Grassroots Organizers Struggle Against Racial and Economic Inequity In the Apportionment of Environmental Burdens
Steve Lerner is the author of Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States, winner of a Lillian Smith Book Award for 2011. An extended version of his remarks on accepting this award appear below. This video includes the introduction by Toby Graham as well as Mr. Lerner's acceptance speech.
Across the nation, in thousands of low-income communities, a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are exposed to toxic chemicals from heavily-polluting industries and military bases located next door. Contamination in these mixed residential/industrial zones is more intense than in more affluent white communities. As a predictable result, the number of environmentally induced diseases and premature deaths in these hotspots of pollution are disproportionately high.
To put it bluntly, government policies and practices permit a higher percentage of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to be exposed to elevated levels of chemical contamination when compared with whites. More low-income citizens are also exposed to industrial pollution than are middle class and affluent residents.
This blatant racial and economic inequity in the apportioning of environmental burdens has been facilitated by a political and regulatory system that permits heavy industries to site highly toxic facilities next door to low-income residential areas. Our regulators have failed to strictly enforce existing industrial emission rules and have levied fines on corporate offenders that industry can afford to pay as a cost of doing business.
Numerous academic studies demonstrate that low-income and heavily-minority populations are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals. One study of 368 communities in Massachusetts found that low income communities face cumulative exposures from environmentally hazardous facilities and sites that are three to four times greater than all other communities. “Clearly not all communities in Massachusetts are polluted equally,” the authors conclude. Two other academic researchers who reviewed 16 environmental justice statistical studies between 1971 and 1992 conclude: “There is a clear and unequivocal class and racial bias in the distribution of environmental hazards. Commenting on these and other similar statistics, Robert Bullard, director of the Center for Environmental Justice at Clark Atlanta University observes: “Low income and minority communities continue to bear the greater health and environmental burdens, while more affluent whites receive the bulk of the benefits.”
What these studies tell us is that there exists today a pattern of environmental racism and classism that has been largely overlooked by the American public, the media, academia, the public health establishment, and the environmental and health regulators who are charged with protecting all Americans. This pattern of unequally dividing toxic exposures constitutes a grave civil rights injustice. The Constitutional promise -- that all Americans will be equally protected under the law -- is not being fulfilled in neighborhoods where our poorest and most vulnerable populations are regularly exposed to industrial emissions that cause cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, reproductive disorders, birth defects, skin lesions, eye problems and a host of other ills.
Over the past five years I have published 13 case studies that describe what life is like in communities located on the fenceline with heavy industry. During that time, it has been my privilege to be invited into the homes of residents who live within a stone’s throw of refineries, military bases, weapons plants, charcoal factories, plastics plants, steal-hardening smelters, and other heavy industries that emit contamination that trespasses into their residential neighborhoods. In all the communities I visited I found grassroots activists who are organizing their neighbors to protest the pollution that engulfs their neighborhoods. They are demanding reductions in the volume of toxics to which they are exposed, the installation of pollution control equipment, restitution for harm to their health and property value, and, in some cases, relocation to safer areas. These environmental justice citizen activists are leading the way in demanding an end to environmental racism. Their stories are told in my last two books: Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor (MIT Press, 2005); and Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States (MIT Press, 2010).
The first of these books provides an oral history of Diamond, a small African-American neighborhood sandwiched between a giant Shell Oil refinery and chemical plant. Many Diamond residents knew that contaminants in the air were harming their health but were too poor to move or did not want to abandon their relatives who lived nearby. They were stuck in a toxic trap.
On a summer day in Diamond in 1973, sixteen year-old Leroy Jones prepared to cut the grass in the yard of his grandmother, Helen Washington. After chatting with two friends who were passing on bicycles, he leaned over and pulled the starter cord on his lawnmower and the spark from the engine’s motor ignited gas that had leaked from a Shell pipeline. He was immediately engulfed him in flames. His grandmother’s house behind him exploded and she burned to death. Leroy Jones survived for a day in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries. Subsequently, on May 4, 1988 a huge explosion at a catalytic cracking unit at the Shell refinery killed seven workers and injured 48 others in town as 159 million pounds of toxic chemicals were blown into the air. Heavy damage to property at the refinery and in town required an evacuation.
These two industrial accidents made Diamond residents aware of just how precarious it was to live next to two behemoth industrial facilities that handled large volumes of toxic chemicals. Neighbors began to compare notes about the problems they were having breathing at night when the toxic releases caused them to turn off the air conditioners, close the doors and windows, and sit in the bathtub with a wet towel over their head to escape the fumes.
One resident of Diamond, Margie Richard, a school teacher, who later won the prestigious Goldman Award for grassroots environmental activists, organized her neighbors and orchestrated a media campaign, which after a decade of struggle, embarrassed Shell officials into buying out Diamond residents so they could move to safer ground. It was a bitter-sweet environmental justice victory because this close-knit town, where families looked out for each other and had roots that went back to slave days, was destroyed.
During the several years it took to research and write the Diamond story, I read and heard about countless other low-income communities on the fenceline with heavy industry and military bases where people were falling ill and dying prematurely at alarming rates. Realizing that there were thousands of these “fenceline” neighborhoods across the nation that were experiencing problems similar to those in Diamond, I decided to write a book that would include a dozen case histories.
One of these stories I tell in Sacrifice Zones takes place in Tallevast, Florida, a tiny African-American neighborhood south of Tampa. It was in Tallevast that on a September morning in 2003 Laura Ward looked out kitchen window and spotted a crew of hardhats pulling a drilling rig onto her lawn. Not a shy woman, Ward confronted the crew boss and demanded to know what he was doing. He told her he was drilling a test well to see if trichloroethylene (TCE) and other dangerous chemicals had leaked out of the neighboring Lockheed Martin weapons and aerospace plant and polluted the shallow groundwater in the neighborhood. When she heard this Ward told me she felt the ground shift beneath her feet. Her home and those of her neighbors pumped water from this shallow aquifer. They used the water to drink, to make baby formula, to bathe in, and to wash their dishes and clothes. If the water was polluted with dangerous chemicals then they had been ingesting it for years.
Over the next several months, Ward and her neighbor, Wanda Washington, educated themselves about the science of contamination. They learned about the health effects of TCE and beryllium and other toxic chemicals that had been intruding into their neighborhood from the plant next door. They learned about environmental regulations and about the way Lockheed Martin had been disposing of these toxic chemicals. And they learned that county officials had known for years that there was a public health hazard coming from the weapons plant without having informed members of the community.
Residents of Tallevast trace their lineage back to the post civil war era when freed slaves from Virginia came south to find employment working in turpentine camps in Tallevast. A hundred years later, descendants of those freed slaves found work in a small machine shop across the street from their homes. During the Cold War the machine shop expanded, was bought by a number of different corporations, and was eventually purchased by Lockheed Martin. Tallevast men found work in this factory as painters, maintenance workers and janitors. Part of the work involved cleaning out ducts that were filled with dust that turned out to be laced with beryllium, a highly toxic agent used in the production of nuclear warheads. They brought the dust home with them on their clothes and a number of families suffered respiratory illnesses and premature death as a result.
It was the Trichloroethylene, a chemical used as a solvent, however, that caused the most widespread damage in the community. After Laura Ward spread the word about the contamination problem, Helen E. Beyers Worthington, a retired nurse, decided to conduct an informal health survey. Going door to door to interview neighbors about their health history, Worthington found that many of the members of the 87 families in Tallevast had cancer, neurological problems, reproductive disorders, developmental disorder, and skin lesions. One young man she interviewed, who had brain cancer, asked her not to tell his grandfather about his health problem because it would only cause him to worry. Another neighbor lifted showed Worthington scars and lesions on her hands, arms, and legs that had been caused by gardening in contaminated soil that had been brought out of the factory. Other families had multiple members with berylliosis or more than one member with cancer. Other families were laced with neurological disorders, reproductive disorder, or birth defects. There was just too much cancer, Worthington said: it couldn’t be a coincidence.
For their part, Lockheed Martin officials downplayed the problem. At first they claimed their toxic wastes had remained inside their fenceline. Then, when studies belied this claim, they conceded that some had leaked out under a couple of neighboring residences. Testing soon showed that the TCE contamination was intense and widespread. City water was finally piped to residents but it came too late for all those who became ill or died prematurely. A lawsuit is now working its way through the courts but to date there is no resolution of the problems that Tallevast residents face. They now have clean water but they continue to live on top of illegally high levels of contamination.
Steps to Alleviate and Ultimately Eliminate Environmental Injustice
Overcoming environmental injustices such as those described in Sacrifice Zones will be the work of decades and will require educating the public and changing laws. It will also require a public motivated to elect new representatives who believe it should be a priority to see that no segment of American society should be disproportionately exposed to industrial emissions. Among the steps that need to be taken to alleviate this problem are the following:
1. Political pressure must be brought to bear on federal and state regulatory agencies to ensure that existing emission laws are strictly enforced and that fines for illegal emissions are increased to the point where they change corporate behavior. Companies that repeatedly fail to curtail illegal emissions should be closed until they can prove they can protect their residential neighbors from harm; or they should be require to buy the homes of their neighbors so residents can relocate to safer areas.
2. High-emission industries should not be permitted to site new plants in communities already over-burdened with toxic neighbors.
3. Buffer zones should be established to provide a margin of safety between residential areas and heavy-emission facilities such as refineries. Mixed residential/industrial zoning should no longer be permitted. Instead, heavy-emission industries should be sited at a safe distance from residential neighborhoods. Where that is not practical, industry should be required to buy out residents in order to create a safe buffer zones.
4. Monitoring equipment should be erected around the perimeter of heavy industries with a history of large volume toxic releases. The equipment should be paid for by the company but controlled by a disinterested third party.
5. A small cadre of fenceline residents should also be trained, equipped, and paid to work as “community air monitors.” Their part-time job would be to take periodic air samples when they smell something unusual. They would be on the front-line of protecting their community from chemical trespass.
6. Regular health surveys should be undertaken by state officials in fenceline communities to ensure that residents are not becoming ill as a consequence of living too close to high-emission facilities.
7. It is currently very difficult to prove in a court of law that the release of a toxic chemical from a factory has caused an illness in a resident who lives next door. This should be rectified by a new law that shifts the burden of proof to favor residents who are illegally exposed to industrial releases. Where there is a prima facia case (that illnesses experienced by fenceline residents are consistent with what could be expected from exposure to a chemical release) rather than requiring that residents prove they had been harmed, it would be incumbent on corporate officials to prove that their operations had not caused illness or death among neighboring residents.
8. Tax incentives should be fashioned to penalize the use of toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process. In order to “tax bads and not goods,” income taxes could be reduced while taxes are raised on chemicals known to be harmful to health. This would spur the nascent “green chemistry” movement, which seeks to reinvent the way we make things by reducing the use of toxic chemicals in our feedstocks.
The kind of reforms outlined above will not come about by themselves. To reduce the use of toxic chemicals in industry and distribute the remaining toxic exposures more equitably will require a coalition with enough political muscle to take on the large corporate interests. As a first step, top ten environmental organizations should do more to provide environmental justice activists with technical, legal, and financial support as well as help with organizing tactics and media campaigns. This would be a double win: Environmental justice struggles need and deserve the help, while mainstream environmental groups need to increase their racial and economic diversity. By joining forces both of these goals could be met. Labor, civil rights, health, medical, academic and religious organizations also need to reach out to environmental justice activists and help them in their struggle for safe living conditions.
Finally, public education is essential in building support for environmental justice reforms. It is my hope that today’s Lillian Smith Book Award for Sacrifice Zones will help bring these pressing, environmental justice issues to the public’s attention. Looking over the list of writers who have previously won this award, I am humbled and thankful to be in their company.
Decatur, Georgia, September 4th, 2011
 Daniel R. Faber and Eric J. Krieg, “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, Suppl. 2 (2002): 278.
 Paul Mohai and Bunyon Bryant, “Environmental Injustices: Weighing Race and Class Factors in the Distribution of Environmental Hazards, University of Colorado Law Review, no. 62 (1992): 927, cited in Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles, ed. David E. Camacho (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1998), 53.