State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Mike Sturla

Democratic state lawmakers Mike Sturla, left, and Malcolm Kenyatta discussed environmental justice during a legislative committee hearing in Philadelphia on Tuesday. — PHILADELPHIA TRIBUNE PHOTO/ABDUL R. SULAYMAN

“As the impact of climate change becomes more evident, that impact is not going to be so equal,” state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta said Tuesday.

“It’s going to be felt first and most harshly in communities that are already suffering from low income,” he added.

With approximately 26% of Philadelphians living in poverty, that impact will be felt strongly here.

Kenyatta (D-181) made his remarks at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on environmental justice earlier this week. The hearing was held to learn how climate change, pollution, lead poisoning, soil contamination and a lack of green space affect Philadelphians, and what legislators can do to mitigate those effects.

Held at the Lutheran Settlement House on Frankfort Avenue, the session was led by committee chairman Mike Sturla (D-96).

“Communities of color in low-income communities are most often those left dealing with the effects of environmental pollution and the life-altering consequences of climate change,” said Ebony Griffin, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center.

She pointed to a study that found Pennsylvania had some of the largest disparities between races and economic classes in exposure to air pollution.

Griffin said emissions from oil and gas operations, which cause ozone smog, contribute to Black children experiencing the majority of the 12,200 asthma attacks that occur in Philadelphia each year.

One such facility — the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia — had been a cause for some concern even before an explosion and fire at the facility in June. Since then, residents have rallied in calling for it to shut down and for quick cleanup, as many blame the refinery for their children’s asthma or a family member’s cancer.

SEPTA is constructing a natural gas-fueled power plant in the city’s Nicetown section. In addition, City Council voted in June to approve Philadelphia Gas Works’ plan to build a $60 million liquefied natural gas plant in Southwest Philadelphia. Both facilities are in neighborhoods with significant minority populations.

Philadelphians also suffer with poor air quality and temperatures that are often 10 degrees higher than the adjacent suburbs due to a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island effect,” which occurs because concrete and asphalt cannot absorb all the heat and radiation from the sun and buildings prevent cooling through convection.

Some are trying to mitigate the urban heat island effect by developing buildings with rooftops with vegetation as well as converting blighted spaces into urban farms or green spaces.

The nonprofit Urban Creators recently transformed 3 acres of blighted land in North Philadelphia into sustainable urban farms.

“There are benefits of urban agriculture as a feasible response to environmental injustices,” said Sonia Galiber, director of operations for Urban Creators. “Our story can demonstrate how urban farming has manifested but also why it needs to be supported as a way of not only providing food in insecure spaces but also green spaces that have the capacity to clean air, water and soil, reduce stress and help to raise property values in our neighborhood.”

Last month, in support of organization’s efforts, Kenyatta presented the farm at 11th and York streets with $15,000 in grant funding. Urban Creators plans to use the money on a three-phase project to add solar power for the farm’s lighting and build infrastructure for community events.

“I talk about all the time how eradicating deep poverty is the number one issue of or time,” Kenyatta said. “But it’s not just about money in the pocket. It’s about all the multi-layered challenges that folks who are poor and low income have to deal with.

“When we look at poor and low-income communities and the quality of the air, the quality of the water, the safety of the schools and community centers, folks in low-income areas have to deal with the challenges of those things being neither clean or safe,” he said. “We have to insure that we are investing in things such as urban farms that can help.”

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