What's That Smell?

Leave your car for a few hours in the south end of town and you may return to find it covered with fine yellow dust from nearby mills. Mae Catherine Wilmont, a lifelong resident in her 50s, says she hardly notices the odor any more, but when employers from the mostly-white north side drop her off at night, they sometimes wrinkle their noses and ask, "What is that smell?"

Thirteen of Gainesville's 15 toxic-producing industries are located around the African American neighborhood called New Town, even closer than its schools. New Town may be the kind of community the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had in mind when it endorsed a report Oct. 17 slamming federal agencies for failing to comply with a Clinton-era presidential order to make environmental justice part of their work and programs. Race is a bigger predictor today of exposure to environmental hazards than geography or income, say studies cited in the 200-page report, "Not in My Backyard."

The 1994 presidential order clearly told agencies -- the EPA, HUD and Departments of Transportation and the Interior -- to consider effects on minority neighborhoods when deciding where to put landfills, toxic dumps and polluting industries. They don't, determined the Commission.

The leadership of the agencies, said Commission Chair Mary Frances Berry, "lacks commitment to ensuring that low-income communities and communities of color are treated fairly during the decision-making process" about where to put hazardous sites. The report cited evidence of disproportionate incidence of environmentally related disease in those communities, lead paint in homes, dangerous waste sites and toxic playgrounds.

The effort to be fair in locating dangerous dumps and factories is simply a low priority, the commission says. The issue is apparently considered so marginal that not a single agency reports any comprehensive assessment of environmental justice activities -- the Department of Transportation categorizes the activity mandated in the executive order as "collateral."

Some Bush critics say the picture reflects a current Republican administration policy that is unfriendly to the environment in general. Others warn the report will hurt business opportunities and jobs.

Berry, an Independent, and three Democratic members voted to endorse the report; two Republicans voted no and one abstained. Another member was absent.

What the Civil Rights Commission determined in Washington is no surprise to the women on the ground in New Town. "What they find at the federal level we find with the state and the local level," said Faye Bush, president of the Florist Club. The women push efforts to bring attention to their neighborhood, including conducting "Toxic Tours" aimed at college students, and at African American youth "so they know they need to get involved and keep this from happening again," says Mae Catherine Wilmont.

In the early l990s, Wilmont joined the Florist Club when she learned she had lupus, which she attributes to a lifetime in the polluted neighborhood. When the club began in the l950s, women simply collected money for funeral wreaths for low-income neighbors, and accompanied the bereaved to funerals as a group, wearing black in winter, crisp white in summer. By the l980s, as a veteran member recalls, they began to ask, "Why are so many of us dying?"

Slowly, methodically, the women conducted interviews and found a high number of cases of cancer, and lupus, an incurable immune system condition. They joined with researchers, had their hair clipped and sent for analysis, and found significant levels of toxins in their systems. A state health survey found unexpectedly high levels of mouth and throat cancer. "It got so we asked all kinds of questions," said Mozetta Whelchel, whose 16-year-old daughter Moselee died of lupus in the l980s. Towers of a dog food factory loom over her house. Her son Deotris died of lupus too, shortly after high school graduation. Faye Bush, Whelchel's sister, has lupus, and so does Jerry Castleberry across the street.

Experts argue environmental triggers can be key in the appearance of cancers and lupus; direct links are extremely difficult to prove. "We know this is coming to us from the outside," said Welchel, however, a view held by the neighborhood.

Joel Armstrong, an environmental justice specialist at the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, knows New Town and sees "bright spots" for such struggling communities in the Commission's recommendations to federal agencies, if they are implemented. One of the "more helpful," he says: A recommendation that the EPA broaden its authority to establish "adverse disparate impact" on communities where state or other laws shield or limit that process.

The Florist Club is taking cases to court, and new members are joining, including some young women with college educations.

"If we keep on working with it somebody is gonna learn they're wrong," said Mozetta Whelchel. She runs a hand across her bald-looking scalp, the effect of treatment for a second brain tumor. "We got to talk about it, the same over and over."

The Civil Rights Commission has no enforcement mandate. Previous reports have drawn public attention to key issues. The new report is scheduled for distribution to members of Congress and President Bush.

Mary Jo McConahay is a longtime journalist and a filmmaker.

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