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Category Archives: environmental racism

Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Agency released their final clean-up plans for the Cabbot-Koppers Superfund site. The 700 pages of recommendations took nearly 30 years to produce. Dominique Shaw, a masters candidate at Florida A&M's journalism program, has been researching the disproportionate toxic burden placed on poor people and people of color.  She tells us that Gainesville is a classic example of "environmental racism." (Photo from the Fine Print)

Dominique Shaw reports:

Many people are not informed about ER. No not the medical drama, but the ER known as "environmental racism," even though it’s in many of our backyards.

Environmental racism is when big industries place hazardous waste or toxic facilities in low income communities, often neighborhoods of color. These facilities pollute the community through the water, air, and soil. Often, these industrial projects get green lit before the community knows what it means to have them move in.

Gainesville, Florida has a neighborhood that exemplifies ER. Twelve schools sit within a two mile radius from a 140 acre hazardous waste site. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated it the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site in 1983.

Superfund is the federal government's program to clean up the nation's uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. They seek to find the people responsible and make the polluters pay otherwise the government funds the clean-up.

In this case, Beazer East, Inc, is being held responsible. The site is made up of the Koppers' 90 acre wood-treatment operation, and Cabot Carbon- a former charcoal operation that has been redeveloped into a commercial space.

The land is choked with 32 different toxins such as dioxin, arsenic, and chromium that came from Cabot-Koppers. Recently, Dr. Steve Roberts from University of Florida's Center for Environmental & Human Toxicology, showed the severe cancer risks residents face because of the dioxin contamination from Cabot-Koppers. The data revealed that people are 3,610 times more vulnerable to cancer in the northern area of the Superfund site than what is allowed by the state.

The sad truth is that this neighborhood is not unique. Environmental Racism has been discussed for over a generation by researchers all over this country. Awareness about poverty, race and low property values can arm communities to fight back against environmental racism.

For more on this issue of environmental racism, check out our story on the first American case of ER to be heard by an international human rights commission, "The Battle for Human Rights in Cancer Alley

Dominique Shaw ER.mp3 1.5 MB

CHECK THIS OUT: the Root website has a nice wrap of an ABC television experiment about racism. Using hidden cameras, the ABC crew recorded the responses of passersby to a young white man and a young black man who were each appearing to steal a bicycle.  The reactions were profoundly different . Only one or two people out of a hundred challenged the white kid, but the black kid was called out almost immediately and a couple of times an antagonist crowd started to form. You can see the tape here:

My thoughts:
Just yesterday I was driving through a small town in Southern Maine when I passed a police patrol car in a parking lot. The cop abruptly pulled out and followed me until I left town…I didn't get stopped as I knew that  road had a 25 mph limit and I offered him no excuse. That's because I have learned to be careful in these places– Indeed when I first started coming to this region a few years ago virtually every town–about 8 or 9 in the area –pulled me over, though I never got a ticket…..I finally figured out the offense was 'driving while black.'

In the arena of  the environment, things are not usually as obvious. So imagine what it is like in a case of disproportionate toxic exposure where the options for the authorities are more complex. 

Pretty much all the folks on the bicycle thief tape  were unaware of their racist prejudices. They believed that they were acting on facts, not attitudes.

So when it comes to a black neighborhood that is choked with pollution and poor transit patterns, does society tolerate that because it what people expect to see? Do they think it is a natural fact that black people live under such conditions, or do they understand that environmental injustice is a function of attitudes? 

My guess is that it's most often the former, rather than the latter, but what do you think? And what do you think could be done?

At the edge of the Everglades in Florida's Manatee County, lies a small historically black town called Tallevast. Devoid of any sidewalks, Tallevast is populated by merely 250 residents and only 80 homes where neighbors are often times family members.  Taking up five acres of this 1.5 square mile town, is a closed down beryllium plant that was once the American Beryllium Company which manufactured beryllium metal parts for nuclear weapons for the Cold War. The plant was opened in 1961, four years before the Voting Rights Act, and was closed in 1996 after the Cold War ended and nuclear supplies became less in demand.  The plant employed local residents who ended up breathing toxic dust and handling a toxic degreaser that was used to clean the machinery.   
In 2000, while Lockheed Martin was in the midst of preparing to sell the plant, it was discovered that toxic solvents from the degreaser had been leaking from an underground plume for as long as 38 years.  The pollution had seeped 200 acres underground.  Still showering and drinking from well water, Lockheed Martin never informed Tallevast residents that their health had been severely endangered with carcinogen laden water.  But in 2003, three years later, residents had discovered the truth by chance and the news spread quickly through the small town and ruined property values as Lockheed Martin estimated 50 years for clean up.
Not long after, residents began experiencing cancer and berylliosis, a deadly lung disease, that had many fearing their health related problems were due to the plant.  Desperate to leave Tallevast, residents demanded that Lockheed Martin pay to relocate them but the mega government defense contractor refused and claimed that "the contamination had been capped and Tallevast is a safe place to live."  Lockheed Martin cited a 2005 opinion from a Florida Department of Heath doctor who found that there was no "imminent" health threat.  However, residents strongly disagreed.  To date, 80 cancer cases have surfaced. That's one cancer case for each home in the small town.  
With $42 billion in revenue and $3.2 billion in profits in 2009, Lockheed Martin sat comfortably at number 54 on Fortune 500's list of America's largest corporations.  The corporation has the coffers to relocate 80 households.  But some residents suspect that the company is fearful that they will set a precedent for other communities embroiled in environmental justice disputes. Residents have filed four lawsuits and are now pitted against Lockheed Martin, Manatee County and the state of Florida.  
The first case, which had 300 plaintiffs, will be heard this October.  The residents claim that their health has deteriorated due to Lockheed Martin's negligence to properly inform them that their drinking water had been contaminated.  Lockheed Martin is fighting all the cases.  The giant corporation's defense is that it notified the state as required by law.  State officials have said that the law did not require the company to inform residents of the environmental hazard.  
Read the full article here