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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Waste and Civil Rights

Air Date: Week of

Gwendolyn Glenn travels to Iberville Parish in Louisiana to report on a landmark EPA investigation into charges of environmental racism. For years, Iberville residents have suffered health problems traced to numerous chemical plants in the predominantly black community. Activists in Iberville have argued that the siting of such plants in their neighborhoods is an example of environmental racism . . . but in the past they've had little luck in proving it. Now, an EPA civil rights investigation may support their charge.


CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

For years, environmental justice activists have charged that race as well as poverty is a factor behind the placement of toxic facilities in communities of color. Three of the United States' five largest toxic waste dumps are in the back yards of racial minorities. Studies, including work by the National Law Journal, show that actions by governments... from the federal level on down... have raised questions of discrimination in enforcement and permit-granting of some hazardous material sites.

In response to these criticisms, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has begun to probe the siting of two such facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi, for the first time using administrative authority under Title Six of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by any agency receiving federal funds. Reporter Gwendolyn Glenn travelled to Iberville Parrish, Louisiana, and has our story.

GLENN: Driving the fifty miles or so from New Orleans to Iberville Parrish is not the most scenic trip ... large chemical plants line the route, white and gray clouds billow from smokestacks, and a foul odor hangs in the air .. part of what the locals call 'toxic soup'.
GLENN: What plant is that?
EVANS: I believe that's Ciba Giegy .. that's a plant that produces pesticides that cannot be used in the United States ... Instead they're exported to different countries such as to Costa Rica.
GLENN: Audrey Evans of the Tulane Law Clinic drives with caution along these narrow,l rutted roads ... without shoulders or lane markers, they are dangerous enough, but there are also other hazards.
GLENN: Well, this looks like a pretty large truck we're meeting.
EVANS: That is definitely a chemical truck ... on a substandard road. It shouldn't happen.
GLENN: Large trucks are supposed to be banned from many of these substandard roads, but Evans says like many things associated with industry in Louisiana, enforcement is lax.

(site ambience)

GLENN: Highway 141 leads to the St. Gabrielle community of Iberville, home to four thousand people. More than half are African American. It's also where Supplemental Fuels, Incorporated has received initial approval from the state to build a new plant to process six hundred million pounds of hazardous waste a year into fuel for cement kilns. If it opens, as many as three thousand more trucks will travel on the local roads ... bringing hazardous waste two and from the site, a grassy strip surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River.

ALFRED:The river's right on this side. And just .. the way Point Clarendon's made is similar to a "U".

GLENN: Local activist Leroy Alfred.

ALFRED: And the way the perimeter's made ... If any disaster happen at that SFI site, those thousand people be trapped back there, they don't even have any evacuation route or nothing. The same road that bring them in is the road they have to come out.
GLEN: Alfred's concerns are well-founded. Accidental chemical releases do happen here. Many residents still complain of chronic respiratory illness and other health problems that they say stems from a chlorine release two years ago from the Pioneer Chloride Plant. And the cancer rate here is so high that the entire region between New Orleans and Baton Rouge has been dubbed "Cancer Alley". According to the EPA, the state of Louisiana has the highest toxic emissions in the country... and the per capita toxic releases in some communities in the Iberville Parish are three times the state's average.
(ambience up)
JACKSON: How y'all doing today... Good evening... good evening, everybody..
GLENN: Leonard Buck Jackson lives in a large home a quarter of a mile from two chemical plants, and one mile from the proposed SFI site.
JACKSON: We're overburdened with chemical industries right now, and we just don't need no more of those chemical plants in our community. All these chemical plants that we have in this community, the residents who live here in this area ... they don't basically benefit from these plants. The unemployment rate in this community is still high ... everybody in this community should at least have a job.
GLENN: Jackson is a schoolteacher and local elected official. He says state government agencies have allowed a disproportionate number of chemical plants to be located in Louisiana's African American communities. Last year, he sent a letter to the EPA, urging it to investigate whether the state had violated federal civil rights laws in its initial approval of the SFI plant. In what could be a landmark development, EPA decided to investigate the Iberville complaint, and similar charges made by African American residents of Noxubee County, Mississippi. EPA Administrator Carol Browner says the decision is part of an overall commitment to address the environmental concerns of low-income communities.
BROWNER: For far too long, low-income and minority communities across this country have been asked to bear the brunt of modern industrial life in terms of facilities that either treat waste or that generate waste ... and we will use every tool available to us to address the concerns of these communities.
GLENN: EPA's main tool in these investigations is Title Six of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in any program that receives federal funds. Numerous housing discrimination cases have been settled over the years using Title Six, but this marks the first time that it has been invoked in a case of alleged environmental racism. If EPA finds that Louisiana and Mississippi did discriminate in its plant-siting decisions, the Agency can cut federal funding to their industrial siting programs.
(ambience up)
KUHN: You can see sort of two sides of the letter to the editor, there ...
GLENN: In his office at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, director Robert Kuhn sifts though mounds of papers and newspaper articles on the SFI case. Kuhn formally filed what's called an administrative Title Six complaint with the EPA on behalf of Iberville residents. Kuhn says an administrative Title Six complaint is an especially effective tool for environmental justice activists. If they took their case directly to court, plaintiffs would have to prove intentional discrimination. But in an administrative complaint, he says the standard is less stringent.
KUHN: You don't have to find the smoking gun. You don't have to find the memo in the file that says, 'Ah! this is a minority community ... put it here!' Instead, you just have to show , for whatever reason, it's a minority community, and it's going there. And it's going there in a way, as has been shown, that's not in line with the impacts being felt by other people in society. So that's the benefit of filing the administrative complaint, is there's a lesser burden of proof on the community.
GLENN: But Supplemental Fuels says however the EPA rules, the case could ultimately end up in the court, where they argue the standard of discriminatory intent would apply. Marcus Brown is SFI's attorney.
BROWN: If, for some reason, the permit is granted, or if the permit is denied, this matter could ultimately end up in court. And if the constitutional standard is ... for Title Six violation of discriminatory intent ... then that is the standard that's going to have to be met in the courts. Unless that standard is changed by the Supreme Court.
GLENN: Whatever the outcome of the Louisiana and Mississippi cases, the investigation has already prompted some changes. When the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality asked the state's Attorney General to represent it in the case, the Attorney General refused, saying that the agency had violated the law by waiting months before notifying Iberville residents of the Supplemental Fuels application ... thus allowing them only a short time to prepare for hearings. The DEQ denies that it has violated Title Six but it has nonetheless changed its permit process. Residents will now be notified immediately when an application has been made. The agency has also hired an environmental justice coordinator, and is reviewing the SFI application with the possibility of holding new hearings. DEQ Secretary William Kucharski, who was appointed after initial approval was given to the SFI plant, says the whole issue of siting needs to be reexamined.
KUCHARSKI: We do need to address the issues much more rigorously than we have, and it's something that we as a state have to I think formalize a little better -- where facilities can be located, what types of things facilities need to do, and how we can get feedback from the people that are gonna live around those communities
GLENN: Louisiana's chemical companies say they have also woken up to the need to improve communication with local communities. Richard Kleiner is a spokesperson for the Louisiana Chemical Association.
KLEINER: Historically, the industry's attitude towards the public in the past was, 'We're doing our job, we're complying with our permits, we're paying taxes, we're employing people, we're the experts, you don't need to know what's going on, don't -- you shouldn't be scared of what's going on' ... that was our attitude. But as I said, public attitudes toward people's health and the environment changed, and we did not change as fast as we should have to respond to people's concerns.
GLENN: Kleiner says some companies have already moved to form community advisory boards.

(ambience up - Bryant talking to neighbor)

GLENN: Still, many environmental activists say these kinds of changes are merely cosmetic. Pat Bryant, who's been organizing in these parishes for many years, says the changes will be meaningless without tougher federal enforcement.
BRYANT: We've got to get the people in Washington off their butts ... and at the plant gates. And they've got to be monitoring, and they've got to be writing citations. The only thing that white America ... and corporate America understands ... is dollars and cents. If they fine them and make it impossible for them to make money poisoning us ... then the companies will stop.

GLENN: EPA Administrator Carol Browner says the Clinton Administration is committed to tough enforcement of environmental laws in minority communities, and to helping to put new legal tools in the hands of these communities. One thing that all parties in this issue agree on is that the EPA's move to bring civil rights law into the industrial permitting process will add significantly to the growing momentum of the environmental justice movement. Louisiana Assistant Attorney General John Sheppard.
SHEPPARD: The marriage of federal civil rights law together with the other constitutional provisions of due process, equal protection of the laws, and our own Louisiana constitutional rights and healthful environment is going to lead to a kind of rapid evolution of our environmental law and I think what we're seeing here is the beginning of an expansion of the rights of an individual citizens and communities to deal with environmental problems and to take their own destinies into their own hands.
(ambience up ... Jackson's house)
GLENN: Back in the Iberville community of St. Gabrielle, there's something else in the air these days besides the chemical smells from the plants nearby -- it's hope. Leonard Jackson, the man whose letter got the EPA's attention initially, says most people feel that finally relief may be coming to Iberville Parrish.
JACKSON: For a long period of time, these things just continued on to happen, and nobody would listen to our side of the story. We just hoped that they would come to some type of reality and eventually do something more or less to make the community a better place to live.
GLENN: For Living on Earth, I'm Gwendolyn Glenn in Iberville Parrish, Louisiana.



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