Historical Background on Environmental Racism

In 1983, the United States General Accounting Office conducted a study of several Southern states that found three out of every four landfills were located near predominantly minority communities.  In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice Toxic Waste and Race report showed that the most significant factor in determining hazardous waste facility sites, nationwide, was race.  The report also found that three out of every five African-Americans and Hispanics live in a community buttressing unregulated toxic waste sites.  This landmark study, further described the extent of environmental racism and the consequences for those who are victims of polluted environments.  The study revealed that: Race was the most significant variable associated with the location of hazardous waste sites. The greatest numbers of commercial hazardous facilities were located in communities with the highest composition of racial and ethnic minorities.

In 1991, the First National People of Color Leadership Summit  met in Washington, D.C., and forged the Principles of Environmental Justice.  The EPA established its Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1992.  In 1992, a study conducted by the National Law Journal (NLJ) reported that the (EPA) discriminated in its enforcement of laws pointing out that federal fines were not as strict for industries operating in communities of color, and that clean-up of environmental disasters in these communities were slower than in wealthier, white communities and that standards for clean-up in communities of color were not as high.  In 1993 President Clinton ordered the federal government to ensure equality in protecting Americans from pollution.  President Clinton then issued Executive Order (EO) 12898 in 1994; titled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority and Low Income Populations,” he then designated 11 agencies accountable for environmental justice.  The order prohibits discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal money.  The Executive Order signed by Clinton is not a new law it just reinforces old laws and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  More than a decade later, factory emissions still disproportionately place minorities and the poor at risk.  People of color continue to be victims of environmental degradation.  An analysis of data from a government research project shows that black Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution  poses the greatest health danger.

Early in the environmental movement, mostly white environmental groups used the NIMBY principle which means Not In My Back Yard, not realizing the implications, or caring about where the waste would eventually end up; and it ended up in someone else’s yard, mostly poor black peoples’ yards.  Some communities that have little or no zoning laws have just applied the PIBBY (Put In Blacks’ Backyards) principle.  Black communities over the years have continued to be targeted for toxic and hazardous waste facilities this include landfills.  These toxic facilities are filled with the life-threatening presence of poisons, toxins and pollutants that threaten our neighborhoods.  Black people are more likely than Whites to live near a landfill.  Far too many blacks live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.  The largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are located in Black communities.  As a consequence, the residents of these communities suffer shorter life spans, higher infant and adult mortality, poor health, poverty, diminished economic opportunities, substandard housing, and an overall degraded quality of life.

Low-income Black communities are the most vulnerable for siting of landfills incinerators, toxic waste dumps, lead smelters, etc.  These are also the same communities that are least likely to have adequate fire protection, housing code enforcement, health care delivery, and street lighting and sewer hookups.  Household incomes and home values were substantially lower when communities with hazardous-waste facilities were compared to communities in the surrounding county without such facilities.

There is tons of evidence that strongly suggest that this is environmental racism and that these toxic-waste dumps are not randomly scattered across the American landscape.  The siting process has resulted in minority neighborhoods (regardless of class) carrying a greater burden of localized costs than either affluent or poor white neighborhoods.  Landfills are often located in communities that have high percentages of poor, elderly, young, and black residents.  There is a ridiculously large concentration of uncontrolled toxic waste sites found in black urban communities.  For example, when Atlanta’s ninety-four uncontrolled toxic waste sites are plotted by zip code areas, more than 82.8 percent of the city’s black population compared with 60.2 percent of its white population was found to be living in waste site areas.  Despite its image as the “capital of the New South,” Atlanta is the most segregated big city in the region. More than 86 percent of the city’s blacks live in mostly black neighborhoods.  As is the case for other cities, residential segregation and housing discrimination limit mobility options available to blacks.  There are also toxic time bombs in rural areas of the south.  Large commercial hazardous-waste landfills and disposal facilities are more likely to be found in rural black communities.

The burden, or negative side, of industrial development has not been equally distributed across all segments of the population.  Living conditions in many communities have not improved very much with new growth.  Black communities became the dumping grounds for various types of unpopular facilities, including toxic wastes, dangerous chemicals, paper mills, and other polluting industries.

Who came first, the communities are the corporations?  Another way of looking at this is why are there so many landfills and hazardous waste disposal facilities in black neighborhoods?  I believe that this has everything to do with environmental racism.  Based on my research most Environmental Justice activists agree with me that the siting of landfills is the result of discrimination in how the sites are selected.  Another theory that has been brought forward is that of  Law Professor Vicki Been.

Been has looked at market demands and has come up with a theory that relates that waste facilities are not the product of discrimination and intentionally siting in minority communities.  Been believes that poor racial communities have formed around these facilities.  Basically under this idea the landfill is in the community, people who can afford to leave do, and those who cannot stay.  Property values go down and the property becomes more affordable to lower income families, add in other forms of housing discrimination elsewhere and the neighborhood becomes black and poor.  I do not buy this argument but I believe it might be worth some further investigation.

Lead Poisoning

Children of color are the most vulnerable population and suffer the greatest in the effect of Environmental racism.  Lead is a highly toxic substance, and exposure to it can produce a wide range of health problems.  Adults and children can suffer from the effects of lead poisoning, but childhood lead poisoning is much more common.  Over the many years since we have known about the hazards of lead, tens of millions of children have suffered its health effects.  As of 2004, there was still at minimum more than four hundred thousand children under the age of six who have too much lead in their blood.  Because of environmental racism, communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollutants, including lead, air pollution, and pesticides.  Lawrie Mott also adds that Federal regulations fail to protect the most highly exposed population, children of color, because the government’s standards do not take into account children’s differential exposure to these toxins or the increasing nature of these exposures.

Also by virtue of their playing habits, such as playing close to the ground and playing outside, this gives them greater exposure to pollutants.  Poor inner-city children of color are more likely to suffer from lead poisoning than white inner-city children.  Children of color are more likely to suffer from asthma and have higher rates of cancer.

One could easily argue that Native Americans were the first victims of Environmental Racism, because they have been trying to protect their land from the ‘white man’ ever since that fateful day in 1492.  That day set off a series of events that have practically annihilated the indigenous people of the United States, and made them a mere smidgen of their once powerful nations.  Indian Nations are still being threatened with environmental racism.  Over the last few decades their communities are being sited as new dumping grounds of unwanted waste and their lands are being targeted as storage facilities for toxic substances produced outside their boundaries in other parts of the United States.  Native Americans, like most other racial minorities, have suffered disproportionately from environmental hazards, environmental degradation and environmental racism.  As regulations are making it harder to site toxic facilities, corporations and the government are at looking at, Native American lands, as potential dumping grounds to store their waste.  Over the last few decades Native lands have been targeted as storage facilities for toxic substances produced outside their lands in other parts of the country.

Some Indian Nations have been successful in reversing agreements for waste facilities and stopping dumping on their soil.  In 1990 Native American activist came together and formed what eventually became known as the annual “Protecting Mother Earth Conference” the activist later formed the grassroots environmental justice organization that later became known as the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

At the time of the conference a significant number of Native American communities were targeted for large toxic municipal and hazardous waste dumps and nuclear waste storage facilities.  Also some facilities that were currently located on Native lands were leaking and oozing out of the ground with toxic poisons.  The conference and the organization was established to find ways to protect native land, sacred sites, the health of the native people, the over all environment and to build economically sustainable communities.

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