Activists use research to win pollution battles
By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — The buses idle along 146th Street, the faint
smell of diesel exhaust in the air. The weathered brick bus depot sits across
the street from day care and recreation centers for seniors and children.
Millicent Redick raised a son and daughter here in Harlem, across
the street from the city's Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot. She recalls how they
both suffered from eczema and asthma. "I was always led to believe that
I had to keep the dust out of my apartment, so I cleaned all the time,"
says Redick, 61, a retired accountant. "But I was never informed that
the air we were breathing played a role. … I thought it was all me."
Then she learned of connections between pollution and asthma
attacks, and cleaning up the air became her new mission. "I've always
felt strongly that no matter where I live, I have a right to everything every
other community has," she says. "That's what I fought for."
Five of Manhattan's six bus depots are north of 96th Street.
The struggle by residents and activists against that concentration is one
of many environmental battles being waged around the nation in a campaign
to improve the health and safety of poor and minority communities.
"People are not … taking the poison quietly,"
says Robert Bullard, director of Clark Atlanta University's Environmental
Justice Resource Center and author of the book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class,
and Environmental Quality. "Over the last decade or so, not only do you
have communities fighting, but they also have developed alliances and coalitions
with scientists and lawyers and economists."
Neighborhood activists from California to Washington, D.C.,
are using a growing body of research on how pollutants exacerbate illness
to block the building of facilities, relocate residents from contaminated
communities and gain other concessions from large firms.
"One of the problems with all environmental struggles,
but particularly when you have the overlay of environmental racism, is the
community always has the burden of proof of harm," says Elizabeth Crowe,
an organizer with the Kentucky Environmental Foundation in Berea, Ky. Now,
"we have much more definitive information as to how bad this stuff is.
… So the science is catching up to the experiences of folks on the ground,
and it helps prove the point."
Among recent developments:
•A group in Port Arthur, Texas, signed an agreement on Nov. 6 with Motiva Enterprises under which the oil company will pour up to $3.5 million into the impoverished neighborhood as it expands a refinery there. The money will help fund new local businesses.
•A plan to build a nuclear waste storage facility on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation in Utah was scuttled in September by the federal Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agencies were concerned that it would have a negative impact on the reservation, says attorney Paul EchoHawk, who represented tribal members opposing the project.
•From Sept. 24 to Oct. 1, representatives of more than 70 social justice and human rights groups toured the nation by bus caravan, visiting communities where residents face health problems associated with pollution.
High asthma rates
Upper Manhattan's bus depots, many of them former trolley barns, have been around for nearly a century. The New York City Council's transportation committee held a hearing in October on the concentration of bus depots in Harlem, which has the city's highest rate of asthma hospitalizations for children 14 and younger, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The department says diesel particulates have been proved to worsen asthma.
"We think (the depots are) very, very responsible for the
high asthma rates in the community," says Kizzy Charles-Guzman, policy
coordinator of the group WE ACT for Environmental Justice. "It goes beyond
air quality. … It's also quality of life impact. You have constant noise
and vibrations from the buses, and we also have sanitation truck depots and
sewage treatment facilities. … We're not necessarily saying let's shut
down the depots and move them all over the city, but if all the clean buses
the (bus agency) claims to have in the fleet were assigned to these particular
depots, that would help."
MTA New York City Transit, which operates 4,489 buses, says
it is dealing with pollution. "No one has done more to improve air quality
than New York City Transit," spokesman Charles Seaton says. "We
have more than 350 hybrid electric buses on the road. … And the majority
of them are in depots in Upper Manhattan."
The environmental justice movement took root in the South in the early 1980s, when activists, church leaders and residents complained that toxic waste sites and other polluters often were located in poor and black neighborhoods. Their protests merged the struggle for a clean environment with that of civil rights.
Winning environmental justice cases in court has become more
difficult since a 2001 Supreme Court decision increased the legal burden for
those filing suit under the 1964 Civil Rights Act by requiring proof of intentional
discrimination, Bullard says.
Analyzing the location of many landfills, chemical plants and
highways, Bullard says, "you have to ask is this random or patterns that
follow historically the path of least resistance? … If you don't have
a lot of resources in terms of money, experts, lawyers and political leaders
to divert those things, you are going to get (them)."
Ted Cromwell, senior director of security and operations for
the American Chemistry Council, which represents leading U.S. chemical firms,
says businesses don't target certain communities.
"In the vast majority of situations, chemical plants have
been in place for many, many years," Cromwell says. Since the late 1980s,
emissions from group members' factories have dropped more than 75%, he says.
"It's not so much plants being sited in these communities as it is communities
building up around them and over time the demographics change."
Some activists see progress. Companies increasingly are trying
to create safer products, says Crowe of the Kentucky foundation. "What
community organizers look for is … steps forward."
Resolution in Texas
In the Port Arthur case, Hilton Kelley says the agreement he and his organization, Community In-Power and Development Association (CIDA), reached with Motiva is "a significant victory" for his neighborhood.
"We found out it would be difficult to stop the (refinery)
expansion, but we were able to negotiate some things for our community's well-being
and for our economic stability," Kelley says.
Kelley and his group had challenged Motiva's application to
increase the production capacity of its refinery from 275,000 to 600,000 barrels
of crude a day. Motiva now has agreed to provide air- pollution monitors and
other controls. It also will help finance a local health clinic to offset
the medical expenses of residents and supplement services for the diagnosis
and treatment of asthma and other respiratory ailments in children.
Extensive pollution controls at the facility were planned before
the community challenge, says Rick Strouse, a refinery manager. However, "CIDA
had some concerns. I think we've resolved them."
Fight goes on in Harlem
In New York City, concerns remain over the buses in Harlem.
"This is first and foremost a health issue that is important to the residents and children of Harlem," says City Councilman John Liu, who heads the committee that held the hearing. "Secondly, it's a simple matter of honest accountability."
Redick, who has lived in her Harlem apartment for 38 years,
says neighbors living closest to the depot entrance never "can open their
She has also noticed the cough her 4-year-old granddaughter develops when she visits — which disappears once she returns home. So Redick fights on.
"I have a right to walk down the street," she says,
"and see flowers and trees and pretty buildings and people with smiles
on their faces."
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