Air and Water: Got Equality in Your Quality?

Alexander Isbilir

Gabrielle Jonsson

Claire Schneckenberger

Natasha Zerba

Is There Environmental Racism in Omaha?

Environmental racism is when communities of racial minorities are connected to a specific area, then they are subjected to unequal exposure of pollutants compared to other races. These include the denial of access to clean air, water, and even at times, natural resources. Many times, what causes these pollutants are the businesses that are placed into these communities that inevitably end up harming them.

This study is an attempt to determine the potential effects of Environmental Racism dealing with water and air quality in Omaha, Nebraska. Expanding further on topics of water pollution and air pollution; one obstacle that was apparent is that there was no available public data that shows a distinct reading on air quality and water quality in each neighborhood in Omaha. One may form theories around where the local energy plants, recycling plants, and landfills are located, and then observe the socioeconomic development of these areas. These places are significant because they are notorious for these types of contaminants.

Water pollution is problematic and many things can be the cause of this type of pollutant. From farming, landfills, and, waste water, there can be plenty of ways for someone’s water supply to become contaminated. Specifically; for Omaha, Nebraska, it is noted that the main cause of water contamination is from farming. 85% of the population is using groundwater as drinking water. Without knowing it, people are being contaminated. This is because there’s about 18,000 miles of flowing rivers and streams and about 430 square miles of lakes. Runoff from rain and irrigation can carry contamination and top soil into these streams and into our urban and rural areas. This is what’s causing our surface water contamination (Calow, 2013). The same water we’re using for our health could be destroying it. There’s been over 50 years of crop production in Nebraska and this alone has caused fertilizers and chemicals to reach our groundwater and contaminate parts of the state. The main communities that are directly influenced by this contamination tends to be farmers and the communities that live nearby. This is mainly because the well waters that they use are directly contaminated (Gerlock, 2016). Because it takes time for these chemicals to be filtered out of the water by natural means, it is important to monitor the amount that is being discharged into our water sources.

Air pollution is becoming a more prevalent problem in Omaha. There has been more concern in recent years because of the influx of people moving to the area. Many people in down town are concerned with the threat from Smog, especially during the summer when smog is normally worse. We also found a coal mine tucked into the heart of Omaha that causes so much particle pollution. It is responsible for 14 deaths a year 22 heart attacks and over 240 asthma attacks as a direct result of particle pollution infecting the areas air. The financial cost of all of this on the locals who are affected is estimated to be more than $100,000.  

 Due to a higher influx of people to the Omaha area, the city is starting to become highly populated, and in turn more people are driving, and more concrete is being used to fix roads and construct buildings. This is now leading people to become concern with smog, especially during the summer months when ground level ozone is stronger due to the heat. Many people are now discussing ways to combat this in the Central Omaha area (Gaarder, 2015).


U.S Ozone Limits (Garrder,2015).

The clean air act gives the EPA authority to establish national ambient air quality standards. Ambient air is the air that we as humans have access to outdoors. Before Nebraska can implement and enforce these EPA laws, air quality regulations need to be made for the state. This is a process that takes a lot of time to complete. The goal of Air Quality Divisions is to maintain ambient air standards, protect the quality of air in areas of the state that have air cleaner than the standards, and implement air quality rules and regulations so that we can have set ways to bettering our air quality (Air Quality Division, 2017). These standards are based on each pollutant’s effects on our health and environment. The standard for particulate matter (dust, microscopic debris) is less than 10 microns in diameter. They also look for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and lead.

There is no available public data that shows a distinct reading on air quality in each neighborhood in Omaha. Looking at places that are notorious for producing pollutants that include, nuclear power plants, coal plants, landfills/ recycling plants, and smog in the cities; there was a contrast to the communities that live in these areas. This did show that many of these locations tend to have poorer communities living near them.

In Nebraska, we have 3 local agencies: Lincoln/Lancaster County Health Department, Omaha Air Quality Control, and the Douglas County Health Department. These agencies are responsible for air quality monitoring, planning, permitting and enforcement within the areas of their authority. However, with further research, we found that the information that was given for Nebraska was very vague. In the Public Inspection Draft 2016, Ambient Air Monitoring Network Plan (2016), it was loosely explained what they were looking for and when a specific pollutant was evaluated (i.e. SO, CO, NOx PMs…) there was not much information on how much it was reading or why we were monitoring that kind of pollutant in that area. There was even mention that one of the monitoring sites were “temporarily closed”, but there was no mention for how long or why it was even closed. Despite all of this there was no specific trend on the location of where air quality is measured. It seems as if it is sporadic across the city of Omaha. This could have to do with the amount of funding for these devices or the limited places that these air monitoring devices could be set up. There is no apparent trend on the economic or racial trend concerning air monitoring systems.

The high demand for energy for each state is negatively effecting lower income areas in Omaha. There are nuclear plants, coal plants, and then the agricultural influences due to corn and soy for ethanol and bio-fuels, that could be negatively impacting communities. Most of these places in either North Omaha or by the boarder of Iowa. The byproducts of all these energy systems create external costs that affect the local population and the local environment. In both short term and long term ways.

Landfills and recycling plants can cause potential ground and water pollution if they are not sealed correctly. However, the ones in and around Omaha seems to up to standard. No matter how up to par a landfill is, there is still a chance of air pollution; also, these locations are not normally very pleasing to look at. The main dilemma in the Omaha metro is the locations of the landfills and recycling plants. They appear to be in northern Omaha, southern Omaha, and on the Iowa border.

Map Of Omaha“Waste Disposal in Nebraska” (2012)

At first the segregation was racial with Nebraska’s redlining past; but now one would see present day doing more with the socioeconomic status of the community. This tendency of racial segregation continued in an indirect way due to the minority groups still living in poorer communities because of the many years of exclusion.  This trend is displayed a lot in throughout United States. Most frequently though, here in Omaha, the communities that are facing and indirect environmental racism are of a lower pay scale that those who are of higher income. There are similar trends in other cities across the nation (Luo, 2015).  However, in some circumstances, we saw that due to the culture of an area, sometimes the higher income communities inadvertently experience more of certain pollution (Wartenberg, 2010); but, there was no Apparent trend in Omaha.

 Socioeconomic segregation results in poor people being disproportionate exposure to environmental pollutants such as particle pollution in water and air. The noticeable discoveries that are in the Omaha area is that this isn’t a problem of race but socioeconomic status. So then, this dose not only affect minorities, but people in lower incomes across the board. This is not barefaced racial dilemma as it is leaning towards more of a mistreatment of those of lower income. People in lower incomes tend to be mistreated in the way we place them with the burden of environmental hazards (Lowman, 2013). Where capitalism has consumed the ethics of government. Regardless of where one my lie on the socioeconomic scale one should have access to the same endowed benefits that others do on the scale or at least be accommodated. Therefore, the less money you have the more vulnerable you are. Many of the trends we have found are nonrenewable energy sources and “dumps” that are built around low income areas so that institutions can save money at the expense of the poor residents located nearby.

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