Minority groups fight environmental racism
October 24, 2002
Washington --- Asthmatic children with oxygen tanks and hazardous waste dumps in minority communities are among the ills that Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University and other leaders in the environmental justice movement want to fix.
That is why Bullard and his fellow advocates have organized the largest environmental justice gathering in more than a decade. About 1,000 academicians, activists, scientists and students began meeting Wednesday in the nation's capital to figure out how to press the federal government to provide a clean, safe environment for all races.
"There has to be some serious meeting and soul-searching," said Bullard, a member of the executive committee of the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. "No community deserves to live with the anxiety or the fear of the unknown."
Bullard is executive director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta. He and activists ranging from the California farm country to west Harlem, N.Y., are meeting to come up with a plan they will present to the federal government and the public Saturday for addressing environmental problems.
For instance, they say, asthma is the No. 1 reason children go to emergency rooms. Natural gas buses stop nowhere near America's minority communities. And hazardous waste facilities often are targeted for historic African-American towns founded in the South by former slaves.
The problem is not so much that new laws are needed but that the current laws are not being enforced, Bullard said. In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order reinforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and calling for better ways to assess environmental impacts on and collect data from minority communities.
Yet in the last several years, the organizers complain, the Environmental Protection Agency has ruled in favor of not one plaintiff making an environmental justice claim.
"Nothing that has happened has fundamentally changed what's happening on the ground," said Damu Smith of the National Black Environmental
The South has been uniquely affected by the discrepancies, Bullard said. In fact, he said, the movement began in the South, with the sanitation workers' strike that drew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in 1968. Workers were demanding safer working conditions.
"It is not by accident that the South gave birth to the civil rights movement; it is not by accident that the South gave birth to the environmental justice movement," Bullard said. "There's a direct correlation between the exploitation of land and the exploitation of people."
For instance, he said, the largest hazardous waste landfill in the country is in an Alabama town that is 95 percent African-American and sits in the heart of the Black Belt. No African-Americans are on the planning board for the surrounding county, which is 75 percent black.
"That's apartheid," Bullard said.
The purpose of the conference by the environmental justice movement, or EJ movement, as the advocates call it, is to let the public know they exist.
The last such gathering took place in 1991. But since then, the American landscape has changed. The war on terrorism has posed new challenges, the advocates say.
Many of the refineries and factories that could be the potential targets of terrorist attacks are in minority communities, Beverly Wright said. Wright is chairwoman of the summit and is executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Orleans.
"This is a double whammy here," Wright said. "We're more at risk, and we receive less support from our government."
Some positive changes have occurred in the past 10 years. Advocates have formed environmental justice centers at four historically black colleges, for instance. The center at Clark Atlanta is national in scope.
Environmental data is collected by race. The EPA has regional offices focusing on environmental justice. Federal programs train people in minority communities on how to clean up hazardous waste in their own communities. And more people belong to the movement.
"I hope to see our movement come together and celebrate the last 10 years and take note of the fact that we've accomplished a lot with very meager resources," Bullard said.
"That celebration is nothing more than a reaffirmation that, if we set our minds to it, we can do anything."