Industry and government locate toxic waste facilities in areas near predominantly racial minority communities.
Date: 8/26/2007 12:49:41 AM ( 14 y ) ... viewed 2486 times
The Louisiana Weekly
Environmental Racism Takes Senate Stage
By James Wright, Contributing Writer
August 13, 2007
(Special to the NNPA from The Afro-American Newspapers) - Sheila Holt-Orsted sat quietly in the Senate hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building while before her a dream was fulfilled: the first Congressional hearing on environmental justice.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee's Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health, held the unprecedented hearing late last month.
Holt-Orsted met with Clinton, by chance, a few weeks ago and the two talked. Clinton told Holt-Orsted that she read an article about her in a nationally-circulated magazine and wanted her to attend the then-upcoming hearing on environmental racism.
Holt-Orsted agreed, and she was satisfied with what she saw.
"This was a very productive hearing," she said. "It is a problem that is confronting this country. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] needs to be put on notice that this is not right and has to change."
Holt-Orsted is a victim of what is becoming known as "environmental racism," a term coined from a 1987 landmark study from the United Church of Christ Commission on Race titled "Toxic Waste and Race in the United States." It found that many companies and governmental entities overwhelmingly located toxic waste facilities in areas near communities of color.
While this was no secret to Blacks and other minorities, the report was the first major study to highlight this to mainstream America. The report, while it was ignored by the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, did spur President Bill Clinton to issue Executive Order 12898, which acknowledged the disparity and stated that the federal government would come up with strategies in order to combat it.
While Order 12898 is still in effect, it is no secret that the Bush administration has done little to enforce it because the administration's EPA appointees do not think that environmental racism is a serious problem and is therefore not a priority.
As president and chief executive officer of the United Church of Christ Commission on Race during the 1987 report, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis became known as the voice of the Black community on the issue. When he became the executive director of the NAACP, he made environmental justice one of the major causes that it would advocate.
Chavis' predecessors, Kweisi Mfume and Bruce Gordon, did not make environmental racism a central focus during their tenure.
Other civil rights and Black political leaders would speak about environmental racism, but it never became a central issue to galvanize the community around.
A February 2007 report, "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty," stated, in so many words, that communities of color still tend to be areas where hazardous waste materials are located and government at every level has done little to change that.
Holt-Orsted's family owned a 150-acre farm in Dickson, Tenn., in the Eno Road section, which is predominantly Black. The Holt's family wells were poisoned by the leaky Dickson County Landfill, located 54 feet from their property.
The waste from the white sections of the county was transported to Eno Road. Also, trichloroethylene, a highly toxic chemical, had been leached into the family's wells since 1988, but the family was assured by government officials that they were safe.
Yet,three generations of her family have become ill because of the toxic wastes, including her father Harry, who died from cancer in January.
"He would have tried to come to Washington if he could," she said. "This is what he would have wanted."
Holt-Orsted and her relatives are seeking redress in court. She has talked to the staff of the Congressional Black Caucus and has tried to reach out to the NAACP and the National Urban League.
"We have to keep this out in the open," she said. "It is up to the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus to educate citizens about what is going on."
Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, told the subcommittee of his experiences dealing with the issues of environmental racism.
"For the past three decades I have researched, worked on, lectured about, testified at public hearings and in court, and written on environmental justice policy issues in the United States and abroad," Bullard said. "I have traveled in hundreds of communities from New York to Alaska and seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears enough environmental justice 'horror' stories to fill a dozen of my books."
Bullard talked in detail about issues regarding environmental justice and communities of color. He talked about the need to clarify Order 12898 and that it needs to be codified.
"This order needs to be a law," Bullard said. "It should not be at the whim of whether an administration wants to do or not. The Bush administration has really ignored the order, and that is not right."
In response, Clinton said that she will look into making her husband's order into legislation.
Bullard also made a number of recommendations, such as reinstating the Super Fund tax on companies that dump toxic wastes illegally, using green technology to clean up bad sites and urging the U.S. House of Representatives to hold hearings on environmental justice.
Bullard told the subcommittee that action needs to be taken now.
"Getting government to respond to the environmental and health concerns of low-income and people of color communities has been an uphill struggle long before the world witnessed the disastrous Hurricane Katrina response two years ago," he said. "Achieving environmental justice for all makes us a healthier, stronger and more secure as a nation as a whole."
Dr. Beverly Wright, the director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, said that Katrina "represents the greatest environmental disaster to ever occur in North America."
She said that many of the affected areas in Katrina's zone are contaminated and that they far exceed the EPA's clean-up standards.
"Second only to the rebuilding the levees, environmental health should be the issue of greatest concern in the rebuilding and re-populating plan for the city," Wright said. "At stake is not only the health of the community but also the loss of property and wealth for a large portion of the New Orleans African-American community and a possible dramatic shift in the demographics of the city, with negative implications for the Black electorate."
Other witnesses included South Carolina State Rep. Harold Mitchell (D-Spartanburg), who talked about a landfill in his city close to the Black community where for years; companies dumped medical, auto and industrial waste with the permission of the city because it has no zoning. Another compelling witness was Peggy Shepard, the executive director and co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem-based organization that is fighting to clean up the air and the water in that part of New York City.
Both Mitchell and Shepard said that the Bush administration has ignored their communities and that Congress needs to take action to correct the injustices.
Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on the Environment and Hazardous Materials, told the AFRO that he plans to hold a hearing on environmental justice in the fall.
Clinton said that she will submit a bill that will address concerns about environmental justice in the fall. The highlights of the bill include:
€ Increasing federal accountability-a task force in the EPA will address wide ranging concerns generated by toxic environments in communities of color such as housing and transportation.
€ Building community capacity-the bill will establish a grant program where communities of color will be able to explore options in terms of getting rid of toxins in their communities.
€ Providing access to experts-an environmental clearinghouse to help communities connect with technical experts who will help fight for environmental justice.
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