REYNOLDS: Toxic Graveyards

How many toxic cocktails should poor communities be forced to drink?What can be done about industries that select low-income minority neighborhoods as toxic graveyards?Keep your eyes on the battleground in Convent, LA, an area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where a host of community activists, congressional representatives and Greenpeace are camped. The controversy is presently being aired in hearings before the House Commerce Committee as activists try to stop the Japanese-owned Shintech Corporation from building one of the world's largest chemical plants in a spot which has been chemically dumped on too much already.While the battle may be raging in this tiny community, home to only about 2,000 residents (more than 81 percent African-American), lessons learned from this sizzler can be applied elsewhere. Several national studies have shown that there have been a disproportionate placement of hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities in communities of color nationwide. A study by The National Law Journal also concluded that the federal government enforces environmental laws more vigorously in white communities than it does in so-called minority communities. White communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. Civil-rights activists insist that minority communities have been unfairly targeted by state officials looking for places to locate higher polluting industries and facilities.A good question is: How much more pollution should one community be forced to tolerate? The Convent area has one of the highest concentrations of manufacturers, users and disposers of toxic chemicals in the USA. Within a one-mile radius of the proposed Shintech plant, there are already ten industrial facilities that have emitted more than 16 million pounds of toxic air pollution in 1995. This amounts to about 250,000 pounds of toxic air pollution per square mile, which is 658 times the amount of toxic air pollution per square mile in the USA as a whole, according to Greenpeace. The proposed Shintech plant, according to Greenpeace estimates, would emit about one billion more pounds of toxic chemicals in the Convent area. It would emit large quantities of such contaminants into the air and into the Mississippi River, a source of drinking water for the residents. As a vinyl production facility, Shintech will also emit dioxin, a substance deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a major health threat, even in small doses.That means that infants can get off to an unhealthy start with their first breaths, merely on the basis of their address. They have become trapped in an environment so toxic, their neighborhoods are nicknamed "Cancer Alley."Studies show that the St. James Parish, where Convent sits, already has at least 41 different types of cancers and it is a place where African-Americans are dying at a higher rate than whites from those cancers.Another good question: Will the patchwork quilt of laws in place to fight off this "environmental racism" prevent this potential toxic nightmare? On February 11, 1994 President Clinton issued Executive Order 1298, which directed all federal agencies, including the EPA, to implement environmental justice in all policies, programs and activities. In addition, the Caucus is pressuring the EPA to deny Shintech the right to build its new plant because it would discriminate against a minority community by forcing it to bear the brunt of industrial pollution. The federal agency has been holding up the permit since 1997.Dr. Robert Bullard, author of several books on environmental racism, who is working with the Congressional Black Caucus to fight the plant's construction, calls Shintech "the Brown vs Board of Education case for the environmental-justice movement."The impact of Shintech should be closely watched, if for no other reasons than the dire health risks being borne by communities of color. For some reason, the darker the complexion, the better the chances of living closer to a toxic landfill, polluted water or toxic dumps. Asthma, for example, is a classic example of an environmental health problem that disproportionately impacts African-Americans, Latino children and the poor, says Bullard. "Between four to five million children under age 18 suffer from asthma, the most common chronic disease among children. It is 26 percent higher among African-American children than among white children."To be fair, there are those black residents of Convent who want Shintech for the jobs it would provide and Shintech officials argue that they have put together the safest and most "environmentally- friendly plan" ever constructed.If Shintech is so environmentally friendly, then I am certain affluent white suburbs won't be able to restrain themselves from rolling out the red carpet to them. When they exhibit their enthusiasm for becoming a toxic graveyard, then Convent would be wise to follow.

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