US: People of colour battle toxics in communities

April 5, 2000

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, February 11 — Ten African-American children are visiting Washington, D.C. this week, but they did not come to see the usual tourist attractions. They are here to illustrate the dangerous legacy of hazardous wastes, contaminated manufacturing sites, and polluting industries, placed predominantly in poor, non-white communities.

The children, from Memphis, Tennessee, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, are here to draw attention to the sixth anniversary of President Bill Clinton's executive order on environmental justice.

The order, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations", was intended to focus federal attention on the environmental and human health conditions in minority and low-income communities.

These children, environmental justice activists say, starkly demonstrate how that order has failed.

"They have major tumours, respiratory diseases, endometriosis from toxins, nervous disorders", says Dr Mildred McClain, executive director of the People of Color and Disenfranchised Communities Environmental Health Network (PCDCEHN). "The young man from Arkansas went into a coma."

These illnesses were due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the children's homes, schools and playgrounds, McClain says. In the early 1990s, Memphis became infamous as the city with the most uncontrolled hazardous waste sites in the US. Rates of cancer, chronic respiratory illness, as well as neurological disorders, are significantly higher among non-white Memphis residents than among whites.

Pine Bluff is the site of the Pine Bluff Arsenal, a Cold War-era chemical weapons production and storage facility that now holds about 12% of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile. A proposed $200 million incinerator under construction in Pine Bluff would be the country's second chemical weapons incinerator.

Pine Bluff is 53% African American, a proportion 341% higher than the national average. The town is also very poor, with 28% of its residents living below the poverty level, according to the 1990 census. It is a classic example of the communities that environmental justice advocates say are burdened by the bulk of the country's polluters.

On February 10, the children visited Howard University Hospital, one of the nation's first teaching hospitals serving African American doctors. Their meeting with physicians and scientists, organised by Dr Rueben Warren, associate administrator for Urban Affairs at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, was as much to increase knowledge of environmental illnesses as it was to help the children themselves.

Today, the children were at a press conference hosted by PCDCEHN and the Interim National Black Environmental and Economic Justice Coordinating Committee, or INBEEJCC. These mouthfuls of acronyms spell out a sea change in how people of colour are tackling the pollution in their own backyards.

A new force for environmental protection is emerging in the US, gaining strength from a broad network of church and citizens groups from the country's poorest regions. The US environmental justice movement has set itself the ambitious agenda of ending decades of environmental racism stemming from the concentration of toxic industries and hazardous wastes located in communities of colour.

"We are trying to really get national attention to the critical crisis of health in communities contaminated by toxic pollution", says Ka Flewellen of the Preamble Center. The centre, an independent research and public education organisation based in Washington, DC, is one of dozens of groups cooperating to form the INBEEJCC.

The fledgling coalition was created to harness the combined power of local groups that have been battling pollution and toxic wastes in their communities. In exchange, the coalition offers a unified, national voice against the disproportionate placement of polluting industries in communities of colour.

"It's the first time that an effort like this is being launched under the leadership of people of colour", said McClain.

Damu Smith of Greenpeace is the interim coordinator for the INBEEJCC, and was instrumental in organising the coalition's first meeting last December. "When I looked at what was happening around the country, it became clearer that the forces behind the movement to undermine environmental justice are very organised, very powerful, and are part of a nationally organised strategy to take away protection for people of colour."

To battle the "sinister forces in the nation, out to totally dismantle the environmental justice framework that we have worked so hard to achieve", people of colour must unite in opposition to environmental racism, Smith said. At a Washington, DC, press conference in January, Smith, McClain and other environmental justice advocates issued a Declaration of a National State of Emergency on Environmental Racism and Economic Injustice.

"We come this day, in this place, in the seat of this nation's government to declare that toxic terrorism is being waged against the descendants of African people", McClain said.

The 14-page declaration cites numerous reports supporting the activists' claim that black communities and other communities of colour are disproportionately overburdened with nearby hazardous waste sites, incinerators, petrochemical plants, lead contamination, dirty air and contaminated drinking water.

Among the evidence cited:

  • a 1983 Congressionally authorised General Accounting Office study revealed that three out of four off-site,

commercial hazardous waste landfills in the southeast US are located within predominately African-American communities, even though African Americans make up just one fifth of the region's population;

  • a 1987 study, "Toxic Waste and Race", by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, the first national study to correlate waste facilities and demographic characteristics, which found that race was the most significant factor in determining where waste facilities are located. Among other findings, the study revealed that three out of five African Americans and Hispanic Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites, and that 15 million African Americans live in communities with at least one site;

  • a 1992 study by the National Law Journal, "Unequal Protection", uncovered significant disparities in the way the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces its laws: "There is a racial divide in the way the US government cleans up toxic waste sites and punishes polluters. White communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties that communities where Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. This unequal protection often occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor.";

  • in 1999, the Institute of Medicine released "Toward Environmental Justice: Research, Education and Health Policy Needs". The report concluded that government, public health officials, and the medical and scientific communities need to place a higher value on the problems and concerns of non-white communities.

Evidence from sources like these, indicating that people of colour are still exposed to higher levels of pollution than whites, and experience certain diseases in greater numbers than more affluent white communities, prompted African American leaders to question the effectiveness of Clinton's Environmental Justice order.

"We're calling for some assessment by the Clinton administration, which wants to appeal to voters with environmental concerns", said Flewellen. "What has been the record? What has actually been done?"

The INBEEJCC seeks a status report on the executive order, and wants particular attention to be paid to toxic pollution from federal facilities like the Pine Bluff Arsenal. To that end, the newly formed environmental justice coalitions met this week with White House officials and Congressional delegations from Georgia and Tennessee. Recent meetings with EPA and Department of Energy (DOE) officials representatives have helped the groups lobby for federal action.

In December, the PCDCEHN met with the EPA and the DOE for the first time to present a united message. "It was the first time we were able to get an audience with senior level officials from DOE and EPA", said McClain.

"People of colour have no significant input on decisions that are being made regarding national security and nonproliferation", she continued. "These decisions, we will be living with the consequences for a very long time."

The DOE and Department of Defense signed a Federal Facilities Environmental Restoration Dialogue Committee Final Report in April, 1996, which was to serve as a guidance for the involvement of communities in federal facility cleanup. "Neither agency has adhered to it", said McClain.

"There's somebody living next to these places other than business people", McClain said, noting that her own home in Savannah, Georgia, lies downstream from the DOE's Savannah River site, where millions of gallons of highly radioactive wastes are stored. "There's regular folk, and they have not had a voice."

Throughout 2000, the environmental justice movement plans to mobilise action from non-white communities, and from the poorest white communities, which also often lack a voice in the siting of toxic facilities. Activities organised around Earth Day 2000 will help bring national attention to environmental justice issues. The groups also hope to encourage high voter turnout from people of colour, and high participation in the 2000 census.

Next year, they plan significant participation in the United Nation's World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to be held in South Africa, to help raise the visibility of environmental racism worldwide.

"White people have the insulation of resources", said McClain. "We come home and get beat up." Pollution from federal facilities is an "issue we have not taken head on before. Well, the hell with being poor. They're going to be trucking this stuff through our communities, we don't know anything about it. It's time to take a stand."

[Republished with permission from the Environment News Service — on-line at: <>.]

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