Race, Environmental Justice, and Interest Group Mobilizations: Hazardous Waste and the Case of Sumter County, Alabama

Article excerpt

Over the past two decades, the issue of hazardous waste has ranked as a serious issue in the United States. Each year, approximately 275 million metric tons of hazardous waste is generated in the United States (Faupel, Bailey, Griffin, 1991). However, environmental regulations only regulate 40 million tons of the waste. The balance of the waste is unregulated and is being sent to landfill and waste sites. Many of the sites are not well equipped to handle such waste and there is an impending threat of toxins leaking into the environment (Bullard and Wright, 1986).

The hazardous waste materials not only threaten the environmental quality, but also have a great impact on public health. Toxins present in hazardous wastes can create a variety of health problems. Living near a chemical plant increases ones chances of developing cancer, upper respiratory illnesses, skin conditions, nervous system diseases, and so on (White, 1992).

African Americans are disproportionately exposed to pollution from chemical plants. This pattern is visible among the African American communities in the South. In a 1983 study of landfill and hazardous waste sites in the South, the United States General Accounting Office found that three out of four sites were located in predominantly African American communities (EPA, 1992). Environmental activists often argue that little or no attention is paid to such issues.

Research Objectives

This study examines the dynamics of race, alliances, and interest group mobilization. In doing so, the research focuses on the nation's largest hazardous waste landfill facility that is located in Sumter County, Alabama. Specifically, the study looks at the establishment of a hazardous facility in Sumter County; the grassroots coalitions that bloomed in response to the facility; and the dynamics of race and alliances that ensued with the establishment of environmental interest groups. The study then examines the impact of the differences in agenda setting between an all-White environmental group and Black civil rights leaders in Sumter County. By analyzing the mobilization efforts in Sumter County, this study offers some concluding thoughts on the uniqueness of environmental mobilization in African American communities.

Background

The Issue of Race and Environmental Coalitions

Communities affected by such injustices have used many techniques in waging a war against environmental injustices. Most of the effort of African American communities has come in the form of grassroots coalitions and community based networking (Verba, Sindney, & Nie, 1972; Suro, 1993).

Bullard (2000), examines three theories in studying social movements in the African American community: social psychological model, the resource mobilization model, and the integrated model. The social psychological model posits that social justice and equity issues attract individuals to get involved in social movements. Individuals join movements with which they can identify and relate. This model examines the behavior of groups and their interactions and exchanges at a micro-level. The resource mobilization model posits that structural factors such as social class, economic resources, and organizational affiliations impact one's decision to get involved in social movements. This theory examines the resources that must be mobilized, the linkages of one social movement to other groups, and dependence of social movements on external support (McCarthy and Zald, 1977).

The third model discussed by Bullard (2000), is the integrated model. This model combines the social psychological and resource mobilization model in explaining environmental involvement in the Black community. According to this model, Black involvement in social movements such as environmental issues depends not only on the organization affiliations or social class but also depends on the extent to which these environmental issues are tied into the larger framework of equity and justice. …