Justice in Black and Green

Article excerpt

"Find the smokestacks and you will find the black community, pure and simple."

When a large company wants to locate a dump or polluting plant, it looks for the cheapest, most readily available land. Usually, this entails finding the path of least resistance: the poor black or other minority neighborhood. Gary Bledsoe, head of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, puts it bluntly: "Find the smokestacks and you will find the black community, pure and simple." This phenomenon, prevalent throughout rural and urban America, and indeed around the world, has been dubbed "environmental racism."

In recent years, communities have gained in sophistication and empowered themselves to fight off such affronts in an increasingly powerful environmental justice movement. Corporations, in turn, have countered with promises of clean operations and assurances ranging from claiming overly rosy minority employment numbers and tax-base predictions to different goodies like clean recycling facilities, low-rent apartments, and even fruit orchards. These promises have had the intended effect of dividing already-embattled and resource-poor communities to the point that they succumb to temptations and pressures. But many communities stave off or shut down offensive industrial facilities. Increasingly, they join forces with other communities across the country ; Although hundreds of communities lose their battles, and perhaps many more are unaware of the dangers at hand, the environmental justice movement is growing stronger and winning victories.

SETTING PRECEDENTS

Last May in Claiborne Parish, La., two small poor black communities, Forest Grove and Center Springs, won their nine-year fight to keep a uranium enrichment plant from being built between them. Louisiana Energy Services, a consortium of European and American energy companies, promised 180 permanent jobs for local residents and the usual major boost to one of the poorest parishes in the state. A citizen lawsuit caused the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NCR), to reject the company's permit application. In part, the NCR took this action because site selection showed the company was trying to locate it near a poor minority community. It is the first time such a permit has been rejected on environmental justice grounds. The consortium has appealed to the NCR, but Nathalie Walker of Earthiustice Legal Defense Fund, lead attorney for the communities in the case, is confident the NCR will uphold the board's decision. Walker said that the black and white communities pulled together to win this case.

In December, a federal appellate court in Philadelphia ruled in favor of a poor, largely black community in Chester, Pa. In Chester, Delaware County built an incinerator that went on line in 1991. Specifically, the court held that communities afflicted with environmental justice problems don't have to show a polluting industry built its plant near them intending to discriminate against them. Such communities only have to show they were adversely affected by where the company chose to locate the facility In other words, environmentally-abused communities no longer have to prove intent to make a case for damages. The decision will be a binding precedent in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and influential in the rest of the country.

HARD-FOUGHT VICTORIES

From Texas: Winona's battle is still raging. Odessa reports that a substantial financial award has been won for 850 plaintiffs against the several polluting corporations. In addition, 1997 brought several other noteworthy full or partial victories. …

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