For the past several months, members of the Fort Mojave Indian tribe in Ward Valley, California, have been defending their historic land by settling into a desert encampment next to their reservation, where the State of California and a private waste storage company wants to build a low level nuclear waste dump. In Houston, Texas, black residents of the Kennedy Heights community recently discovered that Gulf Oil, now owned by Chevron, polluted the ground on which they are living before selling it to a developer in the 1960s, and they are now suing Chevron for damages in a federal court. Outside New Orleans, Louisiana, citizens of a mostly black and poor town are fighting a major chemical company to prevent it from erecting a toxic emitting plant in their district. And in urban areas from West Oakland, California, to the South Bronx of New York City, community groups are pressuring their political representatives to shut down hazardous waste incinerators that, they claim, have clustered in their neighbourhoods because of a specific form of discrimination they call environmental racism.
The concept of “environmental justice” was introduced into American politics in 1982, when residents and civil-rights activists in mostly black and poor Warren County, North Carolina, organised to block a proposed land-fill. In the last 15 years the concept has helped to redefine the debate on the environment in the United States.
No longer a term that refers only to ecological systems, “the environment” encompasses such diverse issues as the state of urban housing, the quality of drinking water and food sources, the safety of workplace conditions, etc. But the conceptual core of environmental justice is the claim that environmental inequality (the unequal distribution of dangers among different social groups) is a fundamental and largely ignored aspect of modern social inequality.
This approach has transformed the theory and the practice of ecologists in the United States, even if it exists mainly at the grass-roots level. Loosely organised by region, American environmental justice workers tend to focus on parochial issues and neglect broader concerns about environmental inequality, such as how to address the international distribution of pollution and hazardous waste. This weakness, typical of embryonic social movements, has limited the growth of the new environmental politics.
But the movement has already succeeded in helping to integrate disparate communities, including groups traditionally outside environmental politics, whose interests converge in the broad space of the built environment. Under the rubric of environmental justice, for example, politically weak communities, worried about problems related to their proximity to polluting industries, build coalitions with civil rights groups concerned with racial justice, labour unions concerned with workers rights and security and women’s groups concerned with the effects of the environment on breast cancer. Not to mention the big environmental organisations with a more elite membership, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, which are often criticised for neglecting problems of minorities and the poor.
The first task of the environmental justice movement is to demonstrate the validity of its founding claim – that there is environmental inequality and that it operates according to a political logic. The American debate has centred on two forms of environmental inequity: unequal proximity to dangerous environments, due to the siting of waste-emitting plants or dumps, and, second, to dangerous sites, on account of disparities in clean-up and removal programmes. To understand these issues, environmentalists have relied upon private, academic, and state scientists, as well as on the victims.
In the 1980s, a series of major studies found a direct relationship between the ethnic and racial composition of neighbourhoods and their proximity to ecological hazards. In 1987 the study commissioned by the United Church of Christ (UCC), which became the most important public document for the movement, showed that “three out of every five Black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites”, and that “race” is the best indicator of exposure to dangerous waste (2).
Five years later, a study in the National Law Journal found that “race” mattered in decisions for both siting and removing hazardous waste. Even in Superfund, the federal government’s own clean-up enforcement programme of the nation’s most polluted areas, abandoned hazardous waste sites in mostly white areas were placed on priority action lists more quickly than those in minority areas; and fines for illegal waste treatment in white communities were about five times higher than fines for the same violations in minority communities.
Even Vice President Al Gore has gone on record as saying, “Race is the single most accurate predictor of the location of hazardous waste”. Yet it is not the only explanation, as different vulnerable groups, such as the poor or the elderly, also suffer a high level of environmental inequalities. As a result, scientists have shifted from exclusive attention to “environmental racism” to the more complex study of “environmental justice” issues.
To see the economic and political forces that generate these inequities, though, it is essential to look at the most important battlefields in the struggle for environmental justice: the neighbourhoods, regions, and reservations where companies, communities and the state fight over land in which all have their own interests. The context for these domestic conflicts is the extreme polarisation of wealth and political power that characterises contemporary America. Regions that have been excluded from the top-heavy growth of the American economy are the first to be included in corporate and state plans to site toxic, medical, and nuclear waste. As the consulting report from Cerrell Associates to the State of California advised with disarming candour, the government and private companies should “locate sites in lower socio-economic neighbourhoods where they will meet with little opposition (3)”.
Given this logic, it is no surprise that the main targets for waste siting are Native American reservations. With the exception of those who have developed casino economies, they are the most marginal and deprived places on the American landscape. In recent years, the multi-billion dollar disposal industry, local states and the federal government have offered hundreds of Native American tribes huge pay-offs if they would open their territories to hazardous waste. Native American tribes are attractive recipients not only because their poverty makes them more likely to stake their future on waste, but also because, on the basis of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, their reservations are exempt from state and local law, and tribal councils have nearly full power to govern. For companies involved in waste, this autonomy is a blessing. Especially since the Bureau of Indian Affairs has no administrative unit skilled to evaluate or monitor their projects.
No wonder, then, that David Leroy, a former Republican lieutenant governor of Idaho and President Bush’s appointee to be the first head of the US Office of Nuclear Waste, used the 1991 National Congress of American Indians to urge tribal leaders to draw on their “native American culture and perspective… and timeless wisdom” to help them understand why they should welcome radioactive waste (4). Even the poorest tribes, however, have been reluctant to accept corporate offers. To counter their resistance, incinerator industry leaders have developed elaborate campaigns to ally themselves with tribal leaders and divide their members until they convince a sufficient number that the waste no one else wants is, in fact, good for them.
The case of the Mescalero Apache of New Mexico reveals this strategy of “divide and rule”. In the early 1990s, their tribal leaders acted without explicit support from their community to open their land to radioactive waste in exchange for money and community improvements. As their tribal chief, Wendell Chino, said at the time, “The Navajo make rugs, the Pueblos make pottery and the Mescaleros make money”. But not all of the Apache valued the waste as much as Chino. In January 1995 the tribe held a community referendum on the proposal and disappointed nuclear utility officials by voting 490 to 362 to end the process. His people, Chino conceded, had spoken.
But some tribal leaders would not accept the message. Twenty on-duty tribal employees waged a petition campaign to appeal the referendum. After gaining the requisite number of signatures, tribal leaders organised a public relations effort to argue that the waste industry would bring the Apache $250 million (in wages and lease payments). They also floated rumours that each tribal member would receive $2,000 in cash if the second vote approved the facility. Two months later, the tribe voted (by 593 votes to 372) to resume negotiations.
When they do not offer direct cash pay-offs, polluting industries attempt to win support of targeted poor communities through promises of new jobs and community support. Once companies open their facilities, however, residents often find that most of the new jobs require special skills that they don’t have and that the remaining position are almost as unattractive as they are scarce.
In the largely opulent Bay Area of Northern California (close to San Francisco and Berkeley), a number of polluting industrial plants, are clustered around the predominately black and poor community in North Richmond. The largest is Chevron’s oil refinery which employs about 1,200 workers, less than sixty of whom live in Richmond. The factories pump poisonous smoke into the local air. For example, one facility, which was recently closed, was immediately across from the local school where children played under the shadow of the steam. Meanwhile, North Richmond residents take refuge in the dilapidated housing and underground economy.
In 1993, an accident caused by negligence at the General Chemical plant about a kilometre from North Richmond sent sulfuric acid raining over the community. More than 20,000 residents were sent to the hospital for emergency treatment. North Richmond residents believe that their daily exposure to toxic waste has caused them to develop unusually high rates of illness. Lung cancer rates are 33% higher than in the rest of California. But their claims are difficult to verify scientifically. Poor communities like North Richmond, which have low access to health care and are subjected to the stresses of poverty, generally have more health problems than wealthier groups, on top of their precarious life conditions.
To challenge these pressures and assert their own influence over the local environment, residents of North Richmond have formed a grass-roots organisation, the West County Toxics Coalition (WCTC), that has given them a new political voice. WCTC has forged alliances with other environmental and community groups and used its collective strength to negotiate with industries that have long neglected them. When Chevron announced plans to expand its refinery, WCTC organised protests and exerted public pressure for the oil company to compensate local residents who would be affected by the site. Conceding to the pressure, Chevron gave the city over $4m to build a new health clinic, a cynical but nonetheless important contribution to the community. When another large polluter recently abandoned its local plant, WCTC called it a victory. Local residents, inspired by the results, decided to expand their activities all over the region.
Convent, Louisiana, is a town with roughly two thousand people, 80% of them black and 43% poor, and four large polluting factories. Its residents are not as well organised as they are in North Richmond. When Shintech, a large chemical company, announced plans to build a new polyvinyl chloride plant near the town, residents fought back another way: by using President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which requires federal agencies to “make achieving environmental justice part of their mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations (6)”.
A response to growing pressure from environmentalists and the evidence of environmental inequalities produced by scientists, the new executive order represents the federal government’s first effort to address the problem of ethnic, racial and class-based environmental inequality. In the last four years, several states have also adopted environmental justice laws, creating another layer of legislative barriers for corporate polluters in search of economically and politically weak groups to exploit. But it remains to be seen how effective these new laws will be in practice. Up till now, the American government has contributed to environmental injustice more than it has redressed it.
The central challenge for the American environmental justice movement is to overcome the social and geographic divisions that fragment them internally, and build a broader political campaign. Although the movement has long been multi-ethnic, its emphasis is still, quite legitimately, on the problems of minority communities who have been most injured by environmental hazards. This focus has been essential for forcing businesses, the state, and even other environmentalists to recognise the ethno-racial inequities in the environment. But if the movement is to expand, it must address all vulnerable and politically weak communities.
If a poor community in the South, for example, succeeds in blocking an incinerator, only to have it forced on a less organised poor community in the West, the battle for environmental justice will not have made progress. Parochially-minded environmental movements are weakly positioned because polluters operate at a national, and increasingly global, level. And they will always look for the weak links in whatever resistance they find to their projects. Only an environmental movement that can extend through regional and even national borders will force polluters to either reduce the waste in their own production techniques – or live in it themselves.
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