KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The goal for Aurora Pantojo Conejo, a native of Kansas City, Kansas' Quindaro neighborhood seems pretty simple.
"I want to live long and healthy," Conejo said.
A study by We Are Wyandotte, a locally-based organization working to improve health outcomes of Wyandotte County residents, found that residents in the Rosedale, Armourdale, Riverview and Kensington neighborhoods can live on average 20 years less than residents in neighborhoods to the west of them in Wyandotte County.
As part of the effort to improve health outcomes, organizations like CleanAirNow are working to highlight environmental injustice by showing officials first-hand what neighborhoods face every day.
Conejo was part of a group of community members that came together with federal, state and local officials for a bus tour of toxic sites in Wyandotte County.
On Thursday morning, a bus full of environmental justice non-governmental organization representatives and Kansas City-area community members left the transportation hub in Argentine on a guided tour through Argentine, Armourdale, Riverview and other areas of KCK visibly affected by environmental injustice.
Following the tour, federal, state and local officials joined the tour attendees for a conversation focused on the Justice40 Initiative, an executive order President Biden signed just days after taking office in early 2021.
“Because of the Biden Administration, we have more dollars available to reverse all of the harm humans have been doing than we’ve ever had in history …,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D - Missouri) said at the event.
The initiative calls on the federal government to strive to allocate 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments toward disadvantaged communities that are “marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”
“Our eastern portion of our city has been disinvested, disenfranchised for so long, so these kinds of conversations are really important to our residents and to the people that call Wyandotte County home,” Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Tyrone Garner said at the event.
As part of Thursday's event, We ACT for Environmental Justice, a membership-based organization that mobilizes low-income communities of color to make environmental change and helped organize the toxic tour event, announced Kansas City as the first city in the country to be awarded funding through its new Justice40rward Pilot Cities program. The program will select one nonprofit in five metropolitan areas, and CleanAirNow was awarded $100,000 for work in Kansas City.
“This program creates accountability to maximize federal funding allocations, educates local and state officials about the Justice40 Initiative and adds needed capacity to community-based organizations to advance meaningful projects designed to address environmental justice directly,” said Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “We are thrilled to collaborate with CleanAirNow, and to recognize them for their efforts.”
Garner represented the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, and Kansas City, Kansas, at the event to proclaim April 13, 2023, "CleanAirNow Environmental Justice Day" in Wyandotte County.
“We’re not talking about air pollution, we’re talking about environmental racism,” Beto Lugo-Martinez, co-executive director of CleanAirNow, said while on the toxic sites tour.
The tour drove participants through historically Hispanic communities of Wyandotte County. Nearly 33 percent of Wyandotte County identifies as Hispanic, a population that continues to grow as it saw a 34.1% increase between 2010 and 2020, according to the University of Kansas.
Attendees saw communities surrounded by rail yards, scrap yards, industrial plants, EPA designated Superfund sites and previous toxic waste sites. Many former and current facilities in the area have contaminated the soil, air and groundwater of these communities, according to CleanAirNow and the Center for Science and Democracy.
A report co-written by CleanAirNow and the Center for Science and Democracy looked at how the history of redlining in the Kansas City area has contributed to the ways in which local marginalized communities are affected by environmental injustice.
“Historically, communities of color overburdened with cumulative impacts have resided closer to the industrialized sections of Kansas City because they have been blocked from living in other areas and because industries were allowed to be sited in or near their neighborhoods,” the report's authors said.
Days after a rainfall, days-old rain water remained standing on the streets of Argentine due to the absence of stormwater drains. Approximately 80 percent of homes in Argentine have rotted frames because of regular flooding, according to CleanAirNow co-executive director Atenas Mena.
Joshua Tapp, office director of intergovernmental affairs of the Environmental Protection Agency Region Seven, attended the toxic sites tour. Tapp said he saw some concerning things on the tour, including witnessing a scrap metal facility near Shawnee Park in Kansas City, Kansas, burning metal in an “alarming” manner.
“We’ve worked with CleanAirNow for many years now on different projects and every time we have a meeting or go on a tour we learn something new,” Tapp said. “There’s a lot of work ahead, and already there were some specific things that were identified (on the tour), like the scrap metal facilities that we’re going to take a closer look (at) once I head back to the office.”