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
"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
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. …