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The world's a dirty place when you are poor
By DIANE ROBERTS, Special to the Times
Published September 9, 2007
One of our persistent national fantasies - right up there with having God's permission to do pretty much anything we want - is that America has no class system. We tell ourselves we're not like stratified, calcified Europe. Here it doesn't matter if you went to school at Andover or Dixie County High; if you drink chateau-bottled Burgundy or Schlitz; if you live behind a gate or behind the landfill. In America, we are all equal.
Well, to steal from Ernest Hemingway, wouldn't it be pretty to think so? But some Americans are clearly more equal than others, especially when it comes to the environment. The poor suffer disproportionately from the destruction of our wetlands, the poisoning of our waters and the degradation of our air and our soil. This is particularly true in the South, as Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, points out: "Historically, the South lagged behind the rest of country economically, and so would welcome any industry, no matter how dirty."
Bullard began to study the relationship of class and race to the environment 30 years ago, demonstrating a link between poor and minority communities and the placement of toxic materials. In 1987, the United Church of Christ issued a report on environmental racism that helped spur a movement. The UCC listed a plethora of examples of environmental injustices: hazardous waste sites parked next to minority neighborhoods in Houston; the PCB facility on top of an African-American community in Warren County, N.C.; and the tiny, mostly black town with the nation's largest hazardous waste dump. In 1978, when ground was broken for the landfill, the per-capita income in Emelle, Ala., was under $8,000. Residents had been told the 2,400-acre site was going to be a fertilizer plant, or maybe a potato chip factory. Bullard says, "There's a direct correlation between the exploitation of land and the exploitation of people."
When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, it looked as though Washington might finally do something about pollution and the poor. The EPA established an Office of Environmental Justice, and Clinton issued an executive order that every federal agency must address the way in which the environment can harm the health and opportunities of people of color. EPA policy would, at last, take environmental justice into account.
But Clinton's environmental programs achieved far less than promised. And when George W. Bush ascended to the presidency, he rolled back toxic safeguards and stocked agencies supposed to regulate pollution with true believers from pollution-generating industries. Bush also sidelined class and race: "George Bush took race out of the environmental equation," says Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans. "The office became this little thing with no money in a corner of the EPA."
Adding insult to injury, Bush reversed Clinton's justice decrees in late June 2005, just a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, laying bare the plight of the poor in America.
Clark Atlanta's Environmental Justice Resource Center and Dillard's DSCEJ are two of the growing number of institutes, think tanks and advocacy organizations that have grown up in the vacuum left by the federal government's reluctance to take environmental issues seriously. A number of law schools have also focused on environmental jurisprudence. Adam Babich, director of the highly regarded Environmental Law Clinic at Tulane, says that in the South, "You have communities with people who weren't able to vote until the 1960s, so they often couldn't zone out industry."
Babich, whose clinic has taken on the likes of Exxon Mobil, says that one of the worst environmental injustices he's encountered recently involves the Industrial Pipe landfill in Plaquemines Parish, La.: "In a capitalist society you accept that poor people are more vulnerable than the rich, but I've seen things here I'm just astounded exist in America."
The poor don't have as many choices. Sometimes, the sewage treatment center or the oil refinery or the coal plant provide a living: "The thinking is, if they didn't allow these industries in, there would be no jobs," says Alisa Coe, a former student of Babich's.
Florida may not be able to match Louisiana's spectacular array of weird juxtapositions - Coe, now an attorney in Tallahassee with Earthjustice, a national environmental law firm, points out that Morgan City, La., holds an annual "Shrimp and Petroleum Festival" - but the Sunshine State still has a long history of environmental injustice.
"Mount Dioxin" rose up in Pensacola, a vast pile of dirt contaminated with a pestilential mix of arsenic, creosote, solvents and the potent dioxin TCDD. The area around the Escambia Wood Trading Co. had been a place where blacks could buy their own homes in the Jim Crow Florida of the 1950s and 1960s, an aspirational neighborhood with tree-lined streets and flower beds. But by 1992, the EPA knew that the very ground on which they walked was killing them.
A grass-roots group led by Margaret Williams, a retired teacher who had lived her whole life in the neighborhood, publicized how people in Rosewood Terrace and Oak Park were suffering from respiratory problems, skin rashes and various sorts of cancer. The Clinton administration hemmed and hawed, first offering to help only about 20 percent of the affected families, then, after activists placed a full-page ad in USA Today only a month from the presidential election of 1996, the federal government promised to relocate all of them. As Julie Hauserman reported in this newspaper, the irony was that "Mount Dioxin" had been singled out by the EPA in a pilot program to aid minority communities stuck living near toxic sites.
That strange smell
Taylor County seems determined to become Florida's poster child for environmental racism and classism, illustrating Bullard's assertion that once a place gets landed with a polluter or two, others will follow. Taylor County is simultaneously one of Florida's poorest counties and one of its most beautiful. It's also in peril from rapacious development, industrial degradation and sheer greed.
The county has long been home to a company many say is the state's most shameless polluter. Buckeye Cellulose, which spews pulp mill effluent into the Fenholloway River and the Gulf of Mexico, has been blamed for a host of environmental nightmares, including contaminated ground water, poisoned sediments and that rank odor (fainter now than it used to be but still present) announcing that you are nearing the river. The dioxins and endocrine disruptors Buckeye spits out kill marine life and even cause female fish to grow male genitals. Then there's that 10-square-mile dead zone in the gulf - all this along what is supposed to be Florida's "Nature Coast."
The powers that be (Buckeye, the Chamber of Commerce, the County Commission) seem to have decided that Taylor citizens will accept any old daft scheme, no matter how destructive, as long as there's money in it. However, they've met with resistance. One bright idea, now abandoned, was to turn the vast piney woods into a bombing range. A planned resort megalopolis on a still-pristine section of the coast is in trouble, what with the developer wanting to scrape a deep yacht channel through protected sea grasses in a publicly owned aquatic preserve. A proposed coal-fired power plant, which would have coughed out mercury and other heavy metals, looks iffy.
One reason these atrocities have not yet been visited on Taylor County is that the locals now rise up and fight. Gloria Horning, a documentary filmmaker and professor of journalism at Louisiana State University at Shreveport, wrote her doctoral dissertation on environmental justice movements, including Taylor County's. She says that the obvious rural blight near the Buckeye plant spurred a lot of community action with "real citizens, you know, poor folks and old ladies with knitting, speaking at the county commission and taking water samples."
As is often the case, the South is suspended between despair and optimism. Robert Bullard says that even more minority communities are stuck with toxic dumps nearby: "In 2007, the South is still the most polluted part of the country."
The world could yet change. As Bullard reminds us, "It's not accidental that the environmental justice movement was born in the South, the region that gave us the civil rights movement."
Diane Roberts, a former member of the Times editorial board, teaches English and writing at Florida State University.