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Environmental Racism

The Toxic Air in Black America

by EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

Environmentalists hit the roof in 2002 when President Bush announced his Clean Sky Initiative. The initiative would not clean the skies but dirty them further. It would allow corporations to dump tons more toxic pollutants in the air, delay or exempt enforcement of smog and soot pollution standards, and gut EPA pollution enforcement powers. Though the initiative is stalled in Congress, Bush did an end around and used an administrative order to weaken enforcement.

That virtually assures that blacks, especially poor blacks, will breather dirtier air. This has had dire health consequences. 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, and suffer more deaths. The Bush administration defends its contempt for the lungs of the poor by saying that race should not be as issue in the battle against toxic pollution, and that it will protect all groups against environmental damage. The Bush record shows that it has done just the opposite.

A recent Associated Press survey of government data found that in 19 states blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where pollution posed a severe health hazard. Despite the severe health risks that toxic damage poses in these neighborhoods, the residents have gotten very little attention or support from environmental groups. But the fight against environmental racism is a civil rights battle, and a fight to save black lives. That battle should fully engage civil rights and environmental groups. Black residents in some cities have screamed just as loudly as white, middle class homeowners and urban conservationists about hacked up parkland, toxic dump sites, waste incinerators, garbage dumps, recycling centers, contaminated sewage sites, and power plants in their backyard. 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 dumping 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, a church-based civil rights advocacy group, revealed that blacks are far more likely than whites to live near abandoned toxic waste sites, waste landfills, and sewer treatment plants. 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.

A decade later, the Government Accounting Office found that all of the offsite hazardous waste landfills in nine Southern states were situated in or in close proximity to black neighborhoods. This environmental racism outraged black environmental activists.

Meanwhile, Bush has done everything he could to scrap the Clinton rules, and corporations and public officials have dutifully taken their cue and tossed more pollutants into the air and water. The courts haven’t helped. Residents in poor, highly toxic neighborhoods can sue polluters under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but they must prove intentional discrimination. This is virtually impossible to prove. The Supreme Court has ruled that private citizens can’t sue to enforce federal environmental regulations that ban discrimination. The EPA has moved with glacial speed to investigate complaints of environmental pollution, and has been even more reluctant to take strong action against polluters. In one two-year stretch from 2001 to 2003, the EPA settled only two cases against corporate polluters. There’s little evidence that the agency’s settlement scorecard has gotten much better since then.

The damage from official neglect of the problem has been profound. Toxic eyesores disfigure black neighborhoods, degrade property values, and discourage public and private investment in those neighborhoods, and that in addition to the grave health risks that toxic pollution poses to the residents.

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. They’ll get it with the full blessing of the Bush administration, but let’s hope not with Congress.

EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON is a columnist for BlackNews.com, an author and political analyst.