The Burden of the Past
Earth, Wind, Water and Fire: Resource Exploitation in the Twentieth Century
J. R. McNeill
Ecological Displacement and Transnational Environmental Justice
Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century
Robert D. Bullard
How Much Should a Person Consume?
'If We Are Not Getting into Trouble, We Are Not Being Effective'
INTERVIEW: George Monbiot
The Perils of Panglossism
Climate Change: The Need for Action
Preserving the Forests: The Promise of Community Control
Roger D. Stone and Claudia D’Andrea
Justifying Sustainable Development: A Continuing Ethical Search
Holmes Rolston III
Ecofeminism, Lifeboat Ethics and Illegal Immigration
The Animal Invitation: Extending Human Rights to Other Apes
Paul Waldau and Sarah Whitman
REVIEW ESSAY: Ten Pinches of Salt: A Reply to Bjorn Lomborg
Debunking the Myth of a Lost Eden
A Social Contract for the Future
Hussein A. Amery
Volume 4 ● Number 1 ● Winter 2002—The Fragile Biosphere
Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century
The systematic destruction of indigenous peoples’ land and sacred sites, the poisoning of Native Americans on reservations, Africans in the Niger Delta, African Americans in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”, Mexicans in the border towns and Puerto Ricans on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, all have their roots in economic exploitation, racial oppression, the devaluation of human life and the natural environment, and corporate greed.
Unequal interests and unequal power arrangements have allowed poisons of the rich to be offered as short-term remedies for poverty of the poor. The last decade has seen numerous developing nations challenge the “unwritten policy” of countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to ship hazardous wastes into their borders. Most people-of-colour communities in the United States and poor nations around the world want jobs and economic development—but not at the expense of public health and the environment.
Why do some communities get dumped on while others escape? Why are environmental regulations vigorously enforced in some communities and not in others? Why are some workers protected from environmental and health threats while other workers (such as migrant farm workers) are allowed to be poisoned? How can environmental justice be incorporated into environmental protection? What institutional changes are needed in order to achieve a just and sustainable society? What community organising strategies and public policies are effective tools against environmental racism?
This paper analyses the causes and consequences of environmental racism and the strategies environmental justice groups, community-based organisations and government can use to improve the quality of life for their constituents.
What Is Environmental Racism?
The United States is the dominant economic and military force in the world today. The American economic engine has generated massive wealth, a high standard of living, and consumerism. This growth machine has also generated waste, pollution and ecological destruction. The United States has some of the best environmental laws in the world. However, in the real world, all communities are not created equal. Some communities are routinely poisoned while the government looks the other way.
People of colour around the world must contend with dirty air and drinking water, and the location of noxious facilities such as municipal landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities owned by private industry, government and even the military.1 These environmental problems are exacerbated by racism. Environmental racism refers to environmental policies, practices, or directives that differentially affect or disadvantage (whether intentionally or unintentionally) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or colour. Environmental racism is reinforced by governmental, legal, economic, political and military institutions. Environmental racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for the countries in the North while shifting costs to countries in the South.
Environmental racism is a form of institutionalised discrimination. Institutional discrimination is defined as “actions or practices carried out by members of dominant (racial or ethnic) groups that have differential and negative impact on members of subordinate (racial and ethnic) groups”.2 The United States is grounded in white racism. The nation was founded on the principles of “free land” (stolen from Native Americans and Mexicans), “free labour” (African slaves brought over in chains), and “free men” (only white men with property had the right to vote). From the outset, racism shaped the economic, political and ecological landscape of this new nation.
Environmental racism buttressed the exploitation of land, people and the natural environment. It operates as an intra-nation power arrangement—especially where ethnic or racial groups form a political and/or numerical minority. For example, blacks in the United States form both a political and numerical racial minority. On the other hand, blacks in South Africa, under apartheid, constituted a political minority and numerical majority. American and South African apartheid had devastating environmental impacts on blacks.
Environmental racism also operates in the international arena between nations and between transnational corporations. Increased globalisation of the world’s economy has placed special strains on the ecosystems of many poor communities and poor nations inhabited largely by people of colour and indigenous peoples. This is especially true of global resource extraction industries such as oil, timber and minerals. Globalisation makes it easier for transnational corporations and capital to flee to areas with the fewest environmental regulations, best tax incentives, cheapest labour and highest profits.
The struggles of African Americans in Norco, Louisiana, and of Africans in the Niger Delta are similar in that both groups are negatively affected by Shell Oil refineries and unresponsive governments. This scenario is repeated for Latinos in Wilmington (California) and indigenous people in Ecuador who must contend with pollution from Texaco oil refineries. The companies may be different, but the community complaints and concerns are very similar. Local residents have seen their air, water and land contaminated. Many nearby residents are “trapped” in their community because of inadequate roads, poorly planned emergency escape routes and faulty warning systems. They live in constant fear of plant explosions and accidents.
The Bhopal tragedy is fresh in the minds of millions of people who live next to chemical plants. The 1984 poison-gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people, making it the world’s deadliest industrial accident. It is not a coincidence that the only place in the United States where methyl isocyanate (MIC) was manufactured was at a Union Carbide plant in the predominately African-American town of Institute, West Virginia. In 1985, a gas leak from Institute’s Union Carbide plant sent 135 residents to hospital.
Institutional racism has allowed people-of-colour communities to exist as colonies, areas that form dependent (and unequal) relationships with the dominant white society or “Mother Country” as regards their social, economic, legal and environmental administration. More than three decades ago, Stokeley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton offered the “internal” colonial model to explain the racial inequality, political exploitation and social isolation of African Americans:
The economic relationship of America’s black communities ... reflects their colonial status. The political power exercised over those communities goes hand in glove with the economic deprivation experienced by the black citizens. Historically, colonies have existed for the sole purpose of enriching, in one form or another, the “colonizer”; the consequence is to maintain the economic dependency of the “colonized”.3
Institutional racism reinforces internal colonialism. Government institutions buttress this system of domination. Institutional racism defends, protects and enhances the social advantages and privileges of rich nations. Whether by design or benign neglect, communities of colour (ranging from urban ghettos, barrios and rural “poverty pockets” to economically impoverished Native American reservations and developing nations) face some of the worst environmental problems. The most polluted communities are also the communities with crumbling infrastructure, economic disinvestment, deteriorating housing, inadequate schools, chronic unemployment, high poverty and overloaded health-care systems.
Seeking Environmental Justice
The environmental justice movement has its roots in the United States. However, in just two decades, this grassroots movement has spread across the globe. The call for environmental justice can be heard from the ghetto of southside Chicago to the Soweto township in South Africa. The environmental justice movement has come a long way since its humble beginning in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, where a polychlorinated biphenyls landfill ignited protests leading to more than five hundred arrests. The Warren County protests provided the impetus for a 1983 US General Accounting Office study, Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. That study revealed that three out of four of the off-site, commercial hazardous waste landfills in Region 4 (which comprises eight states in the US south) were located in predominantly African-American communities, although African Americans made up only 20 per cent of the region’s population.
The protests also led the Commission for Racial Justice to produce in 1987 Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, the first national study to correlate waste facility sites and demographic characteristics. Race was found to be the most potent variable in predicting where these facilities were located—more powerful than poverty, land values and home ownership. In 1990, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality chronicled the convergence of two social movements—social justice and environmentalism—into the environmental justice movement.4 African American environmental activism emerged from the southern United States, the same region that gave birth to the modern civil rights movement. What started out as local and often isolated community-based struggles against toxins and facility siting blossomed into a multi-issue, multi-ethnic and multi-regional movement.
The 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was probably the most important single event in the movement’s history. Held in Washington, D.C., the four-day summit was attended by over one thousand grassroots and national leaders from around the world. Delegates came from all fifty US states (including Alaska and Hawaii), Puerto Rico, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and the Marshall Islands. The summit broadened the environmental justice movement beyond its anti-toxins focus to include issues of public health, worker safety, land use, transportation, housing, resource allocation and community empowerment. The meeting also demonstrated that it is possible to build a multi-racial grassroots movement around environmental and economic justice.
A Framework for Justice
The dominant environmental protection paradigm manages, regulates and distributes risks. It also institutionalises unequal enforcement, trades human health for profit, places the burden of proof on the “victims” and not the polluting industry, legitimates human exposure to harmful chemicals, pesticides and other hazardous substances, promotes “risky” technologies, exploits the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities, subsidises ecological destruction, creates an industry around risk assessment and risk management, delays clean-up actions and fails to develop pollution prevention as the overarching and dominant strategy.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as
fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies.5
In 1992, the EPA published Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities—the first time the agency embarked on a systematic examination of environmental risks to communities of colour. Environmental equity may mean different things to different people. Equity is distilled into three broad categories: procedural, geographic and social.
Procedural equity refers to the “fairness” question: the extent that rules, regulations, evaluation criteria and enforcement are applied uniformly across the board and in a non-discriminatory way. Unequal protection might result from non-scientific and undemocratic decisions, exclusionary practices, public hearings held in remote locations and at inconvenient times, and use of English-only material as the language in which to communicate and conduct hearings for non-English-speaking publics.
Geographic equity refers to the location and spatial configuration of communities and their proximity to environmental hazards, noxious facilities and locally unwanted land uses (Lulus) such as landfills, incinerators, sewage treatment plants, lead smelters, refineries and other noxious facilities. For example, unequal protection may result from land-use decisions that determine the location of residential amenities and disamenities. The poor and communities of colour often suffer a “triple” vulnerability of noxious facility siting, as do the unincorporated—sparsely populated communities that are not legally chartered as cities or municipalities and are therefore usually governed by distant county governments rather than having their own locally elected officials.
Social equity assesses the role of sociological factors (race, ethnicity, class, culture, life styles, political power, etc.) on environmental decision making. Poor people and people of colour often work in the most dangerous jobs and live in the most polluted neighbourhoods, their children exposed to all kinds of environmental toxins in the playgrounds and in their homes.
The environmental justice framework rests on developing tools, strategies and policies to eliminate unfair, unjust and inequitable conditions and decisions. The framework attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce differential exposure and unequal protection. It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, when, why, and how much”. Some general characteristics of this framework include the following:
The environmental justice framework adopts as its preferred strategy a public health model of prevention (i.e., elimination of the threat before harm occurs).
The environmental justice framework shifts the burden of proof to polluters/dischargers who do harm, who discriminate, or who do not give equal protection to people of colour, low-income persons and other “protected” classes.
The environmental justice framework allows discrimination to be inferred on the basis of an “effect” test—disparate impact and statistical weight—as opposed to “intent”.
The environmental justice framework redresses disproportionate impact through “targeted” action and resources. In general, this strategy targets resources where environmental and health problems are greatest (as determined by some ranking scheme, but not limited to quantitative risk assessment).
Dumping on the Poor
Hazardous waste generation and the international movement of hazardous waste still pose some important health, environmental, legal and ethical dilemmas. The “unwritten” policy of targeting Third World nations for waste trade received international media attention in 1991. Lawrence Summers, at the time chief economist of the World Bank, shocked the world and touched off an international firestorm when his confidential memorandum on waste trade was leaked. Summers wrote: “ ‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]?”6 Between 1989 and 1994, an estimated 2,611 metric tons of hazardous waste was exported from OECD countries to non-OECD countries.
Transboundary Waste Trade Conventions
In response to the growing exportation of hazardous wastes into their borders, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the G-77 nations respectively mobilised to pass two important international agreements. On 30 January 1991, the Pan-African Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development adopted the Bamako Convention banning the import into Africa of hazardous wastes and controlling their movement within the continent.
In September 1995, the G-77 nations were instrumental in amending the Basel Convention, despite opposition from the United States, to ban the export of hazardous wastes from highly industrialised countries (specifically OECD countries and Lichtenstein) to all other countries. While Bamako and Basel may have made certain kinds of dumping formally illegal, in practice they have not prevented the transboundary movement of hazardous waste to developing countries. Loopholes still allow hazardous wastes to enter countries that do not have the resources or infrastructure to handle the wastes. For example, Joshua Karliner reports that “products such as pesticides and other chemicals banned or severely restricted by the United States, Western Europe and Japan because of their acute toxicity, environmental persistence or carcinogenic qualities are still regularly sent to the Third World”.7 Having laws or treaties on the books and enforcing them are two different things.
Whether at home or abroad, environmental racism disadvantages people of colour while providing advantages and privileges for whites.
US–Mexico Border Ecology
The conditions surrounding the more than 1,900 maquiladoras—assembly plants operated by American, Japanese and other foreign countries—located along the two thousand–mile US–Mexico border may further exacerbate the waste trade. The industrial plants use cheap Mexican labour to assemble imported components and raw material and then ship finished products back to the United States. Over half a million Mexican workers are employed in the maquiladoras.
All along the lower Rio Grande river valley, maquiladoras dump their toxic wastes into the river, from which 95 per cent of the region’s residents get their drinking water. In the border cities of Brownsville (Texas) and Matamoras (Mexico), the rate of anencephaly—babies born without brains—is four times the national average. Affected families filed lawsuits against eighty-eight of the area’s one hundred maquiladoras for exposing the community to xylene, a cleaning solvent that can cause brain haemorrhages and lung and kidney damage.
The Mexican environmental regulatory agency is understaffed and ill equipped to enforce its laws adequately. Many of the Mexican border towns have now become cities with skyscrapers and freeways. More important, the “brown pallor of these southwestern skies has become a major health hazard”.8
Radioactive Colonialism and Threatened Native Lands
There is a direct correlation between exploitation of land and exploitation of people. It should not be a surprise to anyone to discover that Native Americans have to contend with some of the worst pollution in the United States. Native American nations have become prime targets for waste trading. The vast majority of these waste proposals have been defeated by grassroots groups on the reservations. However, “radioactive colonialism” is alive and well. Radioactive colonialism operates in energy production (mining of uranium) and the disposal of nuclear wastes on Indian lands. The legacy of institutional racism has left many sovereign Indian nations without an economic infrastructure to address poverty, unemployment, inadequate education and health care, and a host of other social problems.
The threats to indigenous peoples are not confined to the United States. Native and indigenous people all across the globe are threatened with extinction owing to the greed of mining and oil companies and “development genocide”. Sociologist Al Gedicks has traced the development of a grassroots multiracial transnational movement that is countering this form of environmental racism.9 Over five thousand members of the U’Wa tribe of Colombia have organised to prevent Occidental from drilling on sacred U’Wa land.
The Threat from Military Toxins
Private industry does not have a monopoly on ecological threats to communities of colour. War and military activities are also big players. The US Department of Defense has left its nightmarish nuclear weapons garbage on native lands and the Pacific islands. In fact, “over the last 45 years, there have been 1,000 atomic explosions on Western Shoshone land in Nevada, making the Western Shoshone the most bombed nation on earth”.10 Residents of the Marshall Islands live under a constant threat of radioactive contamination.
Communities Fight Back
Numerous studies reveal that low-income persons and people of colour have borne greater health and environmental risk burdens than society at large.11 A 1999 study from the Institute of Medicine concluded that government, public health officials and the medical and scientific communities need to place a higher value on the problems and concerns of environmental justice communities. The study also confirmed what the communities most affected have known for decades: that people of colour and low-income communities are (1) exposed to higher levels of pollution than the rest of the nation, and (2) experience certain diseases in greater number than the more affluent, white communities.
Increased public health risks have been found in some populations even when social class is held constant. For example, race has been found to be independent of class in the distribution of air pollution, the location of municipal landfills, incinerators and abandoned toxic waste dumps, the clean-up of superfund sites (hazardous waste sites that have been rated by the EPA as posing an eminent health threat) and lead poisoning in children.12
Childhood Lead Poisoning
Childhood lead poisoning is a preventable disease that disproportionately affects children of colour. Figures reported in the July 1994 Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that 1.7 million children (8.9 per cent of children aged 1–5) are lead-poisoned, defined as having blood-lead levels equal to or above 10 micrograms/decilitre. African-American children were found to be lead-poisoned at more than twice the rate of white children at every income level. Over 28.4 per cent of all low-income African-American children were lead-poisoned compared to 9.8 per cent of low-income white children. Between 1976 and 1991, the decrease in blood-lead levels for African-American and Mexican-American children lagged far behind that of white children.
In California, a coalition of environmental, social justice and civil libertarian groups joined forces to challenge the way the state carried out its lead screening of poor children, winning an out-of-court settlement worth $15 million to $20 million for a blood lead–testing programme. The lawsuit, Matthews v. Coye, involved the failure of the state of California to conduct federally mandated testing for lead on some 557,000 poor children who receive Medicaid. This historic agreement triggered similar lawsuits and actions in several other states that failed to live up to the mandates.
Citizens against Nuclear Trash
In 1989, Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a British, German and American conglomerate, applied for a government permit to build a privately owned uranium enrichment plant in the United States. A national search was undertaken by LES to find the “best” site for a plant that would produce 17 per cent of the nation’s enriched uranium. LES supposedly used an objective scientific method in designing its site selection process.
The southern United States, Louisiana, and Claiborne Parish ended up being the dubious “winners” of the site selection process. Residents from Homer and the nearby communities of Forest Grove and Center Springs—two communities closest to the proposed site—disagreed with the site selection process and outcome. They organised themselves into a group called Citizens against Nuclear Trash or CANT. CANT charged LES and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff with practising environmental racism. CANT hired the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (the group later changed its name to Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund) and sued LES.
The lawsuit dragged on for more than eight years. On 1 May 1997, a three-judge panel of the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board issued a final initial decision on the case. The judges ruled that “racial bias played a role in the selection process”. On 11 May 1997, the London Sunday Times proclaimed the environmental justice victory by declaring, “Louisiana Blacks Win Nuclear War”. The court decision was upheld on appeal on 4 April 1998.
St James Citizens v. Shintech
Battle lines were drawn in Louisiana in another national environmental racism test case. The Japanese-owned Shintech, Inc., applied for a Title V air permit to build a $800 million polyvinyl chloride plant in Convent, Louisiana—a community that is over 70 per cent African American. More than 40 per cent of the Convent residents fall below the poverty line. The community already has a dozen polluting plants and a 60 per cent unemployment rate. The industrial plants are so close to people’s homes that the residents could walk to work.
The Shintech case raised similar environmental racism concerns as those found in the failed LES siting proposal. The EPA is bound by Executive Order 12898 to ensure that “no segment of the population, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, as a result of EPA’s policies, programs, and activities, suffer disproportionately from adverse health or environmental effects, and [that] all people live in clean and sustainable communities”. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is also bound by federal laws to administer and implement its programmes, mandates and policies in a non-discriminatory way.
Any environmental justice analysis of the Shintech proposal will need to examine the issue of disproportionate and adverse impact on low-income and minority populations near the proposed polyvinyl chloride plant. Clearly, African Americans and low-income residents in Convent live closest to existing and proposed industrial plants and will be disproportionately affected by industrial pollution. African Americans constitute 34 per cent of Louisiana’s total population. The Shintech plant was planned for St James Parish. The parish ranks third in the state for toxic releases and transfers. Over 83 per cent St James Parish’s 4,526 residents are African American. Over 17.7 million pounds of releases were reported in the 1996 Toxic Release Inventory. The Shintech plant would have added over 600,000 pounds of air pollutants annually. Permitting the Shintech plant in Convent would have added significantly to the toxic burden borne by residents who are mostly low-income and African American.
After six months of intense organising and legal manoeuvring, residents of tiny Convent and their allies convinced EPA administrator Carol Browner to place the permit on hold. A year later, in September 1998, the environmental justice coalition forced Shintech to scrap its plans to build the polyvinyl chloride plant in the mostly African-American community. The decision was hailed around the country as a major victory against environmental racism. The driving force behind this victory was the relentless pressure and laser-like focus of the local Convent community.
South Camden Residents v. St Lawrence Cement Co.
In April 2000, a handful of residents from Camden, New Jersey, won a major environmental justice court victory. In a precedent-setting decision, federal district judge Stephen Orlofsky blocked the opening of a $60 million Montreal-based St Lawrence Cement Co. plant in the South Camden Waterfront neighbourhood. The ruling resulted from a 14 February lawsuit filed by Camden Regional Legal Service Inc. on behalf of ten members of the South Camden Citizens in Action group. The decision was based on the failure of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to investigate meaningfully the civil rights consequences of such an operation in a low-income minority area—over 91 per cent of South Camden’s 2,100 residents are people of colour—which already suffers very poor health and already has pollution and odour-releasing facilities. Judge Orlofsky’s ruling may potentially affect where industrial facilities are located, the technical design of such facilities and the stricter enforcement of environmental regulations.
The southern United States has become a “sacrifice zone” for the rest of the nation’s toxic waste. A colonial mentality exists in Dixie, where local governments and big business take advantage of people who are both politically and economically powerless. The region is stuck with a unique legacy—the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and white resistance to equal justice for all. This legacy has also affected race relations and the region’s ecology.
The southern United States is characterised by “look-the-other-way environmental policies and giveaway tax breaks”. It is a place where “political bosses encourage outsiders to buy the region’s human and natural resources at bargain prices”.13 Lax enforcement of environmental regulations has left the region’s air, water and land the most industry-befouled in the United States.
Ascension Parish typifies the toxic “sacrifice zone” model. In two parish towns of Geismer and St Gabriel, eighteen petrochemical plants are crammed into a nine-and-a-half-square-mile area. In Geismar, Borden Chemicals has released chemicals into the environment which are hazardous to the health of local residents. These chemicals include ethylene dichloride, vinyl–chloride monomer, hydrogen chloride and hydrochloric acid.
Borden Chemicals has a long track record of contaminating the air, land and water in Geismar. In March 1997, the company paid a fine of $3.5 million, the single largest in Louisiana history. The company has been accused of storing hazardous waste, sludges and solid wastes illegally; of failing to install containment systems; of burning hazardous waste without a permit; of neglecting to report the release of hazardous chemicals into the air; of contaminating groundwater beneath the plant site (thereby threatening an aquifer that provides drinking water for residents of Louisiana and Texas); and of shipping toxic waste laced with mercury to South Africa without notifying the EPA, as required by law.
Louisiana could actually improve its general welfare by enacting and enforcing regulations to protect the environment. However, Louisiana citizens subsidise corporate welfare at the expense of their health and the environment. A growing body of evidence shows that environmental regulations do not kill jobs. On the contrary, the data indicate that “states with lower pollution levels and better environmental policies generally have more jobs, better socioeconomic conditions and are more attractive to new business”.14 Nevertheless, some states subsidise polluting industries in return for a few jobs. States argue that tax breaks help create jobs. However, the few jobs that are created come at a high cost to Louisiana taxpayers and the environment.
Corporations routinely pollute Louisiana’s air, ground and drinking water while being subsidised by tax breaks from the state. The state is a leader in doling out corporate welfare to polluters. In the 1990s, the state wiped $3.1 billion in property taxes off the books of polluting companies. The state’s five worst polluters received $111 million over the past decade.
Subsidising polluters is not only bad business, it also does not make environmental sense. For example, nearly three-quarters of Louisiana’s population—more than three million people—get their drinking water from underground aquifers. Dozens of the aquifers are threatened by contamination from polluting industries. The Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor has over 125 companies that manufacture a range of products, including fertilisers, gasoline, paints and plastics. This corridor has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” by environmentalists and local residents.
Industry flight from central cities and older industrial corridors has left behind a deteriorating infrastructure, poverty and pollution. Economically depressed communities do not have a lot of choices available to them. Some workers have become so desperate that they see even a low-paying hazardous job as better than no job at all. These workers are forced to choose between unemployment and a job that may threaten their health, their family’s health and the health of their community. This practice amounts to “economic blackmail”. Economic conditions in many people-of-colour communities make such communities especially vulnerable to this practice.
Some polluting industries have been eager to exploit this vulnerability. Some have even used the assistance of elected officials in obtaining special tax breaks and government operating permits. State actors have done a miserable job in protecting central city residents from the ravages of industrial pollution and non-residential activities that have a negative impact on quality of life.
Racial and ethnic inequality is perpetuated and reinforced by local governments in conjunction with urban-based corporations. Race continues to be a potent variable in explaining urban land use, street and highway configuration, commercial and industrial development and industrial facility siting. Moreover, the question of “who gets what, where and why” often pits one community against another.
The promise of jobs (even low-paid and hazardous jobs) and a broadened tax base has proven to be an enticing offer in some economically impoverished communities. This scenario has been the rule in politically powerless and poor communities of colour in the United States and around the world. Toxic waste “imperialism” is a fact of life.
Workers are often forced to make personal sacrifices in terms of job security and job safety. The workplace in this case is an arena where unavoidable trade-offs are made between jobs and workplace hazards. If workers want to keep their jobs, they must work under conditions which may be hazardous to them, their families and their community. This practice amounts to “job blackmail” and is equivalent to economic bondage.
Workers of colour are especially vulnerable to job blackmail because of the threat of unemployment and their concentration in low-paying, unskilled, non-union occupations. For example, a large proportion of non-union contract workers in the oil, chemical and atomic fields are persons of colour. Over 95 per cent of migrant farm workers in the United States are Latino, African American, Afro-Caribbean and Asian. Workers of colour are over-represented in high-risk blue collar and service occupations where there is a more than adequate supply of replacement labour.
Section 24 of the South African Constitution states that “everyone has the right: (a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and (b) to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations”. The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, while not speaking directly about the environment, is very much about “equal protection for all”. Nevertheless, blacks in the United States and in South Africa have had to grapple with the legacy of legalised segregation or apartheid and take on the dismantling of “separate and unequal” measures.
The environmental and health crisis faced by present-day South Africa originates in the combination of poor land, forced overcrowding, poverty, the importation of hazardous waste, inadequate sewerage, the dumping of toxic chemicals into rivers, the strip-mining of coal and uranium, and outdated methods of producing synthetic fuels. Apartheid herded approximately 87 per cent of the black population into 13 per cent of the country’s territory. Such a policy spelt environmental disaster.
Apartheid-type housing and development policies in the United States have resulted in limited mobility, reduced neighbourhood options, decreased environmental choices and diminished job opportunities for people of colour. Race still plays a significant part in distributing the public “benefits” and public “burdens” associated with economic growth.
The roots of discrimination are deep and have been difficult to eliminate. Home ownership is still a major part of the “American Dream”. Housing discrimination contributes to the physical decay of inner-city neighbourhoods and denies a substantial segment of African Americans and other people of colour a basic form of wealth accumulation and investment through home ownership. The number of African-American homeowners would probably be higher in the absence of discrimination by lending institutions. Only about 59 per cent of the nation’s middle-class African Americans own their homes, compared with 74 per cent of whites.
Eight out of every ten African Americans live in neighbourhoods where they are in the majority. Residential segregation decreases for most racial and ethnic groups with additional education, income and occupational status. However, this scenario does not hold true for African Americans. African Americans, no matter what their educational or occupational achievement or income level, are exposed to higher crime rates, less effective educational systems, high mortality risks, more dilapidated surroundings and greater environmental threats because of their race. For example, in the heavily populated South Coast air basin of the Los Angeles area, it is estimated that over 71 per cent of African Americans and 50 per cent of Latinos reside in areas with the most polluted air, while only 34 per cent of whites live in highly polluted areas.15
It has been difficult for millions of Americans in segregated neighbourhoods to say “not in my backyard” (Nimby) if they do not have a backyard. Nationally, 46.3 per cent of African Americans and 36.2 per cent of Latinos own their homes compared to over two-thirds of the nation as a whole. Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the Nimby positions taken against locally unwanted land uses, or Lulus, such as the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewage treatment plants, recycling centres, prisons, drug treatment units and public housing projects. Generally, white communities have greater access than people-of-colour communities when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making.
Global Climate Justice
Finding solutions to global climate change is one of the areas that desperately need the input of those populations most likely to be negatively affected—poor people in the developing countries of the South and people of colour and the poor in the North. Global climate change looms as a major environmental justice issue of the twenty-first century. Mounting scientific evidence indicates that human activities are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere through the build-up of greenhouse gases—primarily carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Changing climates are expected to raise sea levels, alter precipitation and other weather conditions, threaten human health and harm fish and many types of ecosystems.
The adverse impacts fall heaviest on the poor. This deadly pattern occurs disproportionately among people of colour in the United States, who are concentrated in urban centres in the south, coastal regions and areas with substandard air quality. Climate justice links human rights and ecological sustainability. Advocates of climate justice are calling for solutions to avert global warming that do not fall hardest on low-income communities, communities of colour, or workers employed by fossil fuel industries.
Unsurprisingly, resistance to reining in climate-altering activities through the Kyoto Protocol has come largely from the fossil fuel lobby—companies that either extract, process and sell fossil fuels, generate electricity using coal, oil or gas, and car makers. Communities suffer environmental and health assaults from being fenced in with polluting industries. Giant oil companies are major contributors to both local pollution and global warming.
The impetus for climate justice will probably not come from within government. It is a sure bet that it will not come from the polluting industry. Climate justice will take root from meetings such as the 2000 Climate Justice Summit where those most affected share their common experiences and decide to take collective action. Waiting for governments to respond may be too deadly for communities of colour and the planet.
Review and Recommendations
The environmental justice movement emerged in response to environmental inequities, threats to public health, unequal protection, differential enforcement and disparate treatment received by the poor and people of colour.
Redefinition of Environmental Protection
The movement redefined environmental protection as a basic right. It also emphasised pollution prevention, waste minimisation and cleaner production techniques as strategies to achieve environmental justice for all Americans regardless of race, colour, national origin or income. Many countries have environmental and civil rights laws to protect the health and welfare of their citizens—including racial and ethnic groups. However, not all communities have received the same benefits from the application, implementation and enforcement of these laws.
A Holistic Approach to Environmental Protection
The environmental justice movement has set out clear goals of eliminating unequal enforcement of environmental, civil rights and public health laws, the differential exposure of some populations to harmful chemicals, pesticides and other toxins in the home, school, neighbourhood and workplace, faulty assumptions in calculating, assessing and managing risks, discriminatory zoning and land-use practices, and exclusionary policies and practices that prevent some individuals and groups from participating in decision making. Many of these problems could be eliminated if existing environmental, health, housing and civil rights laws were vigorously enforced in a non-discriminatory way.
Strengthen Legislation and Regulations
A legislative approach may be needed where environmental, health and worker safety laws and regulations are weak or non-existent. However, laws and regulations are only as good as their enforcement. Unequal political power arrangements, too, have allowed poisons of the rich to be offered as short-term economic remedies for poverty.
Design Strategies to Combat Economic Blackmail
Having industrial facilities in one’s community does not automatically translate into jobs for nearby residents. Many industrial plants are located at the fence-line with the communities. Some are so close that local residents could walk to work. More often than not, communities of colour are stuck with the pollution and poverty, while other people commute in for the industrial jobs.
Close Corporate Welfare Loopholes
Tax breaks and corporate welfare programmes have produced few new jobs from polluting firms. However, state-sponsored pollution and lax enforcement have allowed many communities of colour and poor communities to become dumping grounds. Industries and governments (including the military) have often exploited the economic vulnerability of poor communities and states to implement their unsound and risky operations. Environmental justice leaders are demanding that no community or nation, rich or poor, urban or suburban, black or white, should be allowed to become a “sacrifice zone” or dumping ground. They are also pressing governments to live up to their mandate of protecting public health and the environment.
Forge International Co-operative Agreements
Governments will need to take responsibility and develop policies that address intra-nation and international environmental racism. The poisoning of African Americans in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”, Native Americans on reservations and Mexicans in the border towns is rooted in the same economic system, a system characterised by economic exploitation, racial oppression and devaluation of human life and the natural environment. The call for environmental and economic justice does not stop at US borders, but extends to communities and nations that are threatened by the export of hazardous wastes, toxic products and dirty industries.
The environmental justice movement has begun to build a global network of grassroots groups, community-based organisations, university-based resource centres, researchers, scientists, educators and youth groups. Better communication and funding is needed in every area. Resources are especially scarce for environmental justice and anti-racist groups in developing countries. The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for those groups that have access to the worldwide web. Erasing the “digital divide” can become a major strategy to combat environmental racism.
2. Joe R. Feagin and Clairece B. Feagin, Discrimination American Style: Institutional Racism and Sexism, rev. ed. (Melbourne, Fla.: Krieger Publishing, 1986), p. 2.
3. Stokeley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power (New York: Vintage, 1967), pp. 16–17.
4. Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, 3rd ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000).
5. US Environmental Protection Agency, Guidance for Incorporating Environmental Justice in EPA’s NEPA Compliance Analysis (Washington, D.C.: EPA, 1998), p. 12.
6. See “Pollution and the Poor”, Economist 322, no. 746 (15 February 1992), pp. 18–19.
7. Joshua Karliner, The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997), p. 152.
8. Tom Barry and Beth Sims, The Challenge of Cross-Border Environmentalism: The US–Mexico Case (Albuquerque, N.Mex.: Interhemispheric Resource Center, 1994), p. 37.
9. Al Gedicks, Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations (Boston: South End Press, 2001).
10. Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Boston: South End Press, 1999), p. 3.
11. See Benjamin A. Goldman, The Truth about Where You Live: An Atlas for Action on Toxins and Mortality (New York: Random House, 1992). See also Institute of Medicine, Toward Environmental Justice: Research, Education and Health Policy Needs (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999), and Bullard, Dumping in Dixie.
12. See Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, eds., Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992).
13. Donald Schueler, “Southern Exposure”, Sierra 77 (November/December 1992), pp. 45–7.
14. P. H. Templet, “The Positive Relationship between Jobs, Environment and the Economy: An Empirical Analysis and Review”, Spectrum (spring 1995), p. 37.
15. Eric Mann, LA’s Lethal Air: New Strategies for Policy, Organizing, and Action (Los Angeles: Labor/Community Strategy Center, 1991).