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

Reaching Beyond "Mount DIoxin"

Air Date: Week of

At Escambia County in Pensacola, Florida, 41 residents in this small minority community have died from cancer in the past five years. Located between a chemical fertilizer plant and a wood treatment facility, residents complain of health problems including birth defects. This mostly African-American neighborhood anxiously awaits a pending decision from the Environmental Protection Agency to relocate them — soon. John Rudolph reports from Pensacola.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Pensacola, Florida, 426 families are anxiously waiting to hear from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Their community sits in the middle of an abandoned industrial area heavily contaminated by toxic chemicals. The families, all of whom are African American, want the EPA to relocate them as part of an effort to clean up what's being called Mount Dioxin. But it's rare for the US government to move communities threatened by toxics. It's done so only in 14 cases, including the infamous sites at Times Beach, Missouri, and Love Canal, New York State. The EPA has promised a decision on the Florida relocation by the end of April. As John Rudolph reports, the situation in Pensacola could be an important milestone in the government's efforts to deal with toxic pollution in minority communities.

(Dogs bark on the street, followed by people milling indoors; a door opens and shuts)

RUDOLPH: It's a warm spring evening in Pensacola, Florida, but most people who live on East Pearl Street have already gone indoors. This is a community of modest one-story homes with tidy front yards. In her living room, Lisa Wiggins sits down to tell the story of her neighborhood. She's lived on this street for most of her life. Wiggins is 27, married, with 3 sons. She has fond memories of growing up here. But lately, she's seen many of her neighbors die.

WIGGINS: The lady across the street, her mama died of cancer. The man up the street, him and his brother died of cancer. The lady on the corner, she died of cancer. Most of the people -- I don't want to grow up going through life knowing where, when I get about that age, I'm going to get cancer. I'm going to die. I'll say that I'm going to live long enough to see my children grow and see my grandchildren grow, deal with that aspect of life and then, later on, I'll think about that. (Laughs. A child babbles and plays in the background.) You know? And it's just like, I know if we stay here, exposed to those kinds of chemicals, I mean we are not going to have a chance.

RUDOLPH: The chemicals Lisa Wiggins talks about were left behind by 2 factories that for decades flanked her neighborhood like bookends. One factory made chemical fertilizers. The other manufactured telephone poles and railroad ties. The factories provided jobs to local residents, but many in the community blame the factories for causing a wide range of illnesses, including cancer, birth defects, sores, rashes, even mental illness.

(A railway horn blares)

RUDOLPH: Several times a day freight trains snake through the heart of Pensacola. This sleepy city on Florida's Gulf Coast is best known as a vacation spot, but there's lots of industry here, too. When the 2 factories closed in the 1980s, they left a toxic stew that includes wood preservatives, pesticides, and dioxin, a chemical by product of many industrial processes. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemical substances known to man. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency used its emergency powers under the Federal Superfund Law, and began digging up dioxin-contaminated soil at one of the abandoned factories. But the clean-up at the Ascambia Trading Company was suspended when funds ran out. Local residents claim EPA's actions made their health problems even worse.

WILLIAMS: Once they start digging the dirt up, people started experiencing eye irritation, skin rashes, breathing problems.

RUDOLPH: Margaret Williams heads Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, a neighborhood group that's been battling the EPA since digging started at the Ascambia site. Today the area is known as Mount Dioxin, a reference to the huge pile of contaminated soil left behind.

WILLIAMS: It wasn't treated or anything; it was just piled up and covered up. And that was an emergency situation that cost the government just about almost $7 million. And it just left that mountain of dirt there that's contaminated.

RUDOLPH: But long before EPA began digging at the Escambia Trading Company, local residents were showing signs of exposure to toxic chemicals. Margaret Williams holds a photograph of her granddaughter, as she describes the effects on her family.

WILLIAMS: This is one of my grandbabies, and when she was born this child had 6 toes, you know. And we had to have them operated on, and both my parents died from cancer, and I had one child that was stillborn and one born with respiratory problems, he died at 3 months. And we had an uncle who lived with us, he died from cancer.

MAN: Father God we come, relying that thou had been mighty good to us. You have brought us from a long ways. And Father God, we come tonight asking if thou would just give us a little release, because we know you're able. We're trusting in your name...

RUDOLPH: A prayer sets the tone for a meeting of the group headed by Margaret Williams. Citizens Against Toxic Exposure is asking the EPA to permanently relocate community residents before continuing with the clean-up. So far the EPA has resisted, but the Agency has promised that by the end of this month it will offer a plan that could include some form of relocation. The stand-off in Pensacola has developed into a major test of EPA policies. At issue is the Agency's long-standing reluctance to move people who live in or near Superfund sites. Joel Hirschorn is a former government official who was hired by the community group in Pensacola to be their technical consultant.

HIRSCHORN: I've been working in the Superfund program, you know, in one way or another since it began in 1980, and I can tell you that over the whole history of Superfund, there's always been this bureaucratic fear in EPA that if you started to permanently move people away from toxic waste sites there would be no end in sight. I mean, they're afraid that, you know, that too many Americans will want that from the government, and they're afraid of the costs involved.

(Industrial sounds, earth being moved)

RUDOLPH: An example of EPA's current approach to cleaning up Superfund sites near residential areas can be seen at the other abandoned factory that abuts the Pensacola neighborhood. If you were just driving by what used to be the Agrico Fertilizer Plant, you might assume that the fleet of dump trucks and yellow bulldozers there were preparing the ground for a new shopping center or office complex. But stop and read the signs posted on the chain link fence that surrounds the area. "Warning: No Trespassing. Contaminated Area. Avoid Contact With Soil and Water. " Workers operating the heavy machinery wear protective gear, respirators, and in some cases special plastic suits. James Robinson's house is just outside the fence.

ROBINSON: We had soil sample testing over my property over there, and they showed it was highly, was 4 times higher than the level it's supposed to be to, for anybody to live on it. And that had been proven. So we stayed here and started getting more, inhaling and breathing more of this stuff each and every day, you know? The only thing that looked back to me, that they didn't tell us to die out and then say well, yeah it was housing, you know. You know, because it's a minority neighborhood and a low-income neighborhood, and they don't seem to care about the people that live in here or they would get us out.

RUDOLPH: Many people share the view that this Pensacola community is a victim of environmental racism. All the residents are black. Some moved here decades ago because it was one of the only places in Pensacola where African Americans could buy property. Others arrived after a public housing project called Ascambia Arms was built near the Ascambia Trading Company. The situation is not unusual. Many studies have shown a disproportionately high percentage of blacks, Hispanics, and other minority group members live near areas that contain toxic waste. The National Environmental Justice Movement is pushing to change this situation. In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order on environmental justice. Still, the EPA has never considered environmental justice issues when deciding whether to relocate minority communities affected by toxic pollution. Many environmental and civil rights activists hope the Pensacola case will mark a turning point in EPA policy. Again, Joel Hirschorn.

HIRSCHORN: I think if EPA doesn't do what's really right here, and if they don't really implement President Clinton's environmental justice initiative, I think they're going to pay a heavy price for it.

RUDOLPH: Hirschorn points out that just a few days after the EPA is scheduled to unveil its plan for Pensacola, the city will host a national conference on relocating minority neighborhoods affected by toxic pollution. So there's a good chance Pensacola will be in the media spotlight. But the EPA regional director in charge of the Pensacola case says his agency will not buckle under political pressure. John Hankinson says Pensacola is being handled under a pilot program designed to avoid setting any precedents.

HANKINSON: What I would hope would come out of this would be an application of the effort to broaden the look at the relocation issues, to invite in other partners, be they other Federal agencies or other state or local agencies or nonprofit groups, to try to develop a solution that both meets the health needs but is also appropriate to the local community.

RUDOLPH: In the 5 years since EPA began its emergency dig at the Ascambia Trading Company, 41 community residents have died. Those who could afford to move have left the neighborhood. But others are stuck. They can't sell their homes because their property is virtually worthless, and they are either too old or too poor to start over again. Lisa Wiggins is among those who are counting on EPA to rescue them from a desperate situation.

WIGGINS: I've been here since I was 4 years old. It is going to be sad for me to leave. It's going to be very sad. I had my first boyfriend here, I've met my husband here. You know, this area has a lot of memories for me, and it would be hard for me to leave here. But if it means the safety of my family, having some peace of mind, knowing that my children won't come to me running with a tumor on the side of their neck the next day. I... I would go. I would willingly go.

RUDOLPH: What are you going to do if the end of the month comes and the EPA says they're not going to relocate you?

WIGGINS: Well, like I said I'm not naturally able to buy a house. I guess I'll sit here and wait to die. But if I ever get on my feet to where I can move, me and my family will be gone.

(A radio blares music)

RUDOLPH: For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph in Pensacola, Florida.



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