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

Environmental Justice in the Southeast

Air Date: Week of

A recent study by an EPA scientist suggested that environmental racism was rampant in the Southeast US. The researcher claims his report was suppressed by the agency. Scott Bronstein of the Atlanta Constitution originally broke the story, and talks with Steve Curwood about the controversial Southeast region of the EPA and the new regional head who might turn things around.


CURWOOD: A doctor working for the US Environmental Protection Agency conducts a study showing that toxic waste disproportionately affects African-American neighborhoods in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area. The reward for his research? His report is rewritten and watered down, and he is reassigned from his job. The physician, Dr. John Stockwell, who is also preparing to look for evidence of environmental racism in two dozen other areas in the South, has accused the EPA of censorship, and his dismissal is now being probed. Reporter Scott Bronstein broke the Stockwell story last fall in the Atlanta Constitution. He says Dr. Stockwell's research in Chattanooga came up with some pretty stark results.

BRONSTEIN: The link was essentially toxic hot spots and the communities where they fell, and the areas where they fell were precisely those that Stockwell felt were in fact least able to cope with those kinds of pollutants. They were the low-income, non-white, uneducated areas. Dr. Stockwell invented a computer model to do this kind of testing, and he had intentions of doing it all across the Southeast. And he had already mapped out a plan to do it at basically two dozen cities across the Southeast, which he felt were particularly important.

CURWOOD: Why has the EPA suppressed his report?

BRONSTEIN: The EPA says that they are not suppressing his report. Dr. Stockwell feels very much that he's being censored. As to why, it's somewhat of a mystery. I think it really does get to the heart of what the EPA's mission is, and the kind of work that Dr. Stockwell does. And the fact that EPA Region IV in the South doesn't feel comfortable with controversy. For the last several administrations, this region of the country and this EPA has worked very closely with industry, and has come under a lot of criticism for not being a hard-hitting agency. I think this kind of work that Dr. Stockwell does makes them uncomfortable down here, partly for those reasons.

CURWOOD: Meaning that Dr. Stockwell's work will embarrass industry.

BRONSTEIN: I think that that's part of it. Not only will Dr. Stockwell's work embarrass industry, but Stockwell's work has the potential to embarrass EPA. You have here a physician that's talking about analyzing two dozen cities across the Southeast for potential toxic hot spots, and areas where sectors of the population that are poor and minority may have been egregiously harmed, or may have been at least potentially exposed to serious contaminants. It doesn't look too good for the agency that's supposed to be protecting the public and the environment.

CURWOOD: Now recently, President Clinton named John Hankinson, who I gather has worked with Carol Browner, or knows Carol Browner, to run Region IV. What kind of difference do you think this will make?

BRONSTEIN: I think Hankinson's appointment, really is the most significant shift in the position of a top environmental official down here in more than ten years. He does come from a strong background of enforcement and activism. He does not willingly compromise on environmental issues. And it also bodes particularly well for people like Stockwell. By Hankinson coming in, there's a good chance that Stockwell's star may rise again.

CURWOOD: In the Southeast, Scott, we have now the Chattanooga controversy, this report from Dr. Stockwell. We have the appointment of John Hankinson, an environmental activist, to run the region now for the EPA. And we have the EPA Administrator herself, Carol Browner, initiating the civil rights reviews in the South: in Mississippi, in Alabama, Louisiana. I guess Louisiana isn't quite in this district, but those other two states are. What do you think is going to happen to the Southeast region of the EPA with all this activity?

BRONSTEIN: I think the Southeast is slated for some serious changes and upheaval, to be honest with you. Let me give you a little bit of perspective if I can, Steve. The eight Southeastern states in EPA, which are Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, the two Carolinas, and Kentucky, taken as a block, represent some of the most heavily-polluted areas in the country. Any way you measure, the Southeast stands out for its pollution. Of the fifteen worst states, in terms of total releases of toxic pollution into the air, land, and water, one third of the states are from the Southeast. of the ten states with the most hazardous toxic waste generated, half were from the Southeast. Yet, the Southeast is also one of the most sensitive regions in the United States. In the Southeast, there are more sensitive wetlands and endangered species than any other region in the US. Frequently, wetlands and water issues are really the big issue here in the Southeast, and those are the kinds of things that are probably going to get a lot of attention. Another area that Hankinson has to look at, and I'm sure he'll be interested in looking at, is this whole question of environmental racism. A lot of the sites are down here. John Hankinson is going to be right in the middle of all that, and John Hankinson will have to address environmental racism and environmental justice issues here in the Southeast, probably more than any other region in the country.

CURWOOD: Scott Bronstein covers the environment for the Atlanta Constitution. He spoke with us from the studios of WABE in Atlanta.



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