is the 3rd largest slum in Kenya. Peter uses participatory development approaches such as drama and art to organize, mobilize and engage community members especially children in addressing issues affecting them and influence social change. Peter is a passionate writer gifted in creative writing and uses his writings to raise awareness and provoke the society to reflect, deliberate and inspire change. In his 18 years’ experience in community work he has initiated and been part of different community based initiatives in and outside his community on children issues, youth development, community capacity building, media projects, environmental justice and Human Rights programs. Peter is an enthusiast of children & youth mentorship as a tool to protect and inspire a future.


One million is the number of lives on the periphery of Kenya’s Nairobi capital subjected to toxic fumes from the deadly Dandora dumpsite. One million on a death-row.

In 2018 a group of children in Korogocho undertook an art and crafts project to advocate and raise awareness

The Dandora dumpsite is the largest in Eastern Africa. Located just about 8km from the City centre and 15km from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP)
headquarters. The dumpsite is about 30 acres of landfill full of trash. It was established in 1975 through the support of the World Bank by then serving a small population of about 0.5 million people sparsely populated in Nairobi. The idea was to fill up a quarry on location.

Heading to five decades later, the dumpsite which was declared full in 2001, continues to receive more than 2000 metric tonnes of solid waste every day.

The waste here includes food waste, plastic, rubber, glass, industrial and clinical waste including syringes. It all comes from the over 5 million population in Nairobi. With minimal informal recycling happening at the site much of it is burnt through methane fires and other regular burnings that shrink the volumes. Toxic fumes engulfed in clouds of smoke blowing to the residential communities including the nearby Korogocho slums is a common image that the residents have witnessed endlessly for 45 years and counting. The Dandora dumpsite juxtaposes the ugly gap between the rich and the poor in Kenya.

The Dandora dumpsite juxtaposes the ugly gap between the rich and the poor in Kenya.

“This place which I call home and its people should also count as Kenyans, deserving a better, cleaner, safer and healthier environment.”

-PETER MWASHI LITONDE

This a country where 60% of its population are impoverished and subjected to harsh conditions such as scavenging from the dumped trash. It frames the injustices forced on people in terms of economic, social, health and sadly environmental inequalities. Lack of proper planning, inadequate solid waste management and lack of political will have escalated the problem which amounts to violation of fundamental Human Rights of the people. A study by UNEP in 2007 shows that 50% of the 328 children sampled from the communities around the dumpsite, exhibited presence of heavy metals in their blood including lead which was way beyond the World Health Organization’s acceptable levels. The samples also confirmed respiratory diseases such as Asthma and chronic bronchitis being common among the population around. 

Noxious chemicals from the waste run into the nearby Nairobi river causing a health risk to those using the water down the stream. The waters of the Nairobi river flow into the Indian ocean and hence to the global community. The soil contamination and vegetation poisoning in the land at the dumpsite sadly maybe a long-term damage. 

It is not unusual for children in the nearby schools to study only a half day due to the increased smoke blurring their vision to the blackboard and a continuous cough during the lessons hence a hindrance to their academic dream, a future dimmed. 

About 1500 people come to the dumpsite every day to scavenge for food and collecting recyclables from the trash. Here people compete with pigs, cows, goats and marabou storks for a daily bread. They do so without any protective gear, exposing them to more harm. The farmers who feed these livestock at the dumpsite are oblivious to the toxic contamination of the meat which ends up in different butcheries and eateries throughout the larger Nairobi area. 

There have been past efforts by various institutions within and outside the community to lobby and agitate for change. However, these efforts have been futile due to corruption as a result of economic and political interests of the dumpsite. There are allegations of politicians using the dumpsite to syphon money from the county by awarding themselves tenders for garbage collection. The dumpsite also harbors criminal gangs who control the dumping and collection of recyclables at the site. This criminal network continues to silence the residents who are overcome by fear to confront the issue and demand for better. A people silenced even when they can’t breathe. 

In 2018 a group of children in Korogocho undertook an art and crafts project to advocate and raise awareness about the problem. They did so by recycling waste to make crafts which they then exhibited in the community and at the dumpsite. This advocacy themed ‘My Environment My life’ ran on the hashtag ‘Stop-dumping-death-on-us’ in line with many efforts that helped to stop the illegal extension of the dumpsite. 

Indeed, here is a clarion call to unmask and confront environmental injustices subjected to the people by the Dandora dumpsite and save a future chocked by the pollutants. This place which I call home and its people should also count as Kenyans, deserving a better, cleaner, safer and healthier environment.

Meanwhile time is ticking, a gasp of air full of toxic. Every inhale equals the risk of cutting short a life, but with every exhale is hope that it shall be better someday and that the people around the Dandora dumpsite will breathe again.