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

January 21, 1994

Air Date: January 21, 1994


Toxic Waste and Civil Rights / Gwendolyn Glenn

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. (12:38)

Toxic Waste and Civil Rights II

Host Steve Curwood talks with attorney Luke Cole about civil rights law in the environmental justice movement. Cole says the Civil Rights Act is becoming an increasingly valuable tool against environmental racism. And, under pressure from grassroots activists, the EPA is catching on. They have started paying attention to environmental civil rights violations. (05:40)

Listener Letters


Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Lisa Nurnberger, Gwendolyn Glenn, Kim Motylewski
GUEST: Luke Cole

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

In 1971, the EPA decided not to invoke civil rights laws in environmental cases. Now for the first time the EPA is using those laws in African American communities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

COLE: I think what's changed the EPA's mind is the massive grassroots movement for environmental justice. That movement put so much pressure on the Bush Administration and then on the Clinton Administration that environmental justice has become a priority.

CURWOOD: One case centers on the siting of a hazardous waste facility in a Louisiana town which already has two other chemical plants.

JACKSON: If any disaster happen, 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.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. First, news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

For the first time . . . Radon in homes has been directly linked to lung cancer. A new Swedish study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the presence of radon increased the chances of lung cancer up to 80 percent. That supports studies of cancer rates among miners exposed to higher concentrations of the radioactive gas. The EPA says radon causes between seven and 30-thousand deaths a year in the US.

A new technological development may bring solar electricity within competitive range of conventional electric sources. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski reports.

MOTYLEWSKI: the new technology ... a type of amorphous silicone cell ... was developed jointly by United Solar Systems of Troy, Michigan, and the Department of Energy. The company says its nearly twice as efficient as other cells like it, and half as expensive to operate. United Solar says the new cells will turn sunlight into electricity for sixteen cents a kilowatt hour ... About twice the cost of most conventional sources, but far less than previous PV cells. Donald Osborne, who runs the solar electric program of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, says the development bodes well for the future of photovoltaics.

OSBORNE: This is one of several independent developments which all lead to the point that photovoltaics, given the proper support and the proper implementation, will be able to provide cost-effective power within this decade.

MOTYLEWSKI: United Solar Systems plans to begin manufacturing the cells by next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.

NUNLEY: The environment was left out of the recently-completed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade . . . But talks continue on ways for GATT to address some environmental issues. The US wants a new GATT panel to deal with the growing number of environmental trade disputes. Some developing nations reportedly balked at the idea, fearing trade sanctions. But a US trade official says resistance seems to be diminishing, and that an agreement could be ready by the GATT signing ceremonies in April.

A new study says human activity is contributing to rising sea levels, but not just by warming the atmosphere. The study, published in the journal Nature, says activities such as irrigation, deforestation, and the pumping of underground aquifers have released previously landlocked water . . . that eventually finds its way to the oceans. Geologist Dork Sahagian of Ohio State University, says these account for one-third of the recently recorded sea level rise. Sahagian says the amount of sea level rise doesn't threaten coastal communities, but it does pose problems for global warming research.

SAHAGIAN: based on these anthropogenic factors of deforestation and aquifer pumping and that sort of thing, we know that contributes one third of the observed and that leaves only two thirds for climate warming factors. So we have to be careful in making the assumption that if we have a rise in sea level that this then is a measure of global warming, because it's not.

NUNLEY: But the study does show human impact global systems, such as the oceans.

This is Living on Earth.

If cases before the Supreme Court indicate the country's most pressing concerns, the flow of garbage is high on the list. The Court considers three trash-related cases this term. It will decide whether municipal incinerator ash should be considered hazardous waste . . . . Whether states can try to restrict the flow of trash by levying higher taxes on garbage from other states . . . And whether a city can dictate where its garbage goes. All three cases could affect the cost of trash disposal.

The U.S. Forest Service may use a contract loophole to cancel a 50-year logging lease in Alaska's lush Tongass rain forest. The Clinton Administration wants to end heavily-subsidized logging in national forests . . . And observers say the closure of a mill by the Alaska Pulp Corporation may give the forest service a way out of the contract. From KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, Lisa Nurnberger reports.

NURNBERGER: Forest Service officials say they may end the contract because the corporation breached it by shutting down its pulp mill. That put almost four hundred people out of work. If the contract is dissolved, another two hundred people that work at the company's Wrangle sawmill will lose their jobs. Alaska pulp still has seventeen years and about ninety-three thousand acres of trees left on the contract. Sitka city leaders are lobbying the Forest Service ... they want Alaska Pulp to convert the mill into a more profitable medium-density fiberboard plant. Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups want the contract terminated regardless. They say the Tongass cannot endure this amount of cutting.

For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Nurnberger in Sitka, Alaska.

NUNLEY: Californians may soon be able to analyse their household energy use instantly - through their TV sets. Pacific gas and electric plans to test-market an interactive system to track a household's energy usage. Spokesman Paul Ward:

WARD: What it could do and what the potential is, is that we'll know what you'll know what appliances are using what energy and how that could be adjusted to save you energy.

NUNLEY: The system could even allow users to find out how much energy they are using . . . In order to analyse their energy use.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Toxic Waste and Civil Rights

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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(music up)

Toxic Waste and Civil Rights II

CURWOOD: The EPA's decision to begin using the Civil Rights Act to examine toxic facility siting... has gotten a positive although somewhat cautious response from environmental justice activists and attorneys. Luke Cole, an lawyer with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, has written about environmental racism for the Michigan Law Review. Mr. Cole recently won a state court ruling that Latinos in California's Kettleman City had been unfairly discriminated against by local authorities... in the siting of a toxic waste incinerator. That ruling, which is under appeal, held that Spanish-speaking residents had not been kept properly informed during the permitting process. Mr. Cole joins us on the line from member station KQED in San Francisco. In your view, what's the importance of the E.P.A.'s investigation in Louisiana?
COLE: Well, I think the Louisiana case is a case that environmental justice activists around the country are watching very closely. Because whichever way it comes out, it's going to kind of start the ball rolling for using Title Six in other local struggles.
CURWOOD: Now, what's the power of Title Six, what's the interest that you litigators in this field have when the words "Title Six" are put together?
COLE: Well, in civil rights law, there are two different standards, two different burdens of proof. One is proving discriminatory intent, and the other is proving discriminatory impact. All of the cases that have been reported so far have alleged violations of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, that is, violations of the equal protection clause. Now that requires a proof of discriminatory intent by government decisionmakers. It's very difficult to find the kind of smoking gun, to find a legislator who's said, on the record, 'I'm doing this because it's the black people who live there', or ' the Latino people who live there'. The strength of Title Six -- actually, regulations under Title Six that are promulgated by government agencies such as the EPA, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense -- all have discriminatory impact clauses. So that if a community can show that a government decision is going to have a discriminatory impact -- that is, say, the black community is going to get more of the burden from a toxic waste site than the white community -- then that is actionable under these regulations.
CURWOOD: Give us a little history, please, Mr. Cole. I understand back in 1971, the EPA actually decided not to use any civil rights laws in its enforcement. Why do you suppose that was?
COLE: Well, in 1971, the head of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus, testified before Congress that their mission was to control pollution, it was not to remedy any of the social problems of the time. And the EPA argued at the time, in the early 1970's, that they were having enough problems convincing local municipalities to install expensive pollution control equipment and sewage equipment without introducing another potential problem, which is what they saw civil rights as.
CURWOOD: But back then, there was a sense that there could be a question, then, of civil rights.
COLE: Right. And in 1975, actually, the United States Commission on Civil Rights
chastised the EPA quite strongly for their refusal to look at civil rights data in their permitting and in their sewage grants.
CURWOOD: So what do you think has changed the EPA's mind? Is it just the change in administration, here?
COLE: I think what's changed the EPA's mind is this massive grassroots movement across this country -- the movement for environmental justice. That movement put so much pressure on the Bush Administration and then on the Clinton Administration that environmental justice has become a priority. EPA at the beginning of the year sent out a directive to its regional offices saying, 'Give us some cases. We want to do some cases that look like this. We are putting environmental justice high up on our priority list.'
CURWOOD: What do you expect the EPA will do in these cases ... what's you best guess?
COLE: Our hope is that they would require states to administer their permitting programs so that there was not a racially disparate impact. So that there was not a greater toxic burden on African American communities in Louisiana than on white communities. That may be optimistic. I think what they'll probably do is come up with a very narrow remedy that applies only to this site, rather than to the entire state permitting program.
CURWOOD: Let's look into your crystal ball for a moment. You've been looking at civil rights laws and questions of environmental justice for much of your professional career. What do you think that this government's willingness to open a Title Six case in Mississippi and Louisiana means for the environmental justice movement as a whole?
COLE: Environmental justice struggles are political and economic struggles, not legal struggles -- so that coming up with one more legal tool is important at the margins, but I don't think it's going to be the thing that makes or breaks the environmental justice movement. However, activists across the country are looking very closely at these two cases in Louisiana and Mississippi as some indication of whether the federal government will be a friend or foe in some of these environmental, local environmental justice struggles.

CURWOOD: Thank you. Luke Cole is a staff attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. Thank you, sir.
COLE: Thank you.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, its time to hear from you, our listeners.

Dave Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Commission in New York wrote us about our recent report on efforts to combat suburban sprawl in the Seattle area... by channelling growth into what are called "urban villages." "It sounds to me that the towns that Seattle planners want to establish are a lot like the wonderful and diverse neighborhoods of New York City," wrote Mr. Lutz. He adds, it's "important that we pay attention to the cities, because city people... and New Yorkers in particular... use a fraction of the energy resources, and a fraction of the land per capita, of suburbanites and rural people. City living is in many ways more rewarding than 'country' lifestyles. Americans must work to achieve magical...and livable cities... or we will condemn ourselves to suburban sprawl and lack of personal interaction."

Gretchen Icke, of Wichita, Kansas called about our reporting on the debate over incinerating the U.S. chemical weapons arsenal. Ms. Icke says our report left the impression that the U.S. produced chemical weapons continuously from World War One through the 1980s. In fact, she points out, chemical weapons production was halted in this country for nearly 15 years.

ICKE: Nixon issued a ban on chemical weapons production which was retained by Ford and Carter// and then eventually Reagan won and production was resumed. But there was a good long period from '69 up through about '83 that there was a ban in place.

SUBIER: The name is John Subier, I'm in Martinez, California. I just heard the report on animal tracking and noise pollution. I've been doing this Sierra Club winter mountaineering thing for years, and I've thought of it before but I'm going to add some animal tracking to the course. Also, noise pollution--keep us informed on legislation. I've been to the Grand Canyon only once, and/ the week I spent in the Canyon was almost ruined by airplane noise pollution.

CURWOOD: And finally, a listener from Campbellsport, Wisconsin writes: "We enjoy your programs, but you seem to continue to miss the big picture. There is no meaning to all the environmental activities unless there are real, intense programs to reduce world populations, especially in the industrialized countries. Your every program should start and end with a statement on the importance of population reduction."

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Living On Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. . . the coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Chris Page, Jan Nunley, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessica Bella Mura and engineers Louie Cronin, Rita Sand and Keith Shields. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living On Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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