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

Straightening out Superfund

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Ben Chavis, head of the NAACP, about the upcoming reauthorization of Superfund and its significance to the environmental justice movement.


CURWOOD: The debate over New Jersey's new cleanup law foreshadows a larger debate now heating up in Washington over the Federal Government's toxic cleanup program. Nearly everyone agrees that the Superfund law has been ineffective. Billions of dollars have gone into lawsuits rather than cleanups. The Clinton Administration wants to reduce litigation by setting up arbitration boards, which would determine who's responsible and how much they should pay to help clean up a particular site. But some would go even further. For instance, a coalition including Texaco, Johnson Controls, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has suggested doing away with site-by-site liability completely, and replacing it with a national cleanup fund financed by a tax on all users of toxic substances. Dr. Benjamin Chavis is the NAACP's new Executive Director. I caught up with him on Capitol Hill recently, and asked him why the organization has gotten so involved with Superfund.

CHAVIS: The NAACP is concerned about the reauthorization of Superfund, primarily because so many of the Superfund sites are disproportionately located in African American, Latino, and other minority communities. This is an issue of environmental justice.

CURWOOD: What are the basic changes that you want to see in Superfund? Now the President himself has some changes; do those go far enough?

CHAVIS: Well, I think the President's proposals to reauthorize Superfund are a step in the right direction. But they just don't go far enough. We want to expedite a cleanup of our communities. We want health studies done to show the causation between environmental hazards and the degradation of public health. Also, we found in urban areas there's multiple exposures to different kinds of environmental hazards. Under the present Superfund you have to be exposed to groundwater contamination, so most urban areas don't drink groundwater. And so, a place like the South Side of Chicago or Brooklyn and Harlem, New York, you can't get on a Superfund site list, but that does not mean you're not exposed to environmental hazards. We want that changed. We also want to change the liability system so that the financing for the cleanup is maintained. Right now, most of the money in the current system is spent on litigation, arguing about who is liable.

CURWOOD: So you want to take away liability, the finger-pointing, and just say let's clean it up? How do you do that?

CHAVIS: No, we don't want to take away liability. We want to change the way the companies who are responsible for the pollution put up the money for the cleanup. We have had meetings with the Chemical Association, with some of these companies, who are saying they are willing to put up the money to clean up sites. They just want to spend the money on cleanup; they don't want to spent the money on litigation. In this case, we agree with that.

CURWOOD: You're a leader of what might be arguably called the most important civil rights organization in the world, certainly one of the most important historically, the NAACP. And in the past, the NAACP has used the law, used civil rights litigation in the judiciary to get results. And -

CHAVIS: Yes, but keep in mind we want to practice what we preach. The problem with Superfund right now is too much litigation. And the dollars that are spent on court battles should be spent on cleaning up the community. I think it's fair to say the NAACP will redefine what we mean by civil rights. Civil rights traditionally has meant fighting in a judicial way or fighting in a legislative way to create social change. What we now see in the NAACP is our responsibility to raise the quality of life issue. Civil rights becomes quality of life when the quality of life is impacted by racial discrimination. And that is why now we will be involved in the environmental area, a little differently than we've challenged some other forms of racial discrimination.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how is President Clinton doing with the environmental justice agenda? He has a Vice President who put in a bill for environmental justice. How is he performing, the President?

CHAVIS: Well I think President Clinton is doing relatively well. During 12 years of Reagan-Bush, there was a systematic denial that environmental racism existed. There was a systematic denial that minorities were disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Okay, we're over that period of denial. In fact, the Clinton Administration's gone so far to set up, within EPA, an Office of Environmental Justice. But I think the Administration has a long way to go to unpack a lot of the stuff that was stored in the closets of EPA over the years. I think a lot of communities that have not been served, that had been unequal enforcement, based on race, of the nation's environmental laws. And now we need greater and more equal enforcement. And I think the Clinton Administration and Carol Browner of the EPA, at least they're headed in the right direction. The NAACP's position, we're trying to quicken that pace.

CURWOOD: Benjamin Chavis is the Executive Director of the NAACP.



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