Environmental racism means exposing poor people and members of the minority groups to the harmful effects of pollutants emitted by industrial plants and solid and toxic waste dumps through a flawed, discriminatory system of siting such projects. Although industrialists and government functionaries correctly argue that these plants are indispensable to progress, the life of members of minority groups should never be sacrificed for economic gains.
The message of the minority people to government is plain and simple: Go ahead and build those plants but if toxic emissions could not be reduced to tolerable level, do not build them in places where people live or will be allowed to live. The term “polluting plants” is no longer limited to chemical and industrial plants. A new trend in agriculture, specifically animal-raising called “concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), has been added to the list of sources of pollutants. A CAFO could contain as much as “1,000 animal units [said to contain] 1,000 beef cattle, 700 mature dairy cattle, or 2,500 hogs larger than 55 pounds. Runoffs from these CAFOs do not only cause water pollution because of the presence of “antibiotics, insecticides and pathogens” but are also believed to produce poisonous gases and obnoxious odors (Weeks). The continuing problem of solid waste disposal, on the other hand, had created a garbage crisis in the country and has become a contributory factor to environmental racism. This problem has in fact transformed an area in eastern Pennsylvania into a “Garbage Alley. ” Over in the town of Clearfield, “landfills, garbage incinerators, auto-upholstery dumps and hazardous waste treatment facilities had sprung up (Griffin).
Meanwhile, some people blame the freeways where vehicle emission (which includes lead), has always been great, as another source of environmental racism since most of the people who could afford to live near them and suffer from the resulting haze, belong to minority groups (Cooper, 1992). The fact that these factories, plants, freeways, and CAFOs provide jobs and contribute to the development of the country is not enough reason to endanger the health of members of the minority. Environmental racism occurs through several ways.
One is through the practice of locating, purposely or otherwise, polluting industries and toxic and solid waste dumpsites in areas populated by these minority people. History is replete with cases where polluting industries are sited in minority communities with permission being granted by the governmental regulatory agencies concerned. In fact a study conducted in 1987 entitled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” found that “15 million blacks, 8 million Hispanics, 2 million Asians and Pacific Islanders, and 700,000 American Indians” lived in areas where toxic-waste sites could be found (Cooper, 1996).
In a separate article published in 1998 entitled “Does the movement help our communities? ” Cooper again observed that “toxic-waste dumps, sewage-treatment plants and other pollution sources” are usually found in areas where most of the residents are African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, or simply poor people. She cited the case of the minority-populated St. James Parish in southern Louisiana which lies along a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is so heavily industrialized it’s known as ‘cancer alley’.
More than 120 chemical plants line the 120-mile river corridor, many of which have spewed thousands of tons of dioxin and other carcinogens into the air, water and soil for decades. The parish itself is already home to 11 fertilizer and chemical plants. One would think that one polluting industry every one mile should be sufficient for government to classify the region as crowded enough and look elsewhere for future sites. But no, when a Japanese business entity wanted to put up a seven hundred million dollar plastic manufacturing plant in St.
James Parish, the Department of Environmental Quality of the state of Louisiana readily approved the application of Shintech Inc. (Cooper, 1998). This was pure and simple environmental racism. Environmental activists were quick to claim that it was man’s inhumanity to man as far as locating polluting industries are concerned. They argued that minority communities were being forced to suffer the harmful effects brought about by these developmental projects which government and private business claim are necessary to bring about economic development in the country.
They assert that this violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which provided for the minority people’s right to clean air and water (Cooper, 1998). Another scenario is when profit-hungry developers turn abandoned dumpsites of toxic wastes which have not been properly cleaned up into housing projects which are usually meant for the poor and the minority groups, without disclosing the imminent danger to the health of future residents.
Under the “Superfund Law” companies who have polluted an area must first rid it of all toxic wastes before leaving the place behind and before the land could be re-used for other purposes. An example of an “uncleaned” toxic waste dumpsite which was developed for housing was Love Canal, a subdivision in the state of New York which was found to have been developed on top of buried drums containing toxic chemicals. When it was discovered in 1977 that poisons which came from those buried drums had already seeped up their lawns, residents were forced to leave their homes in fear for their lives (Cooper, 1996).
A third instance which gives rise to environmental racism is when workers composed of poor people and members of minority groups are forced to gravitate to localities where these polluting industrial complexes are found in their desire to find jobs. Once they are hired in these plants, they are again forced to live nearby in order to save on transportation expenses. Poor people are constrained to act the way they do in spite of the dangers to their lives by economic necessity. This has been happening anywhere in the world and was actually confirmed by Dan S.
Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association when he said that: “No one lived near the Baton Rouge Exxon refinery, the oldest in Louisiana, when it was built in the early 1900s…It and other chemical plants were built in agricultural areas, and communities literally grew toward them because that’s where the jobs were” (Cooper, 1998). What allowed this problem to persist was the failure of government to prevent it. Environmental racism should not be synonymous with development.
Americans could reap the fruits of progress without anybody getting hurt if only the three causes of environmental racism mentioned in the foregoing discussion could be avoided. First, from hereon polluting industries should no longer be sited in areas populated by minority groups. Industrial plants and factories should be sited far from populated areas to ensure that their pollutants do not harm anybody. The factory owners and government should work hand in hand to discourage settlements from springing up around or near the plants by transporting workers to and from the factory site free of charge.
By providing their transportation needs, workers would be encouraged to live some distance from the plant where they could be safe from pollution. This view is, however, disputed by some quarters because not everybody is thinking along this line. There are those who believe that plants and factories should in fact be located in communities because they contribute to the economic development of these communities. Even in St. James Parish, not everybody was against the proposed plastics plant of Shintech Inc.
Some local residents, particularly the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supported the project because they believed that it would bring economic development to their area where almost half of the people were impoverished. Advocates of environmental justice, however, maintained that employment should not be a compromise for health, and that community members wanted the right to monitor and care for their environment more than they wanted money.
Bullard, of the Environmental Justice Resource Center supported them by saying that “Poor and minority communities are where you find children with lead poisoning living near polluting industries, garbage dumps, incinerators, petrochemical plants, freeways and highways” (Cooper, 1998). Second, government should monitor all applications for housing developments to be certain that no “uncleaned” toxic waste dumps are being converted into housing projects. People should also be vigilant enough to ensure that government is no longer permitting polluting plants to be constructed near communities.
They should also pressure government to prevent communities from springing up around polluting industries. Concerted citizen action, when conducted properly, could be very effective in exerting pressure on the government. It has been done before in northwest Louisiana when a citizen movement opposed the intention of a German firm to build a uranium plant in the area. Although it took seven long years, the Louisiana Energy Services was finally denied the license to operate (Cooper, 1998). A broad coalition of citizens (including the minority groups) must be organized to oppose President Bush’s “Clear Skies” policy.
This could be very dangerous to minority groups because under this initiative, factories with high emission rates could just purchase “pollution credits” from cleaner plants to enable them to continue operating without being penalized under the Clean Air Act. In other words, factories with high emission rates will no longer have to install emission-reducing equipments like rubber scrubbers. Another major task for this coalition of citizens is to follow up on the Superfund’s “national priorities list” which is the list of contaminated sites that need cleaning.
In 1995, the listed sites had already ballooned from 400 to around 1,300 sites, with only 79 sites having been cleaned up according to the EPA standards (Cooper, 1995). Anyone of these sites could be developed into housing developments without the knowledge of government. Americans should be aware of what is happening in the Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This is being prepared to be the sole repository of all radioactive wastes produced in the country. Tunnels were already dug under the mountain to serve as a permanent warehouse for these radioactive wastes which are now stored in different sites located around the country.
As yet, nobody is absolutely certain that the site would be one hundred percent leakproof (Hensen). In the face of these developments, it is time that Americans, regardless of skin color, race and ethnicity should oppose environmental racism. Everybody should understand that progress should never be achieved at the expense of the health and lives of members of the minority. If progress is achieved, let it benefit every American regardless of skin color, race and ethnicity.