Environmental Justice for All

By Baxter, Tracy | Sierra, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

Environmental Justice for All


Baxter, Tracy, Sierra


It could have been a galvanizing moment in the movements for environmental and social justice. The year was 1982, and Afton, North Carolina, was fighting for its ecological survival. The state had decided to bury more than 32,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated by highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls in a landfill a scant ten feet above the water table. With PCB seepage into the wells a certainty, residents, community activists, and national civil-fights leaders mounted an all-out protest. Soon, more than 400 demonstrators were arrested. But the ideological fusion never took place.

Afton was predominantly African-American and poor, rendering it invisible to traditional environmental organizations. The dump opened.

Polluters have long interpreted environmentalists' silence as a license to dump industrial wastes on marginalized peoples. Recent studies from the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, Greenpeace, and the National Law Journal show that African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and the poor disproportionately bear the toxic burden of industrialized society, and are far more likely to live near befouled sites like lead smelters or refineries than middle- and upper-class whites. This research also shows bias in the enforcement of environmental regulations. Minority neighborhoods in particular are given short shrift in cleanup and relocation programs.

Over time, marginalized groups realized that to guard the health of their communities, they needed to shake up their absentee allies. One strike came in 1990 in the form of a widely publicized letter in which the Southwest Organizing Project bluntly demanded that environmentalists look at how the cultural biases of an all-white green movement shaped many traditional environmental policies and goals.

Five years after this alarm, how much progress has the Club made in securing environmental justice for all? John McCown, a Club organizer hired to work for environmental justice in the Gulf Coast, is frank. `The beginning is still beginning. We can do better."

McCown says the bulk of the South's worst blight has been heaped on African-Americans. That trend was obvious in 98-percent-white Ft. Payne, Alabama, which planned to build a 325-acre landfill in its lone black community, Lebanon. In their investigation of the siting process, southeast activists and Ft. Payne's Lebanon Citizens for a Clean Environment uncovered evidence of racial targeting, including a planning report that had already rejected the site as environmentally unsuitable. After a five-year struggle, the landfill was stopped, showing, as McCown says, that "people of color are directly impacted by core environmental issues like clean air and water. There's a vast opportunity right now to make environmentalism relevant in their lives."

As McCown deploys Club expertise in the war against environmental racism he's also reaching inward, chipping away social divisions by introducing Club activists to suffering communities. "When people meet and talk, they see right away that they all want a healthy environment for their kids. And they begin to understand that the real enemies are the entities that diminish the quality of all our lives."

Like McCown and other EJ advocates, Leslie Fields of the Lone Star Chapter works on different levels simultaneously. "I help fight bad guys like polluters who shirk their fines or want to build deep injection wells," she says. …

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