Put It In Blacks Backyard

When black residents in a mid-income Los Angeles neighborhood in June got wind that the California Energy Commission was on the verge of approving a power plant in their community they stormed the Commission's public hearings and angrily demanded that the power plant be scrapped. After the protests, the Commission strongly hinted that it would reject the plant. The power company quickly withdrew its construction bid.

The fury of the resident's protest shocked some environmentalists and reporters. They assumed that blacks get aroused only over racially-charged issues such as discrimination, police abuse, and reparations for slavery. And that only white, middle class homeowners and urban conservationists scream about hacked up parkland, toxic dump sites incinerators, garbage dumps, recycling centers, contaminated sewage sites, and power plants in their backyard.

This is a huge myth. Blacks have repeatedly denounced corporate polluters and public officials for dumping environmentally risky power plants and waste sites in their neighborhoods. They label this racially-warped policy, "PIBBY" or, put it in blacks backyard.

In 1979, Houston city officials tried to dump yet another toxic waste site in a black neighborhood. This time the homeowners and residents fought back. They filed and won the first major lawsuit against the siting of a waste facility in an urban neighborhood. Their action transformed the fight for environmental justice into a health and a civil rights issue. Since then blacks have marched, demonstrated, filed lawsuits, been jailed, and held local and national conferences, to denounce environmental degradation of their neighborhoods.

In a milestone report on race and toxic wastes in 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice, an environmental advocacy group, revealed that blacks are far more likely than whites to live near abandoned toxic waste sites, waste landfills, and sewer treatment plants.

Not much has changed since then. In a report last year, the Government Accounting Office found that all of the offsite hazardous waste landfills in nine Southern states were located in or near mostly black communities. The GAO also found that Memphis, St. Louis, Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta had the most abandoned toxic waste sites. And most them were situated in or in close proximity to black neighborhoods. This environmental racism outraged black environmental activists. They prodded former President Clinton in 1994 to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to intensify efforts to determine the harm toxic waste plants and sites wreak on urban communities.

That damage has been severe. Toxic eyesores disfigure black neighborhoods, degrade property values, and discourage public and private investment there. Toxic wastes also pose grave health risks to inner-city residents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly warned that blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods with higher air pollution levels and suffer higher rates of respiratory and blood ailments than whites. Corporate and industrial polluters get away with their toxic assault on low-income, black neighborhoods by skillfully twisting the jobs versus environment issue. They claim that the choice is between creating more jobs and business growth and economic stagnation. Their economic black mail works since few politicians will risk being tagged as anti-business. They gamble that poor, blacks and Latinos, many of whom do not own their homes, and vote in far smaller numbers, are less likely than politically connected white, middle-class homeowners to squawk at putting a hazardous plant or toxic waste site in their neighborhood. Many officials will eagerly waive requirements for environmental reports, provide special tax breaks, and even alter zoning and land use requirements to allow them to set up shop in these underserved neighborhoods.

The plan to dump a power plant in a black neighborhood in Los Angeles was a near textbook example of how racially-tinged political, and corporate insensitivity to environmental dangers can peril a minority community. The plant was one of several small megawatt power plants that California Governor Gray Davis ordered the Energy Commission to shove on a fast track to help bail California out of its energy crisis. The plant, however, was the only one of the proposed new plants that was sited for construction near public parkland, and in a densely populated, urban neighborhood. The area is already top heavy with active oil wells, power lines, sewer lines, and is dissected by more freeways than in any other part of the city. Since Davis's order wiped out the requirement for an environmental impact report for these small plants, there was no way to fully assess the potential long -term environmental damage the plant could have had on the community. L.A. black residents scored a solid victory in preventing a potentially hazardous plant from being built in their neighborhood. But they also scored an even bigger victory by demonstrating again that blacks will storm the barricades as fast as anyone else when environmental pillage threatens their backyard.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and the President of the National Alliance for Positive Action www.natalliance.org.

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