Copyright 1993 The New York Times Company The New York Times January 11, 1993, Monday, Late Edition - Final SECTION: Section A; Page 1; Column 2; National Desk LENGTH: 1925 words HEADLINE: Pollution-Weary Minorities Try Civil Rights Tack BYLINE: By ROBERTO SURO BODY: In separate but strikingly similar grass-roots protests, hundreds of black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian groups are battling pollution hazards by arguing that their neighborhoods have become America's industrial dumping grounds because they are poor and powerless. Under the banner of environmental justice, these local groups have developed into a powerful new social movement that is applying the language and strategies of the civil rights movement to counter health threats as varied as toxic dumping and lead poisoning. "We are the real endangered species in America, people of color," said Susana Almanza, a leader of a community protest in Austin, Tex., that succeeded last fall in forcing the closing of a gasoline terminal in a black and Hispanic residential area. "We're the ones who are dying with the cancer clusters and the birth defects because of the air we breathe."
Evidence of InequityA growing body of evidence that minorities suffer the most from pollution and benefit the least from cleanup programs is transforming environmental politics. Many civil rights and environmental organizations have re-examined their agendas and constituencies, and some are giving grass-roots groups advice and support. In June, the movement received an important measure of official recognition when a report by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency found evidence that racial and ethnic minorities suffer disproportionate exposure to dust, soot, carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur, sulfur dioxide and lead, as well as emissions from hazardous-waste dumps. And just last week in Texas state regulators, citing the E.P.A. study, formed a group to study why environmental hazards are concentrated in minority communities and to see what laws or policies should be changed. So far, no court ruling has clearly supported claims of civil rights violations in the selection of sites for operations that produce pollution, although several lawsuits are pending. Executives of companies involved in such cases often argue that no discrimination exists and that such decisions are based on a variety of economic factors. "Not only have we not targeted communities of color, but our facilities are distributed evenly around various demographic groups," said Chuck McDermott, director of political and business issues for Waste Management Inc., a company involved in several disputes. With little coordination and with no well-known national leaders, the environmental justice movement has developed out of many individual local protests, usually focused on a single nearby problem. No one really knows the movement's size, but in October 1991 about 500 representatives of community groups met in Washington for The First National People of Color Environmental Summit. The movement in the United States has grass-roots counterparts in many developing nations, like Costa Rica, India and Indonesia. Organizers in the United States and those in third world countries face arguments that pollution is an economic necessity.
New Alliances Taking ShapeThe West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice is only two years old, but with more than 2,000 members, almost all black or Hispanic, it has become one of the largest and most visible minority organizations in the area. The coalition's cause is to fight for the cleanup of polluted soil from a lead smelter that closed in 1984 after operating for 55 years. In lawsuits against local, state and Federal agencies and in dozens of protests, the coalition has argued that hundreds of residents suffer from lead poisoning because of discrimination in land use, housing, health and environmental-cleanup policies. As a result, several new testing programs have been started to determine the extent of the pollution and the blood poisoning it caused. Many health experts say lead is the most widespread environmental hazard in minority communities. The effects of lead poisoning can extend from headaches and nausea to permanent brain damage, especially in children. Research by the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has shown that lead from plumbing, house paints and contaminated soils reaches many poor children of all races. But in an unexplained disparity, a 1988 study concluded that black children, regardless of their families' income, were much more likely than white children to have unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood. In some cases, residents have blocked new installations that would have brought jobs to their area. In the past year, the residents of Kettleman City, Calif., most of whom are Hispanic, won a court judgment that has at least temporarily blocked plans for the incinerator in their San Joaquin Valley town, which is already the site of a vast toxic-waste landfill. And the black residents of Wallace, La., helped scuttle plans to build a $700 million wood pulp and rayon plant on one of the last nonindustrial stretches of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La. As local movements have grown and some established national organizations have joined the battle, some new alliances crossing racial and class boundaries have begun to take shape -- though they have been no more free of tensions than have other contacts across racial and class lines. In New York, for instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council joined with several Harlem groups last fall to file a suit in State Supreme Court contending that smells from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant violate the rights of local citizens to breathe fresh air, and that the operation was placed in a poor community because more politically powerful neighborhoods in Manhattan rejected it. Ernesto Cortes, southwest director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide network of community groups, said: "People used to look at the dump at the end of the block and think it was just a neighborhood problem. Then they saw it in other communities and it became a city problem, then regional, and now, as more information comes out, it's becoming a national issue." Robert D. Bullard, a sociologist at the University of California at Riverside, is widely credited with conducting the first extensive research that linked an environmental hazard to the race of those exposed to it. In a 1979 study in Houston, he showed that since the 1920's all the city-owned landfills and six of the eight garbage incinerators had been in black neighborhoods even though Houston was once an overwhelmingly white city. The first solid evidence of inequities on a national scale emerged from a study published in 1987 by the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, which found that race, even more than poverty, was the shared characteristic of communities exposed to toxic wastes.
Minority Population A Significant FactorThrough an examination of neighborhoods surrounding commercial hazardous-waste treatment, storage and disposal operations, the study concluded that a large minority population was the most statistically significant factor those communities had in common. And the size of the minority population seemed to grow with the potential environmental hazard so that the proportion of minorities in communities with the largest such operations was three times greater than that of neighborhoods with none. "The possibility that these patterns resulted by chance is virtually impossible," the report said. Industry spokesmen argue that instead of looking at the contemporary population near sources of pollution researchers should focus on the makeup of the communities around plants or dumps when they were built. The industry representatives argue that many old industrial operations were surrounded by white working-class neighborhoods that have only recently become minority communities. Those in the environmental justice movement argue that it matters little whether the pollution was brought into neighborhoods or whether minority groups were steered into already contaminated communities by patterns of residential segregation. But corporate spokesmen like Mr. McDermott of Waste Management say there are often compelling reasons for the choice of a site that have nothing to do with the makeup of the population. For example, he said, the site of a landfill near the predominantly poor, black town of Emelle, Ala., was chosen largely because an E.P.A. study found that it had the ideal geology. Lawyers working on behalf of grass-roots environmental groups agree that such arguments can make it virtually impossible to prove intentional discrimination, which is necessary to win most civil rights cases. "The only way to ever decisively and permanently win these battles is through the political process," said Luke Cole, a lawyer for California Legal Assistance who argued the case against Waste Management in Kettleman City. "When a community organizes itself at the grass roots, we can exercise our power, the power of people." The people of Wallace, almost all of them black and poor, fought plans by the Formosa Plastics Corporation to build one of the world's largest wood pulp and rayon plants. "When we started out in 1989, there were a few of us who wanted to ask questions about this thing but we didn't even really know what questions to ask," said Wilfred M. Greene, a 70-year-old retired school principal who became leader of the protests. The National Toxics Campaign, an environmental organization based in Boston, produced a 19-page report for the people of Wallace in 1990 assessing the pollution the plant might cause. As Mr. Greene put it, "We could organize and meet all we wanted, but we only really started moving things when we got expertise on our side." Backed by scientific and legal counsel, the people of Wallace tied up the licensing process until Formosa canceled its plans in October.
Two Movements Come TogetherThe Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, said: "The idea of civil rights is expanding to include freedom from pollution, and an emphasis on social justice is being added to the idea of environmental protection." Some concepts underlying the civil rights struggle have been used in an environmental cause most prominently in a series of similar lawsuits filed in the last three years in California, Mississippi and Texas. The suits have demanded that poor children get more extensive tests for lead poisoning. Underlying the legal efforts is the assertion that adequate screening for an environmental health hazard is guaranteed under Federal civil rights laws. Reflecting the alliances formed by the environmental justice movement, the legal teams bringing these cases have included the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. The alliance of the established civil rights and environmental organizations with the grass-roots groups has also created friction, often reflecting the different interests of middle-class environmentalists and poor communities, where industries, even polluting industries, have been an essential source of money. "Working people don't want to live with a dangerous environment, but they do need a viable economic community," Mr. Cortes said. "There have to be plans for a transition, for other jobs, for training. Among people who are well off there is a tendency to assume away those questions, but we can't afford to do that." GRAPHIC: Photos: The location of a gasoline terminal near the homes of black and Hispanic families in Austin prompted a neighborhood protest. (Lisa Davis for The New York Times) (pg. A1); "When we started out in 1989, there were a few of us who wanted to ask questions about this thing but we didn't even really know what questions to ask," said Wilfred M. Greene, left, who became leader of protests against plans by the Formosa Plastics Corporation to build one of the world's largest wood pulp and rayon plants in Wallace, La. He walked through Willow Bend Community Cemetery with Nathalie M. Walker, a lawyer with the New Orleans office of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which represented the people of Wallace. (Matt Anderson for The New York Times) (pg. B7) Graphs: "Race, Poverty and the Environment: Air Quality . . ." shows the following percentages of total U.S. white, black and Hispanic populations living in areas polluted by: Dust, soot and other particles White -- 15% Black -- 17% Hispanic -- 34% Carbon monoxide White -- 34% Black -- 46% Hispanic -- 57% Ozone White -- 53% Black -- 62% Hispanic -- 71% Sulfur dioxide White -- 7% Black -- 12% Hispanic -- 6% Lead White -- 6% Black -- 9% Hispanic -- 19% (Source: Environmental Protection Agency) (pg. B7) ". . . And Lead Poisoning" shows the following percentages of children 6 months to 5 years old, in cities over 1 million population, with high levels of lead in their blood: Family income less than $6,000 White -- 68% Black -- 36% Family income $6,000 to $15,000 White -- 54% Black -- 23% Family income more than $15,000 White -- 38% Black -- 12% (Source: Environmental Protection Agency) (pg. B7) SUBJECT: ENVIRONMENT; MINORITIES (ETHNIC, RACIAL, RELIGIOUS); SUITS AND CLAIMS AGAINST GOVERNMENT; BLACKS (IN US); SPANISH-SPEAKING GROUPS (US); ASIAN-AMERICANS; INDIANS, AMERICAN NAME: SURO, ROBERTO
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