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Diane Bailey: Environmental Justice Advocate Speaks on Her Experiences as a Change-maker

Diane Bailey grew up in the face of environmental injustice. In college, she learned of the drinking water contamination that her hometown community faced; chlorinated chemicals had infiltrated the water wells and brought toxins into the vicinity of her community. “I was really disappointed that our local government didn’t really do anything to protect us, or warn us, or notify us of the contamination,” Bailey admits. 

From there, she went on to apply her passion for fighting environmental injustice through technicality; studying engineering in undergrad and environmental engineering and science in grad school. She continued to observe the disproportionate effects of pollution throughout her education, especially living in Houston, Texas for grad school. “I was seeing the pollution make people sick first hand,” she said. “Children would stream into emergency rooms on bad air days…it really impacted children the most, and it impacted minorities and low income folks the most. Those were the folks that were streaming into ERS.” At that time, Houston was one of the worst cities in the US, along with LA, for Ozone Smog. It was considered a “severe nonattainment area” because of extremely high levels of ground-level ozone, which is associated with life threatening consequences in groups with respiratory illnesses. 

Coming out of Grad School, Bailey’s first job was at an environmental law firm building a case in Port Arthur, Texas. Just as she had seen governments overlook pollution and leave front-line communities vulnerable before, local chemical companies and refineries were polluting the air and making people sick, disguising the near weekly health incidents as “accidents.” Through all of these experiences, she realized the urgency of cases like this. “Fresh out of school I thought, well that is something that is entirely preventable, and what are we going to do about it?” This is when she knew she would devote her career to environmental justice and mitigating fossil fuel pollution in front-line communities.

Today, Bailey has over 20 years of experience in environmental advocacy. Working around the country with organizations dedicated to fighting pollution, she has worked for the Houston-Galveston Area Council in Texas, Communities for a Better Environment in Chicago, and here in the Bay Area for the Natural Resources Defense Council. With the NRDC, she has fought specifically for regulations that restrict diesel and bunker oil pollution in West Oakland and the Port of LA. Her work in a coalition with other advocates has led to the enactment of statewide laws that require ships to turn off their engines while docked, massively reducing their air pollution. Advocating for policy changes against pollution, Bailey actively fights the economic barriers that come with policy change. “The root issue is not wanting to spend extra money to mitigate the pollution.” These large industries have a lot invested in the way that their system currently works, and it is essential to fight this bias.

“We've come a long way but, you know, unfortunately we haven’t because, you know, with climate change we’re pretty far behind. But one thing that's apparent is the same pollutants that make people sick from air pollution are really impacting climate change.” On a larger scale, Bailey affirms that these fossil fuel companies are the root cause of the problems, hurting people on both an individual and global scale. “I don’t believe that individual people should be sacrificing, it’s incumbent on the corporations who have caused the bulk of climate change to stop polluting and address the issue.” With the rise of individualized climate narratives that divert blame from corporations, this is an important message. To the environmental youth community, changing these narratives and holding fossil fuel companies accountable can make a huge impact moving forward. When asked about her experiences seeing the effect of youth advocacy, she said, “I always joke that it takes twenty adults to have the influence of one student speaking up at hearing. But it’s not really funny and it's not really a joke, it's the truth.”


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