By Weinstock, Matthew P.
Occupational Hazards , Vol. 56, No. 4
In less than 10 years, "environmental justice" has evolved from an activist slogan to a regulatory priority. How EPA addresses the complex problem of industrial pollution in lowincome and minority communities could have a major impact on where and how companies operate across the country.
Black diesel smoke trails behind the semi-truck for about a block and a half. No sooner has the smoke cleared than another truck comes roaring down 2nd Street, turns left on Harwick, and drives into the fenced-in compound to drop off its load. Another truck soon follows. The traffic flow seems nonstop.
Such is the routine in Chester City, Pa. From 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., five days a week (and half a day on Saturday), hundreds of trucks deliver tons upon tons of hazardous and infectious waste for treatment.
A mere 25 yards outside the fence line, Helen Tront takes a break from shoveling the blackened snow from her walkway. She is a neighbor to the Delaware County Resource Recovery Facility (DELCORA), an incinerator owned and operated by Westinghouse. Tront watches another truck go by, looks up at the plant's smoke stacks, shakes her head and says, "The smoke, the smell, the trucks -- I don't know which is worse. Fifty-six years I've lived here and over the past three years I've become a prisoner in my own house. I can't open the windows, the smell is too bad. I don't sit on the front step anymore either. I can't because of the smell... oh, the smell."
She is not alone in her anger and disgust. Here, most residents, a majority of whom are poor and a racial minority, are tired of their neighborhood being the dumping ground for Delaware County. Westinghouse's trash-to-steam facility treats household hazardous waste from 40 of the county's 49 municipalities. In the same compound, BioMedical Waste Systems Inc. of Boston has been permitted to treat up to 400 tons of infectious medical waste a day at its Thermal Pure Systems Inc. facility. Chester is also home to a solid waste transfer station. On the drawing boards is a soil remediation facility which would burn up to 1,200 tons of oil-contaminated soil a day.
On the outskirts of town, Sun Oil and British Petroleum operate two large refineries. Scott Paper also has a manufacturing plant just outside the city limits.
Chester City's situation is not unique. EPA, in fact, has concluded that many minority and low-income communities experience a higher than average exposure to air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, and other industrial plants. This phenomena has come to be known as environmental justice or environmental racism.
In 1982, the issue sprang into the national spotlight when a PCB landfill was sited in predominantly black Warren County, N.C. In protest, activists staged 1960s-style demonstrations which eventually led to a General Accounting Office (GAO) study of the South's four largest hazardous waste landfills. GAO discovered that three of the four were located in primarily black neighborhoods.
The United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice revealed the national dimensions of the problem in a landmark 1987 study, "Toxic Wastes and Race." In an analysis of the siting of hazardous waste facilities and the race of host communities, the commission found that the minority population in host communities was double that of a community without a treatment plant or landfill.
In 1992, researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory, under contract with the Dept. of Energy, published an article in which they claimed that minorities breathe more polluted air do whites. Using EPA data, they found that 437 of the 3,109 counties and independent cities failed to meet at least one EPA ambient air quality standard. According to the 1990 census, 60 percent of the nation's black population and nearly 80 percent of Hispanics live in these nonattainment areas. By comparison, 57 percent of whites live in nonattainment areas. …