Environmental Justice: Win, Lose or Draw?

Article excerpt

Minorities and the poor struggle against the disproportionately high number of health-threatening facilities located in or proposed for their communities.

In New Mexico, a Navajo leader protests a proposed asbestos dump. In Oklahoma, a Kickapoo elder advises a group discussing nuclear waste disposal to "pray for our sacred places, they are being taken from us." He says, "The white man has put his love of dollars ahead of our environment."

African Americans participating in the "Great Louisiana Toxic March" annually since 1990 call attention to ailments caused by pollution along the Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Here, more than 150 oil refineries and petrochemical plants line an 80-mile strip often called the chemical industrial corridor or "Cancer Alley."

Brooklyn students are waging a war on hazardous materials and the companies that house them. People like Ruben Solis, chairman of the Border Justice Campaign of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice voice their outrage over polluting facilities that are making "people of color an endangered species."

"We have to break this monopoly, this collusion that has made us feel that we had to take those incinerators, dumps, railroad tracks and slaughter houses near our housing projects, not to mention the oil refineries, lead smelters and freeways in our communities," Solis says. "It's a life and death struggle."

This wave of activism, better known as the environmental justice movement, stems from the belief that poor and minority communities suffer disproportionate exposure to environmental and health risks. "Environmental racism," Solis and others term it.

Although groups and citizens complain about polluters in communities, it's hard to point a finger of blame at any one person or agency. The issue is too controversial and widespread to yield to a simple remedy. Some do not agree on which poor population is getting the brunt of the pollution--whites, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans or other minorities. Some tie the pollution to racism, evoking civil rights issues and stirring up activists who are angry because of previous wrongs. Still others are taking a positive approach by looking for ways to abate the pollution or prevent future problems.

The only consensus that has been reached is that there is a pollution problem in this country. "What is ultimately at stake in the environmental justice debate is everyone's quality of life. The goal is equal protection, not equal pollution," says Deeohn Ferris, director of environmental quality at the National Wildlife Federation.

Onset of Activism

The resistance to pollution in low-income neighborhoods began almost two decades ago when the NAACP tried and failed to stop construction of a hazardous waste landfill in a predominantly black neighborhood in Warren County, N.C. Not long after, Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice and now the executive director of the NAACP, coined the term "environmental racism" to point out the findings of the UCC's 1987 report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities Surrounding Hazardous Waste Sites. The landmark report argued that the racial composition of a community was the most significant factor in determining the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities. The study found that "communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities have the highest composition of ethnic residents (mostly African Americans) ... that three out of every five black and Hispanic Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites."

Even though socioeconomic status appeared to play an important role in determining the sites of these commercial hazardous waste facilities, the study found that race proved to be a more significant ingredient. …