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Most of the carnage — the terrible illnesses and the premature deaths — is hidden.
“The people in those agencies who issue the permits, and then do very little monitoring and very little enforcement in our communities, they don’t go with us to the emergency rooms where the children are suffering from serious asthma attacks. And they certainly don’t go with us to the funeral homes where we bury people who are 40 years old and have died of cancer. They don’t see the terrible damage that this stuff is doing.”
Monique Harden, a lawyer and director of a human rights agency in New Orleans, was talking about a problem that will get no attention at all in the Congressional elections, which are primarily about foolishness and the compulsion to deceive.
The evidence has been before us for decades that black people, other ethnic minorities and some poor whites have been getting sick and enduring horrible deaths from the filth that they breathe, eat, drink and otherwise ingest from the garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, toxic waste sites, oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other world-class generators of pollution that have been deliberately and relentlessly installed in the neighborhoods where they live, work, worship and go to school.
Two colossal environmental debacles occurred, for example, in West Anniston, Ala., a neighborhood that is mostly black and mostly poor. A chemical plant conveniently located there produced thousands of pounds of potentially deadly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) each year. For years after the danger was apparent, residents were left uninformed. Some were later found to have the highest concentrations of PCB’s in their bloodstreams of anyone ever tested.
But the PCB’s from the chemical plant were just one of many risks faced by the residents. In 2003 the military began burning deadly chemical weapons stored at the Anniston Army Depot in West Anniston. Emissions associated with burning chemical weapons include dioxins, PCB’s, furans, heavy metals and trace amounts of nerve and mustard gas agents.
The Rev. Henry Sterling, a pastor in Anniston, told me with great sadness how he had buried his niece who had died from cancer when she was just 30, and then two days later had to bury two other women in their 20’s, and then the following week two more women in their late 20’s.
He added, “My secretary was from here, and she was just 32 when she died from cancer. We have young men dying, too. But during that short period it just happened to be all women. ”
We’ve known — or should have known — since at least 1987, when a landmark study was published by the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, that wildly disproportionate numbers of hazardous waste sites have been placed in communities with large concentrations of black and Latino residents.
Since then an enormous amount of data has been compiled showing that government and industry alike have used black and poor neighborhoods as dumping grounds for the vilest and most dangerous of pollutants. You go to these communities, where the air can be thick enough to make you gag, and you find that the rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke and the like are off the charts.
The largest hazardous waste landfill in America is near the small, rural town of Emelle, in Sumter County, which is part of the so-called “black belt” of Alabama. It takes in hazardous materials from 48 states and some foreign countries. More than 70 percent of the Sumter County population, and more than 90 percent of the population of Emelle, is black.
The systematic placement of garbage dumps, chemical plants, oil refineries and other hazardous facilities in communities inhabited primarily by blacks and other disadvantaged groups is nothing less than an unconscionable extension of the devastating Jim Crow policies that have existed in one form or another, legally or illegally, since slavery.
More than 70 environmental, human rights and public health groups participated in a bus tour last week — dubbed “The Environmental Justice for All Tour” — that visited communities across the country that have suffered terrible damage from these blatantly discriminatory policies.