Fusing Civil, Environmental Rights Hispanic Residents Claim Racism in Protest over Plan to Build Incinerator in Their Fertile Valley

Article excerpt

BELOW the rolling, blue hills of the San Joaquin Valley, trucks laden with vegetables rush out, taking lettuce and asparagus to the nation's dinner tables, as others rumble in carrying toxic waste.

But not without protest from the farm workers who live here. The controversy illustrates a new aspect to disputes over hazardous-waste disposal sites worldwide. The NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) syndrome has grown from a middle-class plaint to a fight for social justice among rural and low-income, minority groups.

Here at the largest toxic-waste landfill facility west of the Mississippi River, Hispanic residents contend they are victims of environmental racism.

"We're not being heard here," says Adela Aguilera, a local teacher's aide and mother of three who opposes a proposed incinerator at the facility.

They have mounted a fight reminiscent of Cesar Chavez's historic civil-rights battle for Mexican farm workers in the valley two decades ago. Their latest weapon is a legal suit marking the first time civil-rights law has been used to challenge a toxic-waste incinerator.

The suit, filed in February on behalf of a community group, People for Clean Air and Water, charges that Chemical Waste Management Inc. (ChemWaste) chose to locate a proposed incinerator at the landfill facility because it is near a community of mostly poor, migrant workers from Mexico.

"They thought people would not be complaining about it; they'd be tickled to death," says Joe Maya, a farmer and founder of the local coalition. "It didn't turn out that way." The suit is scheduled for a September court hearing.

"ChemWaste throughout the country has engaged in the practice and pattern of locating (waste facilities) in poor, minority communities," says Luke Cole, an attorney on the suit filed by the federally funded California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

The suit states that the Kings County incinerator-permit process violated California environmental law and the civil rights of the Spanish-speaking residents because meetings, public hearings, and most technical information regarding the project were in English.

Claiming conflict of interest, the suit also challenges California law, which allows municipalities to decide the issue - in this case a Locally Unwanted Land Use (LULU) proposal - while taxing the revenue of the facility in question.

About 6 percent of Kings County's $88 million budget is paid for by ChemWaste taxes, according to the Kings County auditor's office.

"It's a make-work (suit)," says Denis Eymil, counsel for Kings County. "The buzzword these days in the environmental movement is environmental racism. It's a very, very sexy thing right now. (This suit) is one of the first where they're going to try to make something of it."

Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Los Angeles office, disagrees. "It raises serious issues that haven't been raised before," he says.

The theory of environmental social justice is catching on nationwide. Poorer and less politically powerful communities are trying grass-roots activism to keep waste-treatment facilities out of their neighborhoods.

Local coalitions have organized against toxic-waste facilities in places like Emelle, Ala., a predominantly black community and home to the largest hazardous-waste site in the United States, and East Los Angeles, which is mostly black and Hispanic.

A different group in south-central Los Angeles stopped construction of an incinerator in 1988. But more typical are the long fights, such as the unresolved 10-year dispute over a toxic-waste incinerator in rural East Liverpool, Ohio.

"It's very, very difficult to mobilize and sustain a movement over a long period of time," says Robert Bullard, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the 1990 book "Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Equality. …