7 Toxic Assaults on Communities of Color Besides Flint: The Dirty Racial Politics of Pollution
Don’t try to tell Dr. Robert D. Bullard that the noxious water disaster in Flint, Mich., is anything but business as usual in the United States.
“My first take was that this is dÃ©jÃ vu all over again,” Bullard says. “When will this madness stop?”
For 30 years, Bullard, dean of the school of public affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, has been writing books and journal articles about environmental racism, the fact that sewage treatment plants, municipal landfills and illegal dumps, garbage transfer stations, incinerators, smelters and other hazardous waste sites inevitably are sited in the backyard of the poor.
“I see what’s happening in Flint as the classic case and a poster child for environmental racism,” Bullard told me. “This is a man-made disaster. It did not have to happen. And it basically tells us that the state of Michigan believes that the residents of Flint don’t deserve equal protection. They don’t deserve the same rights that would be enforced if they were not largely poor and majority African American.”
“Unfortunately, Flint’s water scandal is a symptom of a much larger disease,” adds Madeline Stano, a staff attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Oakland, Calif. “It’s far from an isolated incident, in the history of Michigan itself and in the country writ large.”
Bullard and other researchers have documented scores of examples of environmental feudalism, from California to Pennsylvania, Texas to North Carolina and across the Deep South.
Pollution Dumping Grounds
Bullard says the politics of environmental racism haven’t changed since economist William J. Kruvant described the process in a 1975 journal article:
“Disadvantaged people are largely victims of middle- and upper-class pollution because they usually live closest to the sources of pollution—power plants, industrial installations, and in central cities where vehicle traffic is heaviest. Usually they have no choice. Discrimination created the situation, and those with wealth and influence have political power to keep polluting facilities away from their homes. Living in poverty areas is bad enough. High pollution makes it worse.”
The issue of perilous industrial waste began to gain political traction in 1978, when the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., was evacuated after a local newspaper revealed that an antecedent of Occidental Petroleum had buried 22,000 tons of toxic chemicals there.
Nine years later, the racial patterns of hazardous waste disposal were delineated in a withering 86-page report on “toxic injustice” by a United Church of Christ committee led by Benjamin Chavis Jr., the civil rights leader. Nearly 30 years after its release, “Toxic Wastes and Race” is still a seminal document in the emerging field of environmental justice. It revealed a pattern of “the widespread presence of uncontrolled toxic waste sites in racial and ethnic communities throughout the United States.” Flint was among the cities cited.
Bullard says he is flummoxed that the Flint crisis has been framed by the mainstream media as “an unfortunate, isolated case.” He notes that the deadly impact of noxious industrial waste on Michigan’s poor has been extensively documented by, among others, Paul Mohai, founder of the Environmental Justice Program at the University of Michigan.
The editors of the 2011 book, Michigan: A State of Environmental Justice?, concluded that the state “is a prime example of environmental injustice because it has a large industrial sector, a large number of toxic inventory citations, Superfund sites, brownfields, and hazardous waste disposal facilities located disproportionately in racially segregated communities and in communities of poverty.”
Research has shown a higher incidence of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other pulmonary diseases in these communities. Some link the asthma epidemic among African Americans to industrial toxins wafting over poor neighborhoods. Asthma affects twice as many black children as white, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, and its rate among African-American kids doubled from 2001 to 2009.
Damage to Children
Bullard, a sociologist, says he loses his scientific reserve when it comes to environmental harm to kids, like the ones in Flint.
“I am mad because we’re talking about the most vulnerable population in that city,” he says. “And we know very well that lead poisoning causes irreversible damage. So this is a problem created by a government entity that will last not just until next year or the next election cycle but for decades to come.”
Stano, the California-based environmental justice attorney, grew up in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Mich., and interned five years ago at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. She watched the agency evolve from its traditional watchdog role to “a business-friendly approach,” a well-worn pattern in GOP-dominated states.
Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, was asked Friday whether the water crisis was a case of environmental racism. He replied, “Absolutely not.”
But Stano says it is unthinkable that the same thing could have happened in her hometown or another affluent community in Oakland County, which spans from the Detroit city limits to just south of Flint—a point also made by Flint mayor Karen Weaver.
Stano says, “There’s no question in my mind that the governor’s office and the state agencies would never have debated saving an insignificant amount of money to risk the contamination of residents of Bloomfield Hills or West Bloomfield or any part of Oakland County.”
She notes that emails about the Flint water crisis released by Snyder’s staff had a dismissive, belittling tone about an “anti-everything group” that complained.
“Would a government official take that same kind of dismissive attitude if the complaints were coming from wealthy white people in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., or Beverly Hills, Calif.?” Stano asks. “Of course not.”
Government Picks on Poor
I asked Bullard how Gov. Snyder and others could deny the concept of environmental injustice despite decades of documentation.
“I think this denial has persisted for so many years because when people think of civil rights, they thinking of voting, they think of education, they think of housing...." Bullard says. "Now we have the environmental justice movement, converging environmental rights with civil rights. But it’s taken two decades for those two movements to come together.”
Advocates point to a lack of resources and organized opposition to environmental hazards in poor communities, especially when residents face a phalanx of government lawyers.
“They know in Michigan government, in all governments, which communities have the capacity to resist and fight and hire lawyers and hire experts,” Bullard says.
Well-endowed environmental groups like the Sierra Club tend to focus on mountain streams, not inner-city rivers, although Bullard says he was buoyed by last year’s election of Aaron Mair as the first African-American board president of Sierra.
“Often it comes down to a question of who holds the power, whose voice counts, and whose voice is the loudest,” says Stano. “One of the beautiful parts of this [Flint] story is that the residents’ voice was the loudest, through their collective action and persistence, creativity and ingenuity. It was the moms of Flint who paid for and got funding to do outside testing. They made this a story, despite all of the efforts of the state government to hide it under the rug.
7 Toxic Assaults on Communities of Color
There are scores of examples of minority towns and neighborhoods in the U.S. besieged by hazardous wastes, lead and deadly chemicals. Here are thumbnails of seven of them.
1. West Dallas, Texas
For half a century, smokestacks at the RSR Corp.’s battery recycling smelter in West Dallas belched as much as a ton of lead particles every business day that rained down on an adjacent neighborhood, home to mostly blacks and Latinos. Some buildings in a 3,500-unit housing project were just 20 paces from the smelter property. The smelter went out of business in 1984, but it left behind a legacy of lead. In 1993, a vast area, 14 square miles with 17,000 residents—was declared an environment disaster and a Superfund site.
Today, RSR, which operates lead acid battery recycling facilities in California, Indiana and New York, touts itself as an environmental champion.
2. Emelle, Ala.
Chemical Waste, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., has a knack for siting its incinerators and landfills in minority communities. They include Chem Waste’s “Cadillac of Landfills” in Sumter County, Ala., where nine out of 10 residents are black.
In the 1980s, much of the hazardous waste removed from Superfund sites elsewhere in America made its way to this location, which sits atop an aquifer that supplies water to a wide swath of Alabama. The landfill, near the Mississippi border, is one of the largest receptacles of hazardous waste in the world. It accepts such hazardous materials as asbestos, PCBs and many other substances regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Waste Management claims ownership of the facility today, but its provenance was a mystery when it was created in 1977 in a shadowy deal shepherded through the state permitting process by the son-in-law of Gov. George Wallace.
3. Uniontown, Ala.
The Yellowhammer State, where the governor has vowed to turn aside Muslim refugees and which ran off perhaps 40,000 Mexicans and Central Americans with draconian immigration laws, opens its arms wide when it comes to toxic waste.
When a dam breach in 2008 at the Kingston Fossil Plant sent a billion gallons of toxic coal ash into the Emory River in Tennessee, most states—including Tennessee—were reticent to accept the stuff. The owners of the privately held Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown were happy to take the coal ash, even though it contains arsenic, mercury, lead and boron. The landfill, owned by Georgia-based Green Group Holdings, accepts industrial waste from 33 different states.
Uniontown has a population of 1,600, 90 percent of them African American. It is located east of Selma in Perry County, which is 70 percent black. Some residents are worried about water quality, but a local county commissioner dismisses the idea. "I've always been a firm believer in 'show me some proof','" Tim Sanderson told Marketplace last year. "You can make allegations all day long." He added, "Everybody was saying, 'Oh we're killing the kids, we're causing all these problems, let's carry it to Mississippi and kill all their kids and cause problems over there.' That's not the good Christian way."
4. Kettleman City, Calif.
Another Chem Waste facility in Kettleman City, a poor Latino town on I-5 midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, has been the subject of controversy since environmental justice advocates cited a cluster of birth defects and infant deaths there.
Waste Management mounted a public relations counterattack that portrays the plant as part of an idyllic landscape and a “premier world-class facility.” Chem Waste describes it as “the most thoroughly analyzed hazardous waste facility in the country.” In 2014, California regulators approved an expansion of the site.
5. Dilkon, Ariz.
It seemed too good to be true in 1988 when Waste-Tech Services Inc. offered to locate a $40 million “recycling” facility and hire 200 local workers in this impoverished Navajo community of 1,200 in northwest Arizona. It was a bait-and-switch. Tribal leaders learned the facility would incinerate medical waste and other hazardous materials trucked in from surrounding states. After residents voted 99-6 against the project, Navajo leaders rescinded their offer for the firm to locate in Dilkon.
6. Chester, Penn.
This financially distressed city near Philadelphia, once known for its thriving shipyards and auto plants, became a magnet for hazardous waste facilities in the 1980s. Residents of the city, three-quarters African American, soon began noticing increased incidence of pulmonary problems, low-birthweight babies, lung cancer and other health issues.
Like the initial state reaction in Flint, Pennsylvania authorities insisted there was nothing to worry about. But community organizers and local legal advocacy groups filed a barrage of lawsuits that eventually prompted some of the facilities to dial back operations. Advocates cite Chester as a how-to example in the fight against environmental injustice.
7. Warren County, N.C.
This majority African-American county on the Virginia border north of Raleigh was the site of a landfill created by the state of North Carolina in 1982 to bury 60,000 tons of soil that had become contaminated when a businessman trying to save recycling costs dumped PCB-laden oil along 240 miles of roads in 14 different counties. Toxic runoff from the improperly prepared landfill leached into the expansive Neuse River Basin. The landfill eventually was added to the federal Superfund list and became the subject of groundbreaking lawsuits over environmental injustice.
After decades of delays, “site detoxification” was declared complete in 2004. The authorities have assured citizens that they are closely monitoring the situation.