VOICES FROM THE GRASSROOTS
The environmental justice movement is comprised largely of small, democratically run grassroots groups. Many of the groups may or may not have environment in their names. Nevertheless, they are truly environmental groups that are grounded in the community. It is also important to note that the vast majority of the grassroots groups are led by women-a significant deviation from the leadership of national environmental groups.
Most people of color activists were pressed into duty because of environmental threats to their family, home, community, and workplace. With meager financial resources, grassroots groups have defied all odds. They have stayed together, persevered, and in many instances, won their battle. The groups are also sharing their stories, tactics, strategies, and resources with other groups facing similar up-hill struggles.
The vignettes in this section typify the work of grassroots environmental justice groups- individuals who are on the front line of the environmental justice movement. From New York to Los Angeles and many communities in between, poverty and racism place millions of Americans in double jeopardy. From the wilderness areas of Alaska to the beaches of Puerto Rico, grassroots groups are fighting for just, healthy, and sustainable communities. They are demanding fair and equitable treatment in the application of environmental, health, employment, housing, transportation, and civil rights laws and regulations.
These stories provide thoughtful insights about the on-the-ground struggle for environmental and economic justice. For them, the environment is everything; where they live, work, play, go to school, worship, as well as the natural world. It is important that their stories be told. Similarly, it is important that their stories be told through the voices of those who are making history. A major environmental justice principle demands that people speak for themselves. The voices of these environmentalists need to be heard and respected. These voices are the heart and soul of the modern environmental movement. They provide a vision for the environmental movement in the new millennium.
Relocation from "Mount Dioxin", Margaret Williams
Black Farmers Win Racism Settlement against USDA, Gary Grant
Surviving Chicago's 'Toxic Doughnut', Hazel Johnson
St. James Citizens Defeat Shintech, Emelda West
The Color Purple and Land-Use Politics in East Austin, Susana R. Almanza and Sylvia Herrera
Tucsonians Fight for a Clean Environment, Rose Augustine
LA CAUSA, Carlos Porras
CANT Defeats Uranium Enrichment Plant, Roy Mardis
Native Americans and Environmentalists Derail Ward Valley Nuclear Dump, Philip M. Klasky
Transit Justice in West Harlem, Peggy Shepard
LA's Bus Riders Union Rolls over Transit Racism, Geoff Ray
Pesticides in the Barrio: The Case of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, Sarah J. Peisch
Environmental and Economic Justice for Immigrant Women Workers, Helen Sunhee Kim
Silicon Valley Workers Win Justice for Rodrigo Cruz, JoLani Hironaka
The War Against Military Toxics in Alaska, Pamela K. Miller
Environmental Justice Leaders Plead Their Case at the United Nations, Margie Richard
Relocation from "Mount Dioxin"
I am a retired Pensacola, Florida schoolteacher. For the past five years my community has been involved in a campaign to get our residents relocated from the environmental and health hazards posed by the nation's third largest Superfund site, the Escambia Wood Treating site. The Escambia Treating Company (ETC) Superfund site is located in a mixed industrial and residential area in north central Pensacola, Florida. The poisonous chemicals released from the site may have been responsible for more than 40 deaths due to cancer.
The Escambia Treating Company operated from 1943 to 1982, using creosote and pentachlorophenol (PCP) to treat wood for use as utility poles and foundation pilings. Few environmental precautions were taken. Wastes were placed in an unlined landfill, in an unlined containment pond, and in unlabeled drums. Former workers tell us that the treatment cylinders (pressure cookers used to saturate the wood with pentachlorophenol) would sometimes fly open, releasing hundreds of gallons of toxic solution; they tell of being sent to pump out creosote and PCP which had pooled in yards north of the plant after heavy rains flooded the waste ponds and to distribute sand over the contaminated areas.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data confirms that dangerous levels of dioxins have migrated into some residents yards. The elevation of the site, which is more than 60 feet above much of downtown Pensacola, and conditions during the plant's operation suggest that storm water runoff often carried contaminants well beyond the closest residential neighborhoods.
Ceasing operations in 1982, the plant was abandoned and left in great disarray. The plant had leaking drums, a lab full of broken equipment and open containers, an overturned electrical transformer, and crumbling asbestos insulation around a boiler. It also left soil, sludge, and groundwater contamination from 40 years of wood preserving activities. By the mid-eighties, the extent of the contamination was becoming obvious and the site was abandoned through bankruptcy in 1991.
The Escambia Treating site was dubbed "Mount Dioxin" because of the 60-feet high mound of contaminated soil dug up from the neighborhood. The contaminated mountain of dirt was covered with a black plastic wrap. The L-shaped mound holds 255,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with dioxins, one of the most dangerous compounds ever made.
Citizens Against Toxic Exposure or CATE, a neighborhood organization formed to get relocation, went into battle with the U.S. EPA officials over a relocation plan. CATE demanded a total relocation of all residents in the impacted neighborhood. On the other hand, EPA first proposed to move only 66 households most affected by the site. After prodding from CATE, the EPA then added 35 more households for a total cost of $7.54 million.
The original government plan called for some 257 households, including an apartment complex, to be left out. CATE refused to accept any relocation plan unless everyone was moved. The partial relocation was tantamount to partial justice. CATE took its campaign on the road to the EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council or NEJAC. The group was successful in getting the EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) Waste Subcommittee to hold a Superfund Relocation Roundtable in Pensacola. At this meeting, CATE's total neighborhood relocation plan won the backing of more than 100 grassroots organizations. The EPA nominated the Escambia Treating Superfund site as the country's first pilot program to help the agency develop a nationally consistent relocation policy that would consider not only toxic levels but also welfare issues such as property values, quality of life, health and safety.
On October 3, 1996, EPA officials agreed to move all 358 households from the contaminated site at an estimated cost of $18 million. EPA officials deemed the mass relocation as "cost efficient" after city planners decided to redevelop the area for light industry rather than clean the site to residential standards. This decision marked the first time that an African American community had been relocated under EPA's giant Superfund program. It was hailed as a landmark victory for environmental justice.
As of November 1999, some families have successfully negotiated purchase prices for their property and are moving into homes in uncontaminated neighborhoods. Many, however, are feeling pressured to accept inadequate compensation for their homes and to settle for shabby or even unsafe replacement homes. The EPA had agreed to discount the presence of the Escambia Treating Company site in the appraisals but is refusing to make the appraisals available to the homeowners. Low buyout offers indicate that the neighborhoods' industrial setting, nearby sources of pollution, and racial segregation are affecting valuations.
Homeowners who have already moved for health reasons are being financially penalized. And, upkeep for contaminated (therefore non-credit worthy) homes by (often ill) owners is being unfairly reflected in buyout offers which should fund replacement housing. CATE is eager to see the relocation process completed, but the group is also determined that residents receive enough to acquire equivalent (but safe) homes without financial loss. CATE intends to prevent any cleanup activities before all are relocated and to be sure the remediation protects public health from all possible routes of exposure. Meanwhile, the condition of the cover on "Mt. Dioxin" is a very critical concern, not only for the relocation neighborhoods, but also for the rest of Pensacola.
CATE will continue to be actively involved in ETC cleanup sites, which have profound importance for area surface water and drinking water sources, and in seeking health treatment for exposed residents, especially preventive care.
Margaret Williams is a founding member of the Pensacola-based Citizens Against Toxic Exposure community based organization.
Black Farmers Win Racism Settlement against USDA
The federal government created the Freedmens Bureau in the 1860s to provide assistance to former slaves. It also promised the former slaves parcels of land and the loan of a federal government mule to work the land. The federal government never lived up to its promise of a forty acres and a mule. Nevertheless, some African American farmers were able to buy or lease parcels of land under these programs. However, during Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, many of the powers and activities of the Freedmens Bureau were dismantled and much of the land that had been leased to black farmers was taken away and returned to Confederate loyalists.
Despite open hostility, racial discrimination, and institutional racism practiced inside and outside of government, African American farmers were able to amass an impressive amount of farmland holdings. By 1910, they owned over 16 million acres of farmland. By 1920, there were 925,000 African American farmers. In 1999, African American farmers numbers dwindled to less than 17,000 and less than 3 million acres of land.
Racial discrimination practiced against African American farmers was never eradicated. In 1997, African American farmers brought a lawsuit against the USDA charging it with discrimination in denying them access to loans and subsidies. The lawsuit was filed in August 1997 on behalf of 4,000 of the nations 17,000 black farmers and former farmers. A Consent Decree was signed in January 1999. On March 2, 1999, a fairness hearing was held on the proposed settlement. The case was settled and the judge filed the final order on April 14, 1999. The estimated cost of the settlement ranges from $400 million to more than $2 billion.
I am a resident of Tillery, North Carolina and a plaintiff in the black farmers lawsuit. I am also president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association or BFAA. My family was forced out of farming in 1991. In April 1999, a federal judge ruled in favor of the black farmers. It was a bittersweet victory. Sweet in the fact that we did succeed in the courts, having the USDA admit to discrimination and being certified as a class. Bitter in the fact that I still believe that this consent decree will ensure the demise of black farmers in two to five years. First of all, there is nothing in the document that returns land to us. In addition, there is nothing in the document that will pay off debt that has been incurred because of racist actions of USDA officers. Many of the farmers no longer owe the USDA but owe private lenders. If their property is freed up, then the private lender will be able to come after it with less reserve.
The settlement follows basically a two-track process. Track A is the track that will allow a farmer to go after $50,000 and have his or her debt written off. Track B is where a farmer provides records of bias from 1983-97, the period covered in the settlement. Black farmers have to prove with a preponderance of the evidence their case of discrimination. This will allow them to collect money from damages as well as to have debt written off to collect money for what they lost in not being able to farm. Track B would add up to more than $50,000. Getting into track B is just entirely too cumbersome for farmers to prove the discrimination in the atmosphere where racism ruled the day and people reacted based on their knowledge and understanding of how you act when racism is prevalent.
I really think that most of the farmers will be accepting the $50,000. It is virtually impossible to describe what people have been through and what most folk are saying. Most of them just want the USDA out of their lives. When you hear the horror stories that people have to tell, you can understand why. Also, most of them have already been driven out of farming. They have lost their livelihood and a way of life. Once again, the government is asking the A victims to prove discrimination. The burden of proof is on black farmers instead of the lawbreakers. That is not fair. That is not just. But, thats the American way. The government records are filled with examples of black farmers who were systematically treated differently from white farmers. Black farmers were routinely given less money for the same land than white farmers were. They were also denied access to programs that aided white farmers. These were common practices. Fifty thousand dollars is not a lot of money. We are talking about a small business stolen, peoples jobs, credit ratings, livelihoods ruined, their life savings and investments taken, and their spirits broken. No amount of money can repay the pain and suffering inflicted on black farmers. I wonder how much money the government would have offered us if we were white.
We have no guarantees. The government refused to put into the settlement document a clause that said it would enforce its civil rights policies. This means that they wont have a watchdog over them. Many of the farmers are displeased and frustrated. The farm advocate groups are most disturbed that for the long term there is nothing in the document that really helps us out. There is nothing in this document that guarantees that this kind of racism will not occur again within the USDA. To my knowledge, none of the USDA agents who perpetrated this injustice have been terminated. As a matter of fact, nobody was fired that I know of and some of them are getting promotions.
My community, Tillery, is a New Deal Resettlement community established in the 1940s. The federal government bought 18,000 acres of former plantation land and divided it up into 40 to 80-acre tracts and made it possible for black people to purchase that land. The black landowners have been the thorn in the side of the political power in Halifax County, North Carolina ever since because we have not been dependent on them for our survival. Through our struggle, weve managed to save most of the land. Now the population of Halifax is about 52 percent African American and the community of Tillery is 99 percent African American. We still probably own 90 percent of the land. However, white farmers are farming 98 percent of it.
Tillery had over 300 black farmers in the 1950s. Today, it has none. My family has been in foreclosure for 23 years and we continue to raise that issue. I am part of the class action because the USDA denied me the opportunity to assume my fathers debt and to continue to operate our farm. My nieces and nephews have grown up in that 23 year time with a very bitter taste in their mouths and hearts about farming because they have seen the toll taken on my father and mother and my brother and his wife. We are not sure that any of them will enter farming. We are not even encouraging them that strongly, but it has brought us together much closer to the understanding of the power of the land.
Land ownership has to be a major theme that takes the African American community into the 21st century. As a people, we must understand the value and the power of land ownership. One generation removed from slavery, black folks were able to acquire more than 16 million acres of farmland. We have nearly lost it all. This land has been in my family for 52 years, and another tract that was in jeopardy has been in my family for about 100 years. The only power there really is in this country is land ownership, which produces economics, which is the green stuff. Even to have money you have to own land first, so that the money has somewhere to be produced from. The constitution and the founding fathers believed that if you were not a member, if you were not a landowner, you could not run for office, and if you were not a landowner you could not vote. The lessons of the land have been there every since the beginning. African Americans just seem to have problems with understanding and connecting to it. Also, as we lose this land no one is asking what happens to it and that is where we can also bring in the issue of environmental racism and environmental injustice. On much of this land is where polluting industries are being set.
We were successful in keeping our case in court only because of the strong evidence pointing to racism practiced and condoned by USDA. It was time for America to come to grips with the ugly face of racism. America needs to know that a group of people was wronged. We were not satisfied with the January 1999 proposed settlement. On March 2, 1999, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman held a fairness hearing to amend the lawsuit settlement. We brought close to 500 black farmers to Washington D.C. We overflowed two federal courtrooms. At that time, we had an opportunity to present to the judge our differences with the consent decree that had been filed. After that hearing, Judge Friedman made 14 recommendations based on what he heard in the courtroom that day. Our attorneys and the government attorneys only accepted four of those with a great modification and those four would not impact the actual actions of the consent decree.
I think the first lesson is the continuing fact that institutional racism is alive and well in this country. Black people still have to fight like hell to enjoy the rights that whites take for granted. I think the real lesson lies in what we can do as a people if we really will come together. Our case proved that we do have some political power. We got the statue of limitations set aside. We learned quickly that the media is largely controlled and our images manipulated in the headlines to suit the stereotypes of white people. Finally, it became clear that the African American community does not understand the real value and power of black landowners and black farmers. This is true for many of our black churches, civil rights organizations, political groups, colleges and universities, and professional associations. For the most part, we did not have a whole lot of mass support from the 40 million African Americans.
Black farmers have produced more professional people than any other area of our society. We still are not getting widespread support from the black community. When you say black farmer and ask someone what image comes to mind, many will see a dirty, ignorant, barefoot, uneducated person. Many blacks see the stereotype. They dont understand that the black farmer has been a mathematician, a scientist, a meteorologist, a doctor, a veterinarian, and even a lawyer. Until we are able to destroy that stereotype, black farmers will always be misunderstood and unappreciated by our professional people.
First, I would like black institutions and black people to believe that black farmers know what is needed. Second, I would also like them to contribute financially, morally, physically, and spiritually. Third, we need to begin a massive education program with our children on the importance of owning land. The historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and especially the Land Grant schools, need to get on board. The black farmers struggle was a wake up call, and some of our institutions are still asleep. Our struggle challenged the plantation system. Many of our brothers and sisters do not want to stand up anymore and take a stand. Our land grant universities need to design outreach and research that encourage their students to work with black farmers and the black community.
This country has not had to listen to black farmers because the black community has not said we are worth saving. I dont believe any of us will survive and progress unless we can come together around the central issue of the survival of black farmers. It is imperative that we maintain land ownership so we can make sure our food supply is not poisoned. Land ownership is economic power, political power, and is the only avenue that we really have to ensure our children a legacy.
Gary Grant is president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association and lives in Tillory, North Carolina.
Surviving Chicagos Toxic Doughnut
I am a mother of seven children and nine grandchildren. I have been a resident of the Altgeld Gardens community for 37 years. Altgeld Gardens is a public housing development located on the Southeast side of Chicago. I became a community representative, taking children on field trips to the amusement park and other places, during the summer months. I volunteered at the local parent school council and was elected to the Altgeld Local Advisory Council.
I started People for Community Recovery (PCR) in 1979. It was started as a group of women organizing on environmentally-related health problems in this community. PCR was incorporated October 25, 1982. Our organization is one of the first African American grassroots community-based environmental organizations in the Midwest. Our mission is to address multiple exposures to harmful toxins and pollutants surrounding public housing. For the past 20 years, I have been active in environmental issues in my community and other communities of color around the country. I got involved in environmental issues while watching the news and learned that the Southeast side of Chicago had the highest incidence of cancer of any community in the city.
Later, I connected with the city and state health departments. These agencies mailed me many reports on environmental problems in Southeast Chicago. PCR conducted its own land use survey of the neighborhood. We began knocking on my neighbors doors asking them to fill out the health survey. We learned that people were suffering with severe health problems, including asthma, cancer, skin rashes, kidney and liver problems. To no ones surprise, we found alarming patterns. The Southside neighborhood, Altgeld Gardens in particular, was surrounded by all kinds of polluting industries, landfills, incinerators, smelters, steel mills, chemical companies, paint manufacturing plants, and a municipal sewage treatment facility. My neighborhood is also surrounded by more than 50 abandoned toxic waste dumps. We live in a toxic doughnut.
Despite poor environmental conditions in our community, this did not discourage our group from wanting to learn more about the environmental conditions and the possible impact on residents health. PCR began organizing residents to get the neighborhood cleaned up and treated fairly. For the past decade, we pressured corporate polluters, the city, and state officials to make them aware of their negligence and make them accountable. It has not been easy going up against the giant corporations, but we are fighting a life-and-death struggle. Through perseverance and dedication, we have successfully brought the needed attention to the environmental issues in Southeast Chicago. We have to fight for our children. We have educated ourselves on environmental issues and the health threats from nearby polluting industry. We have not waited for government to come in and determine the cause of our illnesses. We may not have Ph.D. degrees, but we are the 147;experts on our community.
In 1992, PCR undertook its own health survey of 825 Altgeld Gardens' residents. We were joined by volunteers from the University of Illinois School of Public Health (designed the survey instrument), Clareitian Medical Clinic (conducted training of interviewers), and St. James Hospital, (designed of the graphs). Their goal was to follow up on the long-standing anecdotal evidence of health problems. The results of the survey were no surprise. In addition to heightened risks of troubled pregnancies, the survey revealed a high incidence of chronic pulmonary disease, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Thirty-two percent of men and 20 percent of the women surveyed had asthma. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed indicated that they experienced health problems that disappeared when they left Altgeld Gardens. More than 37 percent of the respondents cited noxious odor when asked to comment generally on their most common complaint.
The environmental justice work that we started in Chicago has allowed me to testify before Congress and meet two Presidents of the United States. Our group has sponsored toxic tours of the community with dignitaries from around the world. We have hosted two environmental conferences. We are often asked to speak at universities and colleges, at workshops and training programs about urban environmental pollution and racism. Our environmental justice work has kept us busy. More importantly, it has paid off.
PCRs organizing efforts persuaded the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Board of Education to remove asbestos from the homes and schools in Altgeld Gardens. We assisted elderly tax-paying residents of Maryland Manor, another Chicago housing development, in getting water and sewage services. Our group also shut down a nearby hazardous waste incinerator and fought to get a comprehensive health clinic in the southside neighborhood.
PCR along with other people of color grassroots groups took their struggle to the Rio Earth Summit where they were joined in solidarity with other brothers and sisters around the world who are experiencing similar environmental and economic injustices. It did not take me long to realize that the environmental, economic, and health problems in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro looked a lot like the problems in my Southside Chicago neighborhood.
Our organization is growing and maturing, and we are still learning. In 1992, PCR was a recipient of the Presidents Environmental and Conservation Challenge medal, the nations highest environmental award. That was a great honor. However, the biggest award and honor I could get from government officials right now is for them to do the right thing, by making the polluters clean up their act on the Southside.
PCR has formed alliances and coalitions with national environmental and civil rights organizations as well as other local grassroots environmental groups. We see ourselves as an integral part of the environmental and economic justice movement. Poor people and people of color must empower themselves to become politically active. Everything is political. We must learn how fight for environmental justice at home and abroad. No one will save our communities but us.
Hazel Johnson is the founder of People for Community Recovery and a resident of Chicagos Altgeld Garden.
St. James Citizens Defeat Shintech
My home, community, and environment are under siege from industrial polluters who have turned the 85-mile stretch along the Lower Mississippi River into a toxic wasteland. From my home in Convent, Louisiana, located on the winding Mississippi River Road, I have witnessed my community undergo a transformation from sugar cane plantations to one heavily dominated and devastated by the petrochemical industry.
Convent is an unincorporated community in St. James Parish. More than 80 percent of Convent residents are African Americans. Over 2,000 people live in Convent. The community gets its name from the Convent of Sacred Heart, a catholic school for the daughters of plantation owners that existed in the 1800s. St. James Parish was established on March 31, 1807 and was one of the first 19 parishes in the state. During that time, the chief economic source in St. James was agriculture developed by slave labor. Today, there are just a few sugar cane fields and the sites of many of the old plantations are now occupied by industrial facilities. The plantation system has been replaced with industrial plants.
St. James Parish is located in the center of Louisianas infamous Cancer Alley, an area of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Over the years, I have heard dozens of companies moving into my community promising jobs to local residents. Many of my neighbors could actually walk to work because the plants are so close to their homes. However, few community African American Convent residents are actually hired. The community has an extremely high unemployment rate. The average annual income of local residents is only $6,000. Over 40 percent of the population of Convent live below the poverty line.
More than 130 petrochemical facilities release over 70 percent of all the toxic pollution in the state, which totals 17,585,979 pounds annually. There are 17 industrial facilities in St. James Parish that are responsible for this high pollution level. On the northern border of St. James Parish is Ascension Parish--the number one parish in the state for the highest release of toxic pollution (51.5 million pounds annually).
Nearly half of the 17 million pounds of toxic pollution in St. James Parish comes from four facilities. These facilities are the biggest polluters in the parish and all operate within three miles of Convent residents: IMC-Agrico-Faustina, IMC-Agrico-Uncle Sam, Star Enterprise (now Motiva), and Chevron Chemical.
Today, the Mississippi River is so polluted that the fish is not safe to eat. Although our drinking water comes from the Mississippi River, residents who can afford to buy bottled water and install filters do so. However, this added expense places a hardship on the regions low-income residents. Industrial pollution has also kept many of us from gathering fruits and planting vegetable gardens. These losses have created more poverty because we are now forced to rely solely on wage income in a community with high unemployment.
In addition to toxic pollution released every day, we have no protection against chemical accidents. There are 36 residential streets in Convent that are within three miles of six industrial plants. All of these streets are narrow dead end streets. Evacuation is a problem because there is usually only one way in and one way out of these streets that are poorly paved and not much wider than a vehicle. Because the streets are so narrow, several trailer homes have burned because the fire trucks were too wide for the streets and could not be driven to the trailer homes. We have a volunteer fire department. Volunteers have to leave their jobs in order to respond to an emergency.
We are very concerned about the children who attend our two elementary schools, Romeville Elementary School on the east bank and Fifth Ward Elementary on the West Bank. Romeville is less than a mile away from Zen Noh grain elevator, and both schools are within three miles of most of the largest industrial polluters in the parish. Each school has more than 300 mostly African American students. School buses pass by several plants twice a day. Our children, who live and go to school in Convent, are exposed to the industrial pollution on a daily basis. They are also threatened by the risk of a chemical accident.
St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment was formed in the home of Mr. & Mrs. Clifford Roberts in September 1996. Before the organization was formed, I received a phone call from Mrs. Pat Melancon informing me that Shintech Inc. had proposed to purchase the last three plantations in Convent (Wilton, St. Rose, and Helvetia) consisting of 3,500 acres. The land was needed for the proposed Shintech Complex. The addition of this complex would contribute 600,000 more pounds of airborne toxins to the area and discharge over six million gallons of wastewater into the Mississippi River on a daily basis.
The grassroots struggle against Shintech began with a community organization, made up of working poor residents from a town in the industrially devastated St. James Parish. The St. James Parish residents, mainly African-Americans, decided to use the courts to block the Shintech Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese multinational, from constructing a $700 million polyvinyl chloride plant in their community. Polyvinyl chloride is associated with the production of dioxin, considered one of the most lethal synthetic chemicals known.
I joined the struggle against the Japanese company because environmental justice in Convent was long overdue. The Shintech struggle was an environmental justice case because African Americans and poor people in Convent would be disproportionately impacted by the plant siting. The confrontation between the community and Shintech took on an added dimension when Louisiana Governor Foster became involved. Governor Foster criticized the communitys efforts to block Shintech, charging them with undermining his administrations efforts to bring economic development to poor communities in the state.
The community argued that despite the Governors good intentions, they did not want the pollution. They also pointed to the fact that they were not given a guarantee that St. James residents would be used to fill those jobs. The residents cited previous industrial development efforts that did not result in jobs for the local community. The governor expressed his determination to see the Shintech project go through. The St. James residents, unable to afford private legal counsel, sought the services of Tulane Universitys Environmental Law Clinic, the only environmental law clinic in the state and one of only two in the South.
Local residents concentrated their efforts on addressing environmental racism. Since the mid-1980s, environmental and civil rights activists have charged that polluting industries have deliberately selected poor communities of color for their operations. The lower Mississippi River corridor (between New Orleans and Baton Rouge) is home of a heavy concentration of industrial waste dumpsites, chemical factories, landfills, industrial waste incinerators, grain elevators, and a host of other hazards.
President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 in 1994. The Shintech case was a litmus test of the Clinton Administrations policy, indicating to the nation how strenuously the administration intends to enforce its ban on environmental racism. The relentless community pressure forced the EPA to conduct its own equity analysis. The community did not rely on the government for its information. Professor Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University conducted an independent study for the Convent residents.
The heroes of the struggle are individual leaders who live in communities in Cancer Alley. They stood with us and never gave up. These leaders included black and white residents working together. Community activists such as Pat Melancon, Dee Simmons, Gloria Roberts, and Amos Favorite kept the issue on the communitys radar. We also had assistance from attorneys and environmental advocates such as Bob Kuehn of Tulane and Mary Lee Orr of Louisiana Environmental Action Now (LEAN). We were able to galvanize national environmental (Greenpeace), civil rights (Commission for Racial Justice), entertainment (Bonnie Raitt, Danny Glover, Aaron Neville, Stevie Wonder), and political (Congressional Black Caucus) support around the Shintech struggle.
In June of 1998 after ongoing pressure by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the State Supreme Court, which regulates the states university law clinics, issued a highly controversial ruling seen as undermining the legal rights of working poor people in the state. The Supreme Courts ruling stated that university law clinics were now barred from representing community organizations unless 51 percent of its members are indigent (making less than $16,000/yr. for a family of four) or if the organization has an affiliation with a national organization.
Since most community organizations are not made up of a majority of indigent families, this ruling makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the working poor to obtain lawyers to defend themselves. In effect, this ruling blocks their access to the legal system. A huge outcry condemning the decision has been heard across the state from public interest lawyers and civil rights and environmental activists as well as from a variety of journalists and politicians. The decision was compared in the press to similar decisions made during the early civil rights era, which blocked the NAACP from bringing civil rights cases to court.
In Louisiana, as around the country, university law clinics are among the most common ways for working poor people to obtain legal representation. The student lawyers in these clinics, under the careful supervision of their law professors, represent persons and /or community organizations which otherwise would not be able to afford attorneys. Because the cases they bring have the potential to drag on for years, hiring private attorneys would cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Legal clinics have become essential to the ability of working poor people to go to court to defend their rights. They are now an essential component of American democracy, which safeguard and enhance the principle of equal protection under law.
In spite of the courts decision, the St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment continued the fight. In June 1998, a three-member delegation, two Louisiana residents (I was one of the delegates) and a Greenpeace representative, visited the Shintech Headquarters in Tokyo to submit protest documents. We accused Shin-Etsu Chemical Company of environmental racism. We argued that the industrial complex would pose a health hazard, exacerbating damage to an already overly polluted region.
On September 18, 1998, short of three years, Shintech withdrew its plan to build a polyvinyl chloride plastics plant in St. James Parish. This was a major victory for the citizens and the environmental justice movement. Environmental justice activists vowed to continue the fight to keep the plastics industry from expanding in Louisiana.
Emelda West is a 75-year-old great grandmother, environmental activists, and a long-time resident of Convent, Louisiana.
The Color Purple and Land-Use Politics in East Austin
Susana R. Almanza and Sylvia Herrera
PODER, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, was formed in May 1991 by a group of Chicana/o East Austin activists and community leaders. The goal of group is to increase East Austin residents participation in corporate and governmental decisions related to environmental hazards, economic development and their impacts on our neighborhoods. PODER has helped form neighborhood associations and coalitions to address injustices in our neighborhoods.
Janie Rangel, member of the Gardens Neighborhood Association lives with the daily indignities of recycled trash, coming from over 350,000 Austin residents. Mrs. Josephine Zamarripa, member of the Brooke Neighborhood Association, lives across the street from a warehouse that is sandwiched into a residential area and brings 18 wheelers into a designated school zone. Ms. Fidelina Rivera can step out into her yard and smell odors coming from the Tank Farm (a gasoline storage tank facility). Mr. Donley has to live with the noisy polluting Holly Power Plant adjacent to his neighborhood. Ms. Nola Chase lived with horrible odors coming from the Citys garbage truck facility.
These neighborhoods have one thing in common--the color purple that is used to designate industrial zoning by the City of Austin. East Austin has more than its fair share of the purple--land zoned for industrial uses. Although Austin, Texas has been promoted as a liberal city, it is like other cities with segregated communities and a variety of social, economic and environmental problems. Many of problems disproportionately impact low-income and people of color.
Austin completed its city plan in 1928. This plan has been the primary guide to the citys growth. The plan demonstrates why people in East Austin---primarily African Americans and Latinos--live next to hazardous industries. The plan designated East Austin as a Negro district in order to solve what was called the race segregation problem. East Austin was singled out as the industrial zoning district along with homes, schools, and parks for people of color. The 1928 plan became the blueprint for Austins first zoning map in 1931 and created East Austin as the dumping ground for hazardous industries.
Since it was formed, PODER has worked with many other community groups and residents to address various zoning, permitting, environmental and economic issues affecting East Austin. These issues include: revisions of the Citys enterprise zone/tax abatement ordinance, relocation of the Tank Farm, closure of the Citys garbage truck facility on Hargrave Street, relocation of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, establishment of a high-tech corridor adjacent to the Montopolis community, the relocation of the BFI recycling plant, permitting of the Balcones Recycling plant in the Hidalgo neighborhood, closure of the Holy Street Power Plant, and the development of a long-term solution to the industrial zoning problem in East Austin. It is clear that the core cause of these injustices in East Austin are discriminatory land use and economic development policies.
In November 1996, various East Austin community groups and neighborhood associations formed a network called El Pueblo (The Peoples Network) to change racist land policies that have plagued East Austin. El Pueblo began to meet with the City of Austins Environmental Board, Planning Commission and City Council members to address overdue zoning changes.
As a result on December 12, 1996, the Austin City Council passed two major landmark decisions: 1) An ordinance prohibiting acceptance of Commercial General Services (CS) or Commercial Liquor Sales (CS-1) within the East Austin area boundary (bounded by IH 35 on the west, east and north by Airport Boulevard, and south by Town Lake) for a period of 90 days, and 2) Directed the City Manager to undertake a zoning land-use study of the area boundaries.
PODER through EL Pueblo Network worked with City officials to establish a process by which to down-zone industrial sites in East Austin. PODER and El Pueblo scored a big victory when the City Council voted on July 17, 1997 to place a conditional overlay on selected industrial and commercial lots in East Austin that were part of the land-use study. This overlay is called the East Austin Overlay Combining District Ordinance (EAO). For the first time, dating back to the City Plan of 1928, East Austin neighborhood residents, registered neighborhood associations, and community groups must be notified any time certain industrial and commercial facilities seek to locate or expand their operation in East Austin. Residents now have a right to a public hearing process.
Even though the EAO was a major victory for the community, the residents realized that many other facilities were not covered under the ordinance and that amendments were needed. On April 15, 1999, at the urging of PODER and other community groups, the City Council approved a moratorium in East Austin on site development permits, building permits and other site plan exemptions until May 31, 1999 in order to amend the East Austin Overlay Combining District Ordinance.
On May 31, 1999, East Austin experienced another victory that has opened doors to a process and privilege that many Austin residents west of I-35 have always enjoyed. The EAO was amended to include additional commercial, industrial and civic land uses as conditional uses. A conditional use is a land use that is not approved administratively by City staff, but allowed on a discretionary and conditional basis by the Planning Commission or if appealed, the City Council. A public hearing must be held and a notice of the hearing sent to registered neighborhood associations and property owners within 300 feet of the property.
More importantly, is that due to the EAO, developers are realizing that they must invite area residents and community groups to sit at the table if they want to build or expand their businesses in East Austin. Residents are using the EAO to rollback unwanted sites in their neighborhood. East Austin residents are now beginning to enjoy a quality of life never experienced before the changing of the color purple.
Susana R. Almanza and Sylvia Herrera are the co-founders of PODER and live in East Austin.
Tucsonians Fight for a Clean Environment
For over 30 years, thousands of residents on Tucson's southside inhaled dangerous fumes, drank, bathed, and cooked in city well water laced with toxic chemicals, including the deadly trichloroethylene (TCE). In addition, thousands of employees of the Hughes Air Force Missile Plant No. 44, and the Tucson International Airport Authority (TIAA) drank heavily contaminated water in the work place.
TCE, an industrial solvent, was used by Hughes, TIAA, and other military defense contractors for their degreasing operations. It was later dumped in large volumes on the ground and in unlined industrial pits. The TCE seeped into the aquifer and created a toxic groundwater plume five miles long and two miles wide. The TCE migrated slowly and poisoned the well field that supplied water to a predominately Mexican-American population on the southside of Tucson.
The serious nature of the groundwater and soil contamination problem became the best kept secret in town by local officials, who feared this information would discourage future industry from locating in Tucson. Meanwhile, the plume continued to spread further north seriously jeopardizing wells in its path in other neighborhoods. In1982, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared a 30-square mile area on the southside a Superfund Site--forcing the city to close all TCE-tainted wells. The government refused to acknowledge the adverse health, environmental, socioeconomic effects. In 1985, neighborhood residents, former residents, and southside employees to formed Tucsonians for a Clean Environment (TCE) primarily to push for action in the area.
The community's reaction to the city's lack of concern for protection of public health in this Mexican-American barrio was a feeling of betrayal, anger, and frustration. The victims wanted the polluter to pay restitution for the injustice done to them and their families. In 1985, members of TCE initiated a class action personal injury lawsuit against Hughes and the City of Tucson insurance carriers. The lawsuit involved over 1600 plaintiffs. Six years later, Hughes settled out of court for $84.5 million. This was the largest settlement offered in U.S. history in a suit involving groundwater contamination.
This settlement was a bittersweet victory. However, it was a major accomplishment for a Chicano community to win in such a big way. One insurance carrier settled out of court in 1998 for $7.3 million, and the other two companies are expected to set a trial date in the early part of the year 2000. To determine who and how many citizens may be affected by the contamination, our group conducted a series of three meetings where we distributed and collected approximately 30,000 to 40,000 health survey forms of the local residents.
The number of people who supported our effort surprised everyone. As a result of the overwhelming public response, local and state officials designated funding to establish a clinic for toxics victims. Our group works and supports other groups locally, regionally and nationally. With support from the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), we managed to bring to Tucson the top officials from the federal EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to meet with the TCE community. ATSDR agreed at these meetings to provide an on-site coordinator, update the public health assessment, and to create a TCE Subregistry for Tucson residents. With support from SNEEJ, we also received an EPA Technical Assistance Grant for the community.
The TCE group has worked on nearly every environmental justice issue affecting the southside Tucson community. We have arranged meetings with the county assessor to explain the property tax system to southside property owners. We also protested against the practice of "redlining" the southside Superfund property by lending institutions. This action prompted the state of Arizona and the federal EPA to draft guidelines to protect home owners living in Superfund sites. We protested an air stripper that operated without emission control devises. The facility was built a few feet from several homes in the neighborhood. With support from the citizens in the area we managed to convince the city to shut it down.
We also organized the business community to fight the construction of a proposed pipeline. The pipeline was part of the remediation process for the Superfund cleanup. It would have transported TCE water to a nearby air stripper. The pipeline would have run down the main street where the small Chicano businesses are located. It would have disrupted many Chicano businesses during the two-year construction period.
Angry merchants, afraid they would lose their customers and businesses, marched together with neighbors and small business owners from other areas in Tucson in support of saving their livelihood. The EPA was not prepared for the business and community backlash. An agreement was made to reroute the pipeline to an area that would have the least impact on the people.
The struggles we have managed to win have not been easy and some have taken years to accomplish. I also have accepted the fact that some environmental justice issues will not be resolved in my lifetime. But no matter how long it takes, we must be consistent, persistent, and insistent in our struggle, otherwise people have a tendency to forget and history has a way of repeating itself.
Rose Augustine is the founder of Tucsonians for a Clean Environment and long-time environmental justice activist in the Southwest.
In 1996, Citizens for a Better Environments (CBE) Board voted to change its name from Citizens to Communities for a Better Environment in response to the racist scapegoating of immigrants in Californias Proposition 187. This proposition denied immigrants the right to medical and other social services. Proposition 187 also denied the children of undocumented parents the right to education, requiring the schools and health care providers to screen and report undocumented persons to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). CBE, a historically white organization, has now been taken over by people of color. People of color now comprise 60 percent of total staff, 80 percent of management, and 70 percent of the Board of Directors being people of color, including four Board members directly from the communities we organize.
The LA CAUSA (Los Angeles Comunidades Asambleadas Unidas para un Sostenible Ambiente) Project was conceived in 1994. The project was responding to residents of Huntington Park, a small city on the border of the City of Los Angeles, where a concrete and asphalt recycling business had moved in along the Alameda Corridor. In keeping with the organizing strategy of letting the community drive the issue, CBE assisted the community to develop and carry through an intervention campaign which led to the declaration of public nuisance of the operation.
The project was developed to build an environmental justice consciousness and awareness among the predominantly Latino communities along the northern portion of the Alameda Corridor, the most densely industrialized region in the country, and one of the most densely populated regions in the country. The residents of these communities are 85 to 98 percent Latino and a high percentage of recent immigrants of working class background.
Through funding support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS), CBE built a collaboration with the UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health in the School of Public Health, the Labor Occupational Safety and Health division of UCLAs Center for Labor Research and Education, and local health care providers.
The goals of LA CAUSA were to build awareness of environmental justice issues, develop leadership among grassroots activists, build a membership of activists, research cumulative exposures for the region, educate healthcare providers on environmental health risks and threats to public health, and to develop and implement a pollution prevention pilot project that would reduce the risk and health threats to residents of these communities.
Through the success of La Montana other communities have been inspired to challenge policy and land use decision-making among other Latino communities along the corridor. The LA CAUSA Project has responded to communities in Wilmington, Los Angeles, Pico Rivera, Bell Gardens and the City of Commerce, Walnut Park and currently developing campaigns in the Los Angeles area communities of Inglewood, Lennox, Hawthorne, Alhambra, Santa Fe Springs, Carson and Whittier. All have predominantly Latino and African American residents. The goal has now turned to creating a regional voice for environmental justice and health.
Through a multi-disciplinary approach of science, legal and organizing, the LA CAUSA Project has developed interventions in various communities that has led to the institutionalization of environmental justice at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). It has opened dialogue on policy issues that impact the four county air district regarding air toxics regulation, cumulative exposure policy, monitoring for toxic hot spots, and a critique of market incentive programs that may have adverse effects on communities of color.
This work is at the stage of developing a next level of organized voices among our regional members and having a true voice in regional planning and local solutions through active stakeholder participation. Already the White House Council on Environmental Quality has visited Los Angeles with various delegates of Federal agencies, including the USEPA, the Department of Justice, the Office of Civil Rights, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health and Human Services and various State and local agencies as well. Also, the community participation has led to the adoption of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Real benefits to these communities include the closing and clean up of the La Montana recycler, the relocation of two glass recyclers, with a negotiated engineering design for the new facility of one to capture the fugitive glass dust which was causing serious respiratory problems in the community. The community forced the federal EPA to close down an incinerator in Maywood and pressured the City of Carson not to renew the Conditional Use Permit of a facility that produces Methyl Bromide adjacent to homes.
Most currently in Bell Gardens, our work has focused on childrens health issues at public schools. Known as the SUVA LA CAUSA project. This project resulted from the death of a 14-year-old boy who attended Suva Elementary School and the familys fight for justice. This community struggle has now identified more than 25 students and former students, and six staff that have been struck down by cancer over the last eight years, as well as several other health problems like spontaneous miscarriages, birth defects, low birth weight and infant mortality. The schools playground is separated from the chrome plating facility by a chain linkfence. A decade ago, this facility was recorded to have the highest level of Hexavalent Chrome emissions to the air in the entire four counties of the South Coast Air Basin. The school district and the community were told it was not a problem by the agencies. Hexavalent Chrome is one of the most potent and toxic chemicals listed as a known cancer-causing agent.
Fighting against the resistance of the local school district, the school administration, the local health department, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the City of Bell Gardens, SUVA LA CAUSA forced an environmental investigation by the State of California Department of Toxic Substance Control which led to the clean up of contamination at the school and the closing of the chrome plating operations of the company and the requirement of the company to fully investigate the extent of contamination on its own property and the surrounding community in the soil and ground water.
With the support of the California Endowment to expand our collaborators, CBE is now working with Occidental College, Environmental Studies Department, the Latin American and Latino Studies department at UC Santa Cruz and Liberty Hill Foundation to build a regional voice for environmental justice through supporting and sustaining grassroots activism within CBEs own membership and with other activist organizations sprouting up to fight for environmental justice in the region.
Carlos is the Executive Director of Los Angeles-based Communities for a Better Environment.
CANT Defeats Uranium Enrichment Plant
There are horror movies people run to the theater to see. Some even return to watch them for a second time. But when I was asked to relive a nightmare of the struggle against Louisiana Energy Services (LES), it took some thinking about. In 1987, I returned home to Homer, LA, after living in Pasadena, CA for about twelve years. It felt good coming home to country life and southern hospitality. I thought I could relax once again.
Then it happened. News came concerning a new business coming to town. This new business promised to bring jobs for lots of people. Many local resident saw this as a blessing sent to our town that would help not only create jobs but appreciate our land values. Since 1989, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had under review a proposal from Louisiana Energy Services (LES) to build the nations first privately owned uranium enrichment plant. A national search was undertaken by LES, a consortium of companies formed to construct and operate a uranium enrichment plant near Homer, LA, to find the best site for a plant that would produce 17 percent of the nations enriched uranium. LES supposedly used an objective scientific method in designing its site selection process.
Different cities in the area questioned if they would be the lucky ones to have the site. In the Southern United States, the state of Louisiana and Claiborne Parish ended up being the dubious winners of the site selection process. This was too good to be true. However, the truth of what the Claiborne Enrichment Center had planned for our land, our water, our families, and our lives in general made it crystal clear that we were faced with danger. My family and neighbors began to fear this plant coming to town. We began to read and study about what was being planned for our community and how we could stop it.
The plant was proposed to be located along Parish Road 39 between two African American communities, just one quarter mile from Center Springs (founded in 1910) and one and one quarter mile from Forest Grove (founded in the 1860s just after slavery). The proposed LES plant is located in where over 58 percent of the African American population is below the poverty line. The parishs per capita income is only $5,800 per year (just 45 percent of the national average), compared with a national per capita earnings average of almost $12,800 per year.
The two African American communities were rendered invisible since they were not even mentioned in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) draft environmental impact statement. A clear racial pattern emerged during the national search and multi-stage screening and selection process. For example, African Americans comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 20 percent of the Southern states population, 31 percent of Louisianas population, 35 percent of Louisianas northern parishes, and 46 percent of Claiborne Parish. When LES completed its initial site cuts it reduced its list of sites from 78 to 37 within nine parishes (i.e. same as counties in other states), increasing the aggregate percentage of the black population from 28.35 percent to 36.78 percent. When LES further limited its focus to six sites in Claiborne Parish, the aggregate average percentage black population rose again to 64.74 percent. The final site selected, the LeSage site, had a 97.10 percent black population within a one mile radius.
Residents from Homer and the nearby communities of Forest Grove and Center Springs, two communities closest to the proposed site, challenged the site selection process and outcome. They organized themselves into a group called Citizens Against Nuclear Trash or CANT. A meeting was called and held at Forest Grove Church. Blacks and whites from the Claiborne Lake Community, and quite a few from the town of Homer, held a meeting together in Claiborne Parish to work together. CANT charged the LES and the NRC staff with practicing environmental racism. Only after intense public comments did the NRC staff attempt to address environmental justice and disproportionate impact implications as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and called for under Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898.
By now we had become friends of Nathalie Walker, a Sierra Club Legal Defense attorney (the group later changed its name to Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund), Damu Smith and other members of Greenpeace, Diane Curran, a Washington attorney, and Bob Bullard (who served as an expert witness on the case) of the Environmental Justice Resource Center. Sierra Club legal Defense Fund sued LES on our behalf.
As we learned the truth about the effect of such a plant, we shared it with anyone who would listen. We also placed articles in the newspaper. This was not easy because our neighboring town was sold on the idea that his plant was good for us. Most of the time, our struggle seemed hopeless. We met lots of brick walls at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We wondered why these governmental agencies would not block LES from coming to town. It seemed as though those who were supposed to take care of us and look out for our well being -- not only would not help us-- but also would not listen or look at our findings.
I can remember an attorney for LES invited me to lunch. His talked endlessly about what a good value my decision to sell family land and move and the money that could be made. After months and years of meetings, and coming in contact with others who supported our struggle against LES, we learned that we did have friends, people and organizations who would fight to the end with us. However, there was still little or no help from local officials.
Only after intense public comments did the NRC staff attempt to address environmental justice issues, disproportionate impact, and the implications of the proposed uranium enrichment plant as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898. NEPA required that the government consider the environmental impacts and weigh the costs and benefits of the proposed action. These included the health and environmental effects, the risk of accidental but foreseeable adverse health and environmental effects, and socioeconomic impacts.
In February 1994, President Clintons Executive order directed 17 federal agencies to address environmental justice and evaluate the policies and practices as they relate to minority and low income populations. While the president was signing this order, LES raced to get licensed. LES sponsored public hearings, and traveled to Washington and the White House. However, the momentum had shifted to CANT and its allies. Our voices were finally being heard inside and outside of government.
The Guardian Journal reported on March 7, 1997 that the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) rejected the construction permit and operating license application submitted by LES. As it turns out, LES failed to set aside sufficient funds to pay for the disposal of the 100,000 tons of radioactive and chemical waste the plant would generate. The waste disposal costs alone would cost the company more than $600 million over the plants 30-year lifetime, rather than the $485 million originally estimated by LES. The consortium had failed to take into account the cost of neutralizing hydrofluoric acid. CANT members greeted the victory with elation.
We finally learned how it feels to win a round in this fight. Shortly after this decision, on May 1, 1977, a three-judge panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety and Licensing Board issued an initial final decision on the case. The judges concluded racial bias played a role in the selection process. The judges in a 38-page written decision also chastised the NRC staff for not addressing the provision called for under Executive Order 12898. Our victory was heard around the world. A story in the London Sunday Times reported the environmental justice victory by declaring Louisiana Blacks Win Nuclear War. The precedent-setting federal court ruling came three years after President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898. The court decision was upheld on appeal on April 4, 1998.
Our coalition of CANT community leaders, lawyers, experts, and friends worked together for more than eight years to prevent LES from turning our homes into a radioactive nightmare and toxic waste dump. We proved to the world that working together, grassroots groups can win; even when the odds are stacked against them. Environmental racism had rendered our communities invisible (Forest Grove and Center Springs were not listed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement). The grassroots struggle for environmental justice proved that not only do Forest Grove and Center Springs exist, but also they along with their neighbors made their presence and voices heard when it counts.
Roy Mardis is the president of CANT and an elected representative on the Claiborne Parish Police Jury (similar to County Commissioner).
Native Americans and Environmentalists Derail Ward Valley Nuclear Dump
Philip M. Klasky
"These Tribes are the Indigenous People of this region and hold an extreme and solemn relationship with the Land, Animals and Water. The retention of culture, native language, traditions and land based reference areas prominent in native song and oral history is our main objective... from the Resolution of the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance.
Before sunrise, the slow beat of a drum drifts among the tents and trucks parked on an abandoned landing strip in a pristine desert valley. Sleepy campers emerge from their tents and shuffle over to a prayer circle where a persistent wind whips a small mesquite fire. As radiating streaks of light reach into the eastern sky, Corbin Harney, Western Shoshone spiritual leader, begins the five songs he must sing each morning before the sun rises. A diverse group of people -- Indians, activists, elders, city folk and locals -- holding hands in a circle around the fire grow from a handful of shadows dancing in the dark to over a hundred dedicated participants moving as one. They dance in deliberate steps to the cadence of the drum.
Corbin's song is as ancient as the desert canyons illuminated by the creeping golden light of the sun. As I watch the circle grow, I envision a ring of protection around the entire valley and become convinced that despite great odds, the people will persevere in the protection of these lands. Corbin pauses for a moment to warm the face of his drum by the fire and to rest his voice. He rubs the skin of his drum with the heel of his hand in circular motions. "You people have come here to help protect this place. It is good what you are doing here. Mother Earth likes it when we dance on her. When I sing my songs in my language and when I pray I want you to pray your way not my way. Pray your way."
Nearly a thousand people from across the Southwest have come to a place called Ward Valley in a remote corner of California's East Mojave Desert to confront the nuclear power industry's attempts to build a radioactive waste dump on lands considered sacred aboriginal territory for the five lower Colorado River Indian tribes. The story of the diverse movement that rose from the threat of nuclear contamination tells of the tenacity of grass roots activists to overcome one of America's most powerful industries and the challenges facing cross-cultural alliances. Protest actions, legal challenges, public opinion, scientific and economic analyses and a recent court decision have all dealt major blows to the dump proposal. All that remains is for California Governor Gray Davis to withdraw former Governor Pete Wilson's request for federal land at Ward Valley to stop the dump proposal once and for all. The hard won victory will contain valuable lessons and far-reaching repercussions.
For the last decade a coalition of environmental and social justice activists and Native Americans have battled plans by the nuclear power industry to bury long-lived and highly radioactive wastes, mostly from nuclear power plants, in shallow, unlined trenches, above a major aquifer, just 20 miles from the Colorado River, in a critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and on sacred Indian lands.
US Ecology, the contractor chosen by state agencies to build the facility, has left a trail of leaking dumps and litigation across the nation. All four of their nuclear waste dumps are leaking radioactive poisons into the surrounding land and ground water systems. Proponents have promoted the dump as a repository for short-lived medical wastes such as hospital gowns and booties, but Department of Energy documents reveal the fact that the vast majority of the wastes slated for Ward Valley would come from nuclear power reactors. The push behind the facility has come from nuclear utilities anxious to pay a one-time fee to remove long-lived wastes from their problematic real estate and transfer liability for long-term containment to the taxpayer.
The Ward Valley issue represents a confluence of environmental and social justice concerns about safe containment of radioactive waste, the rights of indigenous peoples to protect sacred lands, the strength of environmental justice mandates, the protections afforded critical habitat for endangered species, and the future of nuclear power in America. The diversity of issues and the groups and individuals involved in the Ward Valley struggle is matched by the variety of strategies employed to defeat the project. Scientists with the United States Geological Survey put their jobs on the line when they issued a report warning that buried nuclear wastes would travel through a fractured matrix of rock underlying the valley and eventually make their way to the Colorado River. As a result of his activism, one of the scientists was removed from his post, but was eventually reinstated when an advocacy group of whistle-blowers successfully sued the federal government. Economic analyses have shown that, due to a precipitous decline in the amount of waste produced over the last decade along with excess storage space at existing dump sites, the Ward Valley facility was not necessary and would not be financially viable.
Research into the importance of Ward Valley for the recovery and survival of the threatened desert tortoise led to the designation of 6.4 million acres of critical habitat for the beleaguered reptile and a court injunction against a federal land transfer that would have destroyed sensitive habitat to build the dump. The process by which the legal strategy evolved illustrates the potency of cross-cultural cooperation. At a meeting at the Fort Mojave Tribal offices on the banks of the Colorado River, Mojave elder Llewellyn Barrackman reminded a group of activists that Ward Valley was "headquarters" for the desert tortoise, an animal considered to be sacred to the Mojave people. A survey of the literature showed that although the tortoise had been placed on the endangered species list, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to protect the habitat essential for the recovery of the animal. When the federal government attempted to transfer public land for the purpose of constructing the dump, a coalition of environmental groups and Indian tribes blocked the attempt in federal court with the protections of the Endangered Species Act.
Federal and state legislators, such as Senator Barbara Boxer and Congressman George Miller, have joined with grass roots activists to oppose the ill-fated dump. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and other religious leaders have advocated for social justice and the protection of indigenous land and religious rights and a number of celebrities in the entertainment industry have helped to expand public awareness of the issue. Bonnie Raitt, JohnTrudell, Jackson Browne and Tracy Nelson held concerts to spread the word and provided needed financial support. Efforts to seek environmental justice have become a potent tool to protect sacred lands. Native American leaders from the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, Quechan and Colorado River Indian Tribes have asserted their sovereignty and religious rights at federal hearings, in the courts and at meetings with government officials. The tribes brought their case before the Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council which was formed to advise the Agency on government actions that could violate environmental justice mandates.
In 1998, in an unprecedented move, the Council recommended that the Agency act to stop the dump project. But even with this clear direction, the Environmental Protection Agency stopped short of fulfilling its role as defined by the federal mandate on environmental justice casting doubt on the government's commitment to the protection of sacred lands. Last year, Native American and environmental activists defied federal government orders to vacate a protest camp located on the proposed dumpsite. A sacred fire, traditional song and dance and Indian elders stood at the heart of the protest action. After an historic 113-day non-violent occupation of the land, federal law enforcement officials retreated from their threat of arrest and Department of the Interior representatives began long overdue government-to-government negotiations with the tribes."This is a sacred place to us. There is no church or cathedral out here. The entire valley is sacred to us. Ward Valley, we call it Silyaye Ahease, is our history, our culture and our future."-Steve Lopez, Fort Mojave Tribal Leader
The Mohave people call themselves the Bipa Aha Macav or Keepers of the River instructed by their creator to protect the river and surrounding lands. The indigenous people of the region have consistently warned that they cannot and will not move from lands that they have inhabited "since time immemorial." This depth of commitment has inspired the environmental activists to find sources of strength and meaning in the wellspring of traditional culture and a profound relationship with the land. The environmental justice movement is a living laboratory for cross-cultural coalition building and faces the same challenges as a stratified society with a history of colonialism and ethnic tension. Attempts to seek common ground and consensus within multi-cultural environments are rare in modern social institutions. The focus on a collective goal can be an organizing force, but prejudice and misunderstanding can find its way into the best of intentions. Interaction between diverse social and cultural groups in the pursuit of justice can lead to fruitful dialogue, lasting friendships and effective alliances.
During the long battle to save Ward Valley, the endeavor to achieve consensus has been as laborious as childbirth, but the result is a movement that has succeeded in merging environmental protection with social justice and cultural preservation while engaging in the act of healing some of society's deepest wounds.
Philip M. Klasky is a writer, teacher and co-director of the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition. He also directs the Storyscape Project of Cultural Conservancy, a non-profit indigenous land and cultural rights organization.
Transit Justice in West Harlem
More than a decade ago, community residents, ministers, and elected officials stood hand-in-hand with the newly-created West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT) as we convened a press conference to offer a challenge to the most indifferent government entity in New York&endash;the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
Those of us who have done battle with MTA understand that they have super powers that leave them exempt from the basic standards other entities must follow. The MTA, a city/state- directed entity, runs several commuter rail lines as well as New York Citys subway and bus system. It operates the largest diesel bus fleet (4,000 vehicles) in the country, of which one-third is housed in Northern Manhattan.
We met in 1988 to protest the construction of a second bus depot in West Harlem --both adjacent to junior high schools -- and we demanded that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be prepared. But the MTA owned the land for the proposed depot that now holds 220 buses, though the land had not been occupied for years since it had been a trolley barn. For that reason, it was judged later that the MTA was exempt from preparing an EIS.
At the time that we held that press conference announcing the filing of a lawsuit against the MTA, we were still struggling with City Hall and the citys Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over the poor maintenance and faulty operations of the North River Sewage Treatment plant. In December 1993, we settled with the city for a $1.1 million community environmental benefits fund and designation of WE ACT as a monitor of the citys $55 million consent agreement to fix the plant.
What we had realized early on in the North River struggle was that our predominately African-American and Latino community of West Harlem was being used as a dumping ground for noxious facilities and unwanted land uses, all administered and operated by government entities. Environmental racism was the same in the other three Northern Manhattan communities where 87% of the residents are people of color.
Neighborhoods in Northern Manhattan are surrounded by three major highways, and include two sewage treatment facilities and a marine garbage collection transfer station -- which could be expanded due to NYCs proposed solid waste plan. In addition, Northern Manhattan has several major truck transportation routes, a diesel-fueled Amtrack rail line, six of Manhattans eight diesel bus depots, and a large NY/NJ Port Authority bus station. The link between transportation, air quality and public health is unmistakable.
With more than a half million people, Northern Manhattan covers only 7.4 square miles. It is located within four community districts -- East, West, and Central Harlem and Washington Heights -- each with its own Community Planning Board. Significant disparities in health status, access to services, health care, and the general quality of life exist among the various communities.
Considering that New York Citys asthma death rate is higher than that of any other citys in the country, it would be accurate to refer to New York as the asthma capital of the United States. Since the Northern Manhattan communitys asthma mortality and morbidity rate is up to five times greater than the citywide average, and hospitalization rates for asthma are 21 times higher than in the least affected neighborhoods, New York Citys problem is Northern Manhattans crisis.
In numerous uptown neighborhoods, diesel bus depots are located next to schools, hospitals, recreational facilities, large housing complexes, and busy shopping districts. Because most of the depots are usually at or above capacity, dozens of buses are parked on the streets surrounding the depots and during the winter months, many of them are left idling overnight. The impact of diesel bus soot is compounded by the fact that it is discharged at street level, where pedestrians are walking and breathing.
WE ACT realized we needed to develop a campaign on diesel buses and air quality. Through an EPA Pollution Prevention grant in collaboration with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), WE ACT secured resources to initiate a plan. WE ACT developed a multifaceted bilingual ad campaign that included 75 Spanish and English bus shelter advertisements in communities in Harlem and Washington Heights that read, If You Live Uptown, Breathe At Your Own Risk.
Key elements of the campaign included a thirty-second public service announcement that aired on Spanish-language cable television and a bilingual informational brochure for residents. The brochure described the extent of the problem and possible solutions. In addition, buttons and stickers with the campaigns slogan were developed and distributed to hundreds of residents. Other elements of the campaign included posters of the ad, maps with the location of each depot and a large chart indicating asthma rates in Northern Manhattan as well as the number of bus depots located in the area. Finally, thousands of postcards were signed by residents and sent to the Governor and the MTA demanding a fair share of clean fuel investments for the Northern Manhattan community.
On May 9, 1997 WE ACT held a large press conference to kickoff the campaign outside of one of Northern Manhattans six diesel bus depots. Participants at the press conference included local elected officials; community residents; dozens of bus drivers, who were members of the Transport Workers Union, and young asthma sufferers from J.H.S. 43 which is located across the street from the depot. The event was well covered by the print and broadcast media. WE ACT staff, community members, our campaign partner, NRDC, and air pollution scientists from Columbia Universitys school of Public Health were made available for reporters who were interested in covering the issue.
WE ACT testified at several City Council hearings and MTA Board meetings in an attempt to influence the citys policy regarding the purchase of clean-fuel alternatives for the citys bus fleet. Having thousands of residents sign postcards that were sent to the President of the MTA and the Governor was a key strategy because it demonstrated that there was a large constituency that was concerned about this issue and demanding action. WE ACT was also a part of a coalition of environmental groups which worked directly with the MTA relative to the selection of a Manhattan depot for conversion to natural gas. The goal of the coalition is to change the MTAs diesel policy and to monitor the MTAs capital plans and implementation of its clean-fuel commitments.
One of our most successful campaigns has been, The Clean Fuel * Clean Air * Good Health Diesel Bus Campaign which was launched in May 1997. We achieved our objectives which were to:
- Heighten public awareness about the dangers of diesel fuel and its link to asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, heart attacks, lung cancer and premature death, and to inform the public and the media that Northern Manhattan is home to six out of eight of Manhattans diesel bus depots.
- Enlist members of the impacted community in a campaign urging the New York City Transit Authority (TA) to convert its fleet from diesel fuel to alternative fuels.
- Impact the policy of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the parent authority of the TA, and the Governor regarding the purchase of clean-fuel alternatives (such as compressed natural gas) for the citys bus fleet.
- Heighten the awareness of thousands of Northern Manhattan residents about the potential dangers of diesel exhaust and enlist them in an ongoing effort to get the TA to change its policies.
- Focused attention on Governor Pataki who, during the summer of 1998, announced that the Manhattanville bus depot would be converted to natural gas as part of his Clean Fuel Bus program.
- Increase the visibility of WE ACT throughout Northern Manhattan as an informational and educational resource on environmental health and quality of life issues.
The most important lesson of the campaign is that it takes thoughtful and comprehensive organizing as well as resources to carry out an effective campaign aimed at changing the practices of an institution. The campaign further underscored the importance of forming key partnerships. Furthermore, the campaign clearly demonstrated the willingness and eagerness of community residents to become involved in structured efforts to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Finally, it demonstrates that community-based organizations are sophisticated enough to conduct an effective media campaign.
Securing adequate resources capable of funding a comprehensive and effective campaign is key. Educating community residents through means that they will understand and relate to is essential to getting their involvement.By increasing the publics awareness of the issue you are essentially building its capacity to advocate for change. Any successful diesel campaign must seek creative, multifaceted approaches to capture the attention and the passion of the affected community. A successful campaign offers ordinary people practical avenues for participating in efforts to bring about change.
Because of WE ACTs efforts to heighten the awareness of Northern Manhattan residents about the dangers of diesel fumes, local residents are now identifying this problem as a key quality of life issue. This has undoubtedly been one of our organizations most successful campaigns because the people most affected by the disproportionate citing of these hazardous facilities have become their own best advocates.
With local residents making this issue a priority, elected officials are attempting to be more responsive, other organizations are offering support, and members of the local media are doing stories that provide increased exposure. As a result of WE ACTs advocacy and organizing, the residents of Northern Manhattan are evolving into a constituency that is informed, organized, vocal, and unwilling to accept unfair policies that fail to protect and value their health and quality of life.
Peggy Shepard is the co-founder and executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.
LAs Bus Riders Union Rolls over Transit Racism
In 1992, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) organizing project was launched by the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a multiracial left think tank/act tank group. The Labor/Community Strategy Center was founded in 1989 with the mission to help rebuild vibrant democratic working class movements that directly challenge corporate power and corporate-dominated government agencies. While our work focuses on and is led by working class communities of color&emdash;those most hurt by corporate and corporate-state policies&emdash;we encourage participation by people of all classes and races.
BRU organizers, organizers-in-training, and members rode thousands of buses for thousands of hours and began to build what has become a dues-paying membership of 2,500 persons and a very active leadership core of 200 riders. Many of members have been active for five or more years, and a self-identified membership of over 40,000 on the buses&emdash;people who know our work, say the BRU fights for me, and many of whom have participated in BRU fare strikes and other actions.
In 1994, the MTA, in a fit of class arrogance, launched a billion-dollar rail line to affluent Pasadena and simultaneously declared they were in a budget crisis. Solution? Eliminate the monthly unlimited-use bus pass and raise fares. The BRU and Strategy Center, with the help of Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, convinced the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to file a class action lawsuit against the MTA. We strongly felt that the actions of the MTA violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act that requires any public agency receiving federal money must spend all of its money in a racially equitable manner.
In our first major victory, federal judge Terry Hatter issued a Temporary Restraining Order against the MTA within days of the filing, stopping the cancellation of the bus pass. We used the legal victory to galvanize thousands of bus riders out of the disillusionment and sense of defeat that so many working class people of color understandably feel after three decades of unrelenting Right-wing and racist backlashes. Hundreds of riders a month became members.
Careful not to let the legal tactic dictate our grassroots organizing and mass tactics, the BRU launched a series of marches, rallies, and local speaking tours to progressive organizations of all kinds. We organized actions at MTA board meetings, press conferences, mass-leafleting, letter-writing campaigns, and media strategies. The objective was to raise the visibility of our demands.
We began to dramatically change the dominant terms of the debate, opening up the region of 10 million people to concepts of transit racism, civil rights and the environment come together powerfully in mass transit struggles, all transit is to be subsidized&emdash;fares can and should be cut in half, working class transit needs should drive overall transit policy in LA, rail transit virtually destroyed the bus system, rail transit destroys mass transit because it is inherently too expensive for sprawling L.A., and mass transit must be bus-centered with a backbone of 600 freeway bus-only express lanes that get priority over autos.
It was very difficult to get the corporate media to cover us at first. But a combination of growing membership, creative and militant mass actions, and legal victories turned the BRU into one of the most media-covered forces in the region.
Fearful of being found guilty of transit racism in federal court, the MTA settled with us in October, 1996 in the form of a landmark 10-year civil rights Consent Decree potentially worth billions of dollars for the bus system. Substantial fare reductions were an immediate victory. The big ticket items are still to come in the form of thousands of new clean compressed natural gas buses to reduce overcrowding, replace old buses, and create new express service for region-wide commuting trips.
Before the ink was even dry, the $3 billion a year agency hired a team of corporate lawyers who have worked full-time for three years to deny, delay, and destroy the Consent Decree. In March 1999, we won a court ruling for 532 new buses and 1500 new union jobs for drivers and mechanics&emdash;the ruling that judge Hatter upheld comparing the MTA to segregationists.
The BRU now has a powerful ten year tool to use to clean the air and meet the transit needs of the working class people of color in L.A. who are leading, ironically, the fight to build a world-class mass transit system that millions of affluent Angelenos will use if we are successful. But our even more important and long-term objective is to use these victories to help rebuild a national and international movement led by the working class, communities of color and women whose enemy is the corporate system that, by definition, prioritizes profit maximization, deregulation, exploitation and repression over civil rights, environmental justice, and human need.
In a 1999 victory for the Bus Riders Union (BRU), federal judge Hatter rejected the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authoritys (MTA) effort to appeal a recent court ruling in favor of the BRU and 500,000 L.A. bus riders worth approximately one billion dollars in clean-fuel bus purchases over the next seven years. The MTAs top-gun corporate lawyers tried to argue during the two-day hearing that the federal court does not have the power to enforce the historic civil rights consent decree that the BRU won in 1996 to remedy racial transit discrimination against L.A.s low-income bus riders.
Bus riders and the BRUs 2,500 dues-paying members did not need a federal judge to confirm for us that the MTA&emdash;run by the 12 most powerful politicians in L.A., some of them black and Latino Democrats&emdash;has been making transit and environmental policy in the region that places them on the side of former segregationists. We had come to that conclusion years earlier when we launched the BRU in 1992.
Large rail construction companies, land developers, and politicians from both the Big Business political parties who wanted to be big money brokers built a separate and unequal mass transit system in L.A. over the last 15 years. On the one hand, they constructed the most expensive rail projects in the world&emdash;a tiny number of miles that cost over $12 billion and carries only 8 percent of L.A.s mass transit riders. Mass transit carries about 3 percent of the daily trips of LAs 10 million residents.
On the other hand, the bus system was raided for rail and left to deteriorate to such a degree that it has become the most overcrowded, unreliable, and oldest bus fleet of any major U.S. city. Ridership alone dropped 40 percent since 1984. It should be no surprise to learn that bus riders, who make up 92 percent of mass transit users, and are 85 percent people of color, 60 percent women, and almost 100 percent working class&emdash;65 percent have family incomes under $15,000.
Those $12 billion could have revolutionized L.A.s mass transit system to build a world class clean-fuel express bus system that not only served the needs of the existing 500,000 bus riders, but added three or four million auto commuters&emdash;attracted to the 500 miles of bus-only freeway lanes where buses come every three minutes&emdash;and thereby dramatically cleaned up L.A.s lethal air.
These same corporate forces and politicians helped undermine the Air Quality Management District, the public agency in charge of cleaning up L.A.s lethal air through regulating both industry and movable sources of pollution. Working class communities of color have disproportionately suffered more of the public health impacts of the corporate take-over of the AQMD and MTA, given that they more often live and work in communities close to polluting industries and major traffic corridors. In 1990, we launched the Labor/Community WATCHDOG (the precursor to the BRU) to clean up L.A. oil refineries through a two-prong strategy&emdash;direct action against Texaco and grassroots pressure on the AQMD.
A critical related lesson, reflected throughout our organizing practice of the last decade, is that an organization that takes on corporate domination must remain resolutely independent of the Democratic Party and national labor bureaucracies&emdash;both profoundly controlled by corporate money and power. On particular issues or campaigns we of course work closely with elected officials and labor unions, especially the more left and militant ones. But more often than not, multiracial Democratic politicians and labor bureaucrats have worked closely with white Republican politicians and corporate lobbyists to raid billions from bus riders and give virtual free-rein to industrial polluters in L.A.
The lesson we draw is that only a systemic analysis can account for these patterns of behavior, and only a long-term movement strategy to change the corporate-dominated world system will bring about lasting economic, social and environmental justice for all.
Geoff Ray is a staff member with the Los Angeles-based Labor/Community Strategy Center.
Pesticides in the Barrio: The Case of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico
Sarah J. Peisch
The aberrations of Israeli agricultural ventures began in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. Touting innovative agricultural techniques that were to revolutionize the agro-industry in Puerto Rico, Israeli multi-national corporations have been awarded millions of dollars in grants and loans from the Puerto Rican government. In 1990, the Tropical Fruit Company, a partnership of Israeli capital and Puerto Rico political influence, bought a former sugar cane plantation in the Boca community of the town Guayanilla. The community originally welcomed continued agricultural land use, given that this rural community on the south coast had been targeted for a hazardous waste incinerator in the late 1980s. The farm and the community border the Guánica Dry Forest, a unique ecosystem protected under the United Nations Biosphere Program.
Tropical Fruits welcome was short-lived. Immediately upon initiating the planting of mangoes and plantain crops, the farm closed the only access road to the coast. More than seven pristine beaches are deprived to the community, along with a spectacular rock formation called Ventana. For the past eight years, the only way to see this incredible Puerto Rican patrimony has been on an AT&T television commercial.
As the mango and banana plantation in Barrio Boca took root, so did the practice of intensive pesticide use. In 1996, more than 30 different insecticides, fungicides and herbicides were identified at the farm, several of which were not registered for use in Puerto Rico. The farm applies pesticides with high-pressure sprayers, blasting the spray up to 50 feet into the air and causing toxic clouds to hover over the community.
Dozens of families have struggled with the deteriorating health of their loved ones, particularly children and the elderly. Health problems ranging from bronchial spasms and asthma, skin disorders, and partial paralysis of the extremities have plagued the residents for more than five years. In the case of several children, respiratory equipment has become a necessary part of their daily lives. One three-year old childs extensive treatment with Preventil, a common asthma medication, caused ulceral lacerations in the throat and stomach.
The community has had to pool financial resources to procure the necessary medications and equipment for the families who are unable to burden the costs. Several families have abandoned the area. Many families live in a state of alert, running to close their homes when the spraying begins, placing wet towels around the doors and windows to keep out the poison. Others live with the inexplicable deaths of healthy adults.
The community has led an admirable battle against the pesticide abuses of Tropical Fruit and the various political interests that protect this facility. After thwarted efforts for action from Puerto Rico regulatory agencies, the community petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In March 1997, the EPA issued an order that restricted the farms pesticide spraying activities under the Comprehensive Emergency Response and Liability Act (CERCLA) and federal pesticide laws.
While burdened with legal and technical interpretations and English-only documents, the community received some relief from the daily onslaught of toxic substances as a result of the EPA order. The farm is now restricted by a federal court order from using pesticides in such a manner that drift occurs beyond the boundaries of the farm. The farm is also limited in spraying activities when the wind velocity is more than 6 mph or less than 2 mph.
In October 1997, the community videotaped the farms spraying activities with air blasts that bent the branches of 20-foot mango trees and sent clouds of toxic substances drifting off the farm into the backyards and homes of the local residents. On this occasion, EPA pursued the farm back into court, claiming nearly $600,000 in fines for over 40 violations since the March 1997 order. Tropical Fruit decided to put on the boxing gloves to protect their right to intoxicate. Led by shark lawyers and mercenary toxicologists from the U.S. agro-industry, Tropical Fruit claimed innocence, even to the point of testifying under oath that the farm was only spraying water when the community video-taped them.
The court has yet to hear final arguments in this case, but the community has had many victories along the way. Boca is located several hours from government offices. The community is the only oversight of the farms compliance. The farm must submit weekly itineraries of their spraying activities to the community and government agencies. Tropical Fruit is restricted from using high-pressure spray blasters in the sectors of the farm bordering the community, as this equipment is most likely to cause drift and the transport of toxic substances to the residences.
The use of a law that protects the public from toxic substances, CERCLA, in addition to pesticide laws are important tools available to communities fighting against pesticide exposure. The struggle of Barrio Boca residents has caused policy makers as far away as Washington to take a hard look at pesticide laws and to evaluate how to make enforcement less vague and more protective of people.
The community has recently installed a wind monitor in one of the residences next to the farm, facilitating the collection of quality data about wind velocity and wind directions. Given that the farm is limited to spraying except under optimum weather conditions, the community is able to oversee the farms compliance with court orders and to incorporate reliable data into the grassroots struggle.
Most importantly, the communitys health has improved since the farm has had to restrict spraying practices. Chemically induced asthma attacks are directly related to incidences when the farm sprays close to the houses or violates other spraying restrictions. Whereas children need less emergency medical attention at this time, the long-term effects of chronic exposure still haunt many of the families.
The community of Barrio Boca remains firm in their constitutional right to live free of toxic substances. The resilience of this community to confront the power and influence of the agro-industry as well as many government agencies indifference and bias is indicative of the grassroots struggle in Puerto Rico for our health and a clean environment.
Sarah J. Peisch is the community coordinator for the Centro de Accion Ambiental, Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Environmental and Economic Justice for Immigrant Women Workers
Helen Sunhee Kim
The Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) is a grassroots, community-based organization whose mission is to empower disenfranchised low-income Asian immigrant women who work as garment workers, electronics assemblers, hotel room cleaners, and janitors in the greater San Francisco-Oakland and Santa Clara County-Bay Area. Our group was founded in 1983. Asian immigrant women face discrimination as immigrants, people of color, women, and workers, as well as from language and cultural barriers, and lack of knowledge of U.S. institutions.
AIWA's struggle for environmental justice stems from our belief that we have the right to live and work in a safe, healthy, and humane environment. We identify where workplace environmental and economic injustices exist and fight to improve these conditions through education, advocacy, and collective action.
In 1996, the leadership of Asian immigrant garment workers in Oakland, CA made a historic impact on garment workers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally when they signed an agreement with manufacturer Jessica McClintock, who had been the workers' target of a three and a half year campaign. AIWA's Garment Workers Justice Campaign was launched in 1993 to demand corporate responsibility from million-dollar garment manufacturers, who had built their fashion empires off the backs of immigrant and Third World women workers.
The campaign started in 1993 when a group of garment workers came to AIWA with bounced paychecks. This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon occurrence in the garment industry where workers are spending 6 to 7 days a week, 10 to12 hours a day sewing and being paid less than minimum wage. Working conditions are often unsafe. Health and safety threats include blocked fire exits, fire hazards, exposure to dyes and bleaches, and repetitive stress injury from sewing.
Over the next three and a half years, Garment Workers Justice Campaign mobilized people across the nation. Supporters from across the country, from labor, environmental justice, religious communities, and schools, walked picket lines in 13 cities, sent delegations, wrote letters, and donated time and money to support the garment workers.
In March 1996, AIWA and Jessica McClintock signed an "historic agreement" to uphold the working conditions of garment workers. In a press release, then U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich announced that: 1) Garment Workers Education Fund would be set up for workers and their families, and; 2) workers would have a toll-free confidential hotline to call and report workplace problems, holding the manufacturers accountable. The hotline is a significant tool to educate more immigrant workers about their rights.
The domino effect of the agreement followed the next year in February 1997, when AIWA and garment workers demanded and successfully negotiated with three other major San Francisco Bay Area garment manufacturers-- Esprit de Corp, Fritzi California, and Byer California. All three companies agreed to take corporate responsibility for the garment workers who sew their labels by establishing toll-free, confidential hotlines, in three languages, for workers. The four agreements affect an estimated 2,000 garment workers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
AIWA's Garment Workers Justice Campaign has had a major impact on the Bay Area garment industry, where the Labor Commissioners' office reported a dramatic decline in violations. Nationally, others have continued to take up the issue of corporate responsibility in the garment industry, such as in Kathie Lee Gifford and the Gap campaigns. The emergence of strong leadership of immigrant women workers has been an important outcome of the Garment Workers Justice Campaign.
Women workers in the Bay Areas garment industry sweatshops are not alone in their struggle. Just south of San Franciso, Santa Clara County, better known to outsiders as Silicon Valley, there is another kind of sweatshop industry. In the electronics industry, many low-income, limited-English speaking immigrant women work in small to medium-sized contractor shops, often set up in warehouses without adequate ventilation. The women spend eight to fourteen hours a day handling hazardous chemicals and inhaling toxic fumes as they assemble, clean, and test printed circuit boards for everything from watches to computers.
In 1990, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that the high tech industry has become one of the most hazardous for both workers and the communities: 1) the California Division of Industrial Relations receives three times as many worker illness reports from this industry than the average for the manufacturing industry as a whole; 2) the rate of systemic poisoning is twice the state rate; 3) a growing number of workers are permanently disabled due to exposure to toxins; and 4) there are higher incidences of birth defects and miscarriages among workers in this industry and among families in neighborhoods where toxins have contaminated the ground water. These workers are on the front-line of toxic poisoning, before the toxins spill out to the surrounding community.
AIWA's Environmental Justice Project seeks to counter this alarming trend. AIWA has educated and organized Asian immigrant women electronics assemblers about toxic chemicals and hazards in the industry. We also seek to promote active participation of immigrant workers in the electronics industry in the struggle for safe working conditions, and in the demand for policy and institutional changes that will protect the health and welfare of workers, families, and the surrounding communities.
To this end, we have successfully completed the first year of a two-year project called Peer Health Promoter Network (PHPN) project. This first phase was focused on training immigrant women workers on health and safety issues and training them to become peer trainers so they can train their co-workers. An initial group of women were trained by public and occupational health specialists on the various injuries workers in the electronics assembly industry commonly experience. Additionally, these women learned about effective prevention techniques and the responsibilities of the employers for their health and well being. Participants in the first training went on to train their peers, making use of the training techniques to pass on the same information. The ripple effect continues in workplaces throughout the Bay Area.
We have also been conducting research on the chemicals used in the electronics factories in the Silicon Valley. The workers have long complained of persistent headaches, dizziness, and memory loss associated with the chemicals they use. Yet, the women often do not know what the chemicals are. In order to solve some of these problems, in the second year of the project, AIWA plans to meet with employers in the electronics industries to discuss and recommend plans that can be instituted to establish occupational safety and health in the workplace. We hope to press for a complete and open list of chemicals used in the factories and the substitution of non-toxic chemicals in place of ones that are harmful.
For over 16 years, AIWA has made grassroots organizing and leadership development of low-income, limited-English speaking immigrant women its priority. We believe that the leadership for social change must come from the impacted population, and one of the guiding principles of environmental justice, "We speak for ourselves," is as relevant to us today as ever.
The experience of our Garment Workers Justice Campaign, where leadership of immigrant garment workers was forged with the overwhelming support and solidarity of our allies, shows us how a traditionally disenfranchised population can not only gain power, but also have a wide-ranging impact locally and nationally. We will continue to build on our past experience as we demand environmental and economic justice for workers and their community.
Helen S. Kim is a community organizer with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, a grassroots organization based in Oakland and San Jose, California.
Silicon Valley Workers Win Justice for Rodrigo Cruz
Rodrigo Cruz, a young Filipino in his early 30s, worked for Romic, a toxic waste company servicing Silicon Valley giants such as Intel, Hewlett Packard, and National Semiconductor. Romic used Asian and Latino men to clean toxic waste from railroad cars, lowering them through a hole in the roof. For protection, Rodrigo received a paper suit and respirator wrapped in duct tape.
On February 15, 1995, Rodrigo worked alone down inside the railcar. It was eerie and dark. Rodrigo worked hard to move the thick waste with his shovel. Yet he struggled harder and harder just to breathe. Finally Rodrigo told his supervisor he needed more air.
Three levels of managers knew Rodrigos respirator had been having problems. The alarm had been sounding, indicating deadly carbon monoxide gas. But when Rodrigo complained, nobody changed the respirator or tested for carbon monoxide. Instead, they put Rodrigo back to work.
Rodrigo continued shoveling. Suddenly, his mask sucked hard against his face. There was no air. Rodrigo held his breath, desperately tugging on his rope for rescue. His mouth filled with a horrible, unbelievable taste. Outside the railcar, Rodrigo lost consciousness. Personnel argued about calling 911. Eventually, Rodrigo was rushed to emergency. Police arrived, preserved the duct tape as evidence, and called Cal/OSHA.
Cal/OSHA investigated Romic and cited them for intentionally and knowingly violating Rodrigos rights. Romic appealed the citations to the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board and hired the former general counsel of the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board to defend them. Meanwhile, Rodrigos doctors determined he had suffered permanent brain damage. Romic fought his workers compensation, alleging Rodrigo was never hurt on the job. Nobody would take Rodrigos case.
Rodrigo came to the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH) and met leaders of Health WATCH (Workers Acting Together for Change, a SCCOSH project). SCCOSH is a worker center in Silicon Valley helping workers organize for health and justice in the workplace, where immigrant women predominate in hazardous, low-wage jobs. When Cal/OSHA was on the verge of reducing Romics penalties to $6,300, Health WATCH launched the Justice for Rodrigo Cruz Campaign.
The Campaign distributed thousands of organizing kits targeting Cal/OSHAs director to hold Romic accountable. SCCOSH helped Rodrigo find attorneys Martin Eichner and Tyler Shaw. Meanwhile, Health WATCH sponsored Rodrigo and his wife, Cynthia, to attend a conference of injured workers in Philadelphia. They will never forget the empathy of these injured workers. Rodrigo had thought his mistreatment was due to being an immigrant. But all the injured workers he met there were American-born, and unionized too. Rodrigo was shocked. He realized all injured workers are mistreated and the importance of fighting for health and safety. Rodrigo reported to Health WATCH, I realized its the system that sucks. We have to change the system.
The Campaign achieved its first victories when Cal/OSHAs director, Dr. John Howard, refused Romics $6,300 settlement and overturned a signed settlement for $60,000. Dr. Howard ordered Cal/OSHA to defend their citations before the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board. Two trials were set for July 1997 and July 1998.
Romic claimed they learned their lesson and fixed all their problems, but Cal/OSHA caught them repeating the same violations and endangering workers and residents alike. Romic has a long history of fires, spills, leaks, explosions, and is an environmental affront to its host East Palo Alto, a low-income community of color. Romic is located on the San Francisco Bay wetlands, near endangered species, homes, schools, and childcare centers.
We met Ujima Security Council, the oldest and most effective environmental justice organization in East Palo Alto. Thanks to Ujima, Romic was forced to prepare its first-ever environmental impact report. We formed a coalition, East Palo Alto Community Against Toxics, including Ujima, SCCOSH, Health WATCH, Youth United for Community Action, Greenpeace (now GreenAction), and many others.
The Coalition was active and visible. The work was tiring but inspiring. We learned each others histories, strategized, argued, ate each others cooking, and expanded our thinking. We organized press conferences, pickets, a motorcade, and street theater in four languages. We published a series of newsletters and carried thousands of copies door to door. Romic always followed with a newsletter imitating ours, but they failed to spin the facts. Romic also formed a community advisory panel and made tax-deductible donations to local groups.
As the July 1997 trial approached, we targeted the Appeals Board with a demand for a fair hearing. We knew we had scored another victory when the Appeals Board removed their most conservative judge and replaced her with Judge Manuel Melgoza, a son of farm workers from Delano.
For the July 1997 trial, the Coalition packed the courtroom, organized daily pickets, and held a press conference. We highlighted Romics egregious violations and the Appeals Boards record of reducing fines for willful citations by 87 percent.
Romic executives were red in the face. Being represented by the Appeals Board general counsel was not working and there was no end in sight to the bad publicity. We could see and hear them yelling at Cal/OSHAs attorney for rejecting their settlement offers. Finally, Romic ended the first trial by admitting 21 violations. But by then thousands more had heard our call for justice.
The Coalition then began strategizing for the July 1998 trial, where we would present the facts about what Romic did to Rodrigo. I became Rodrigos attorney. We turned Romics appeal against them by helping win intervenor status for Ujima. Alan Ramo, director of the Environmental Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University Law School, joined us as Ujimas attorney.
We analyzed mountains of documents and took depositions of Romic executives, managers and supervisors. We targeted the US EPA, Cal/EPA, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for a series of interagency meetings to hear the evidence and enforce the communitys health and safety rights. At first, Cal/EPA and the Air District resisted. Eventually, they saw how residents and workers of color have access to information they do not have and can identify problems they do not see.
When they finally conducted their own investigations of Romic, each and every agency found it worthwhile, identifying serious problems and issuing citations for numerous violations. As a result, US EPA Region 8 developed a case study of this work to train EPA personnel on environmental justice. The case study illustrates how respecting the concerns of residents and workers leads to more effective enforcement. US EPA also included our story in a resource guide on constructive engagement.
Meanwhile, Health WATCH assessed whether Romic workers were ready to organize. They talked to workers and listened to their concerns. They studied Romics violations as examples of managements systematic mistreatment of workers. They conducted research, analyzed Romics position in the industry, and met with organizing consultants to hone their organizing skills.
Health WATCH then searched out unions willing to organize. Many lacked the resources and diversity. Many said organizing for health and safety does not work. Others felt our community partners were a barrier to organizing. Some acted out paternalistic and xenophobic attitudes.
Too often we hear labor leaders accuse immigrants of undermining the labor movement, of lowering standards and not standing up, of joining yellow unions and begging for scarce resources. Well, it must depend on who you know. Many immigrant workers organized successfully in their home country with no resources. They worked to overthrow repressive dictators and risked their lives for human rights and democracy.
While our search for union partners continued, we gathered forces for the July 1998 trial. We analyzed every fact and inconsistency. For example, Romic told their community advisory panel the duct tape was used for the workers protection &endash; to keep dirt and dust out of the respirator. But the police had removed 72 inches of duct tape from Rodrigos respirator that day.
Day by day, our Campaign was growing larger, our evidence more clear and strong. We knew we ought to prevail. But everything we learned made us cautious. The legal determination itself was in the hands of a Republican judge. But we knew workers and residents should be the ones to define what it all means, whether or not the judge made the right decision. We needed to take charge and control our media message, regardless of how the media cast our issues. So we planned a full page ad for the New York Times, with Public Media Center. The ad describes what Romic did to Rodrigo, which Silicon Valley companies use Romic, and Ujimas continuing fight for the environmental impact report. The ad also calls for a criminal investigation and for Intel to stop doing business with Romic.
On the eve of the trial, we got a fax from the Cal/OSHA Appeals Board. Romic gave up and withdrew their appeal. After three years of fighting, we almost could not believe it. Instead of doing anything to ease the burden on Rodrigo, Romic had totally denied everything. But now, suddenly, they admitted to every single charge, including knowingly and intentionally violating Rodrigos rights.
We did stop to celebrate. But we also pressed ahead with the full page ad and our victory statement to the media. Then we got a call from Public Media Center. Somebody called the New York Times pretending to represent SCCOSH and tried to change our ad. The New York Times told the caller to put his request in writing on letterhead and fax it back. We researched the originating fax number &endash; and it was a Romic fax number.
Within a year, Mike and Peter Schneider, owners of Romic, quit the business and sold it to US Liquids, a publicly traded company. Romics public relations director, Chris Stampolis, goes to community meetings claiming management has greatly improved and that the attitudes and problems of Romics management are in the past. Then we learned the FBI and US EPA raided and shut down US Liquids plant in Detroit in August 1999. According to the sworn statements of five former employees, Romics new owners illegally dumped 20,000 to 100,000 gallons of untreated hazardous waste in city sewers every day for two years. Federal agents and investigators were also investigating illegal dumping in a Michigan landfill. As one can see we won a major victory, but our struggle for justice continues.
JoLani Hironaka is executive director of the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety & Health and member of the National COSH Council. Prior to joining SCCOSH as a staff attorney in 1993, she worked as a Skadden law fellow at the Asian Law Alliance and Employment Law Center, organizing a network of service providers for battered immigrant women and a coalition to address home invasions in the Vietnamese community.
The War Against Military Toxics in Alaska
Pamela K. Miller
Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) was formed in response to urgent toxic pollution problems in the State of Alaska. Contrary to the popular view that Alaska is pristine, the State is used extensively as a dumping ground by the military and by powerful industries, such as oil, gas, and mining. Many of these sites are in close proximity to Alaska Native villages and traditional hunting and fishing areas.
The U.S. Department of Defense has regarded Alaska as a prime strategic location for military operations from World War II through the Cold War and into present times. Military reservations in Alaska are some of the largest and most polluted in the country. More than 648 military installations, both active and abandoned, are polluting the land, groundwater, wetlands, streams and air with extensive fuel spills, pesticides, solvents, PCBs, dioxins, munitions, chemical weapons, and radioactive materials. Weapons testing ranges encompass an area the size of the state of Kansas. Alaska's poor and Native communities are suffering from the brunt of toxic and radioactive waste disposal by the military, as well as insensitive industrial development and disposal of toxics by the petroleum, mining, and other industries. These communities face daily problems that threaten their health and safety, including the proximity of contaminated sites to sources of subsistence foods, polluted drinking water, leaking fuel storage tanks, and proliferation of hazardous chemicals from industrial sources. Global atmospheric circulation and oceanic currents distribute pollution, such as pesticides and PCBs, to the north from all regions of the hemisphere.
Tribal governments express profound concerns about potential acute and long-term environmental and human health problems from exposure to toxics released into the environment through irresponsible military and industrial operations. They want to establish systems of environmental protection to ensure healthy subsistence resources and a sustainable future for their children. ACAT is responding to requests for assistance and to the obvious need for communities to build the local capacity to prevent contamination, deal with existing toxic pollution problems, and ensure that the most effective sampling, cleanup, and restoration methods are used.
ACAT works in collaboration with affected communities to protect people's rights under community right-to-know and other laws that safeguard health and the environment. ACAT investigates and exposes polluters through mapping, research, and community-based environmental sampling. ACAT offers training and technical assistance to individuals and groups who seek to become effective in eliminating toxics in their environment.
ACAT has a diverse board, representing Alaska Native communities, medical professionals, and environmental activists. ACAT works with communities throughout Alaska to ensure responsible cleanup of contaminated sites and to stop the production and proliferation of toxic chemicals. Some of ACAT's accomplishments include:
- Developed and maintain the only integrated GIS computer mapping program of toxic sites in Alaska to identify and provide information on the nature and extent of environmental contamination from over 2,000 toxic sites in the State. Our web site features 90 GIS computer maps, ACAT's newsletters, and Preventing Toxics in Alaska: Guide for Information and Action, photos, investigative features of priority, military, and other toxic waste sites, action alerts, and information on the mission and services of ACAT.
- Led international opposition to Air Force B61-11 uranium weapons test near Fairbanks, Alaska. ACAT organized 109 signatories to a letter to President Clinton including tribes, human rights, environmental, and peace groups representing eleven countries. We worked with the International Indian Treaty Council in their preparation of testimony before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. ACAT organized citizen demonstrations locally that were carried by the media.
- Released investigative report on radioactive leakage from Amchitka Island, Alaska, site of the world's largest underground nuclear test site. The release of the report in February 1998, Nuclear Flashback, Part 2: The Threat of the U.S. Nuclear Complex, received statewide and national media coverage.
- Successfully sponsored two major environmental health conferences ("Preventing Toxics in Alaska: Organizing for Environmentally Healthy Communities"-(September 1998) in Fairbanks and Kodiak, drawing people from communities throughout Alaska together with nationally-recognized medical, scientific, and environmental justice leaders.
- Received national and local media coverage for ACAT's expose of Princess Tours for toxic dumping. ACAT teamed with an injured worker to prompt EPA to take legal action against Princess for polluting wetlands in Anchorage.
- Working with youth, teachers, and parents, we recently convinced the Anchorage School District to cancel a planned district-wide pesticide application through raising concerns about childrens' and workers' health. In a letter to ACAT, the school district superintendent made a written commitment to work with us on developing a least toxic pest management policy for the schools. Our successful campaign received front page coverage in the Anchorage Daily News.
ACAT produced a video featuring Annie Alowa, a Yu'pik elder from the Saint Lawrence Island village of Savoonga (in the northern Bering Sea) called "I Will Fight Until I Melt." The people of Saint Lawrence Island are deeply concerned that a former military base there is contaminating subsistence sources of food such as fish and marine mammals, and causing cancers and other health problems in the community. The site was a former Air Force surveillance station that is contaminated with fuel spills totaling over 220,000 gallons, PCBs, asbestos, solvents, and heavy metals. From her perspective as a community health aide for 25 years, Annie Alowa attributes her cancer and the cancers in her community to the military poisoning of Northeast Cape. Annie asks all people of good conscience to ensure that the military is held accountable for a responsible cleanup of Northeast Cape that protects the health of the people of Saint Lawrence Island. Annie Alowa died in February 1999, but we are honoring her request for action. As a result of the work of Annie, the community, and ACAT, the military has moved the priority for cleanup of this site to near the top of their list of hundreds of sites in Alaska. We continue our vigilance and dedication to protect the health of the people, advocate for clean water, air, and safe food for all.
Pamela K. Miller is Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT). She brings 20 years of research, education, and advocacy experience to her present work. Pamela is a biologist and holds a bachelors degree in biology from Wittenberg University and a Masters degree in Environmental Science.
Environmental Justice Leaders Plead Their Case at the United Nations
My name is Margie Eugene Richard. I am president of Concerned Citizens of Norco. My hometown is located in the southeastern section of Louisiana along the Mississippi River. In 1926 the Royal Dutch Shell Company purchased 460 acres of the town called Sellers and began building its oil refinery. When Shell purchased the town of Sellers, which is now Norco, they displaced African American families from one section to another.
We are now surrounded by 27 petrochemical and oil refineries, refineries for which Norco received its name: Norco is an acronym for New Orleans Refinery Company. Our town is approximately one mile in radius and home to 5,000 residents. There are four streets near the plants occupied by African Americans,Washington, Cathy, Diamond, and East. My house is located on Washington Street and is only three meters away from the 15-acre Shell chemical plant expanded in 1955. Norco is situated between Shell Oil Refinery on the east and Shell Chemical plant on the west. The entire town of Norco is only half the size of the oil refineries.
Nearly everyone in the community suffers from health problems caused by industry pollution. The air is contaminated with bad odors from carcinogens, and benzene, toluene, sulfuric acid, ammonia, xylene and propylene- run-off and dumping of toxic-substance also pollute land and water.
My sister died at the age of 43 from an allergenic disease called sarcoidosis, a disease which affects 1 in 1,000 people in the United States, yet in Norco there are at least 5 known cases in fewer than 500 people of color. My youngest daughter and her son suffer from severe asthma; my mother has breathing problems and must use a breathing machine daily. Many of the residents suffer from sore muscles, cardiovascular diseases, liver, blood and kidney toxicant. Many die prematurely from poor health caused by pollution from toxic chemicals.
Please indulge me while I share with you a few stories that embody some of our fears, because these tragedies can happen at any moment without notice. In the early 70s a pipeline at Shell Chemical Company exploded and killed Mrs. Helen Washington and Joseph Jones. Mrs. Washington was inside her home asleep and her fellow neighbor, Joseph, was cutting grass in his backyard; they both died from burns sustained from the explosion.
In 1988, an explosion at the Shell Oil Refinery plant created a nightmare. Houses collapsed, people suffered from numerous health problems and many lost their lives. The Shell explosion effected people up to 60 kilometers away. In 1994 an acid spill at Shell Oil Refinery plant caused property and health damage. May 10, 1998 a lime truck inside Shell Chemical plant exploded and spilled the lime into the community. And, on December 8, 1998 the Shell Chemical plant spilled methyl ethyl ketone and other harmful substance into the community. There have been many other accidents.
Daily, we smell foul odors, hear loud noises, and see blazing flares and black smoke that emanates from those foul flares. The ongoing noisy operations the endless traffic of huge trucks contributes to the discomfort of Norco citizens. We know that Shell and the U.S. government are responsible for the environmental racism in our community and other communities in the US and many communities throughout this world. There must be an end to industry pollution and environmental racism.
Even as U.S. citizens, we are not protected from environmental racism in the United States of America by our government. I would like to see justice in action that leads to an end to this struggle. Norco and many other communities of color across our nation suffer the same ills. We are not treated as citizens with equal rights according to U.S. law and international human rights law, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which our government ratified as the law of the land in 1994. I am bringing these issues before you to increase international support to end support of these human rights violations by the United States, and: 1) to propose actions that protect communities of color from being dumping places for industrial waste, because these deadly toxic substances cause poor health and problems that contribute to low and poor social economic conditions; and 2) to change the way human beings are mistreated by multinational corporations worldwide.
Margie Richard is president of Concerned Citizens of Norco. This testimony was presented at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland in April, 1999.