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WEB POSTED 05-07-2002
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Toxic waste and race: A dangerous blend

by Bernice Powell Jackson

-Guest Columnist-

Before April 16, 1987, no one had heard the phrases "environmental justice" or  "environmental racism."  

For the previous five years, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) had worked with communities of color across the nation, which were struggling with toxic waste being dumped near their homes, schools and places of work. After so many stories in so many places, it seemed obvious that this was part of something larger than individual incidences of injustice.

From these experiences, CRJ commissioned a study to examine what was going on. It looked at every zip code in the United States and identified where toxic waste, including commercial hazardous waste facilities and uncontrolled toxic waste sites, were located. It found that race was the most significant factor, even more significant than poverty. All across the U.S., toxic waste was more likely to be dumped in communities of color. The study showed that the experiences of the communities CRJ had worked with were not isolated ones, but part of a larger picture.

In releasing the findings of this study, then CRJ Executive Director Benjamin F.  Chavis, now Benjamin F. Muhammad, called this phenomenon  "environmental racism" and declared   the   United Church of Christ’s determination to work for environmental justice in communities of color across the country. Thus began a decade of working with grassroots communities—from Blacks in so-called "cancer alley," the corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La., to Native American communities like those near Prairie Island, Minn., to Latino communities like those along the New River in southern California, where the maquiladoras, the factories located on the U.S.-Mexico border, dump their wastes.

In 1991, CRJ sponsored the first People of Color Environmental Justice Summit, bringing together hundreds of people of color who were working on these issues in their own communities.

A movement was born.

One of the most toxic communities of color in this nation is East St. Louis, Ill., on the other side of the Mississippi from its sister city, St. Louis. But the two cities are very different.  East St. Louis sometimes has been referred to in the press as "the inner city without an outer city."

East St. Louis is about 98 percent Black and mostly poor. While its economy has improved over the past decade because of the gambling boats docked there, which provide taxes for a city desperately in need of services, it is clearly a town in crisis. The East St. Louis that Jonathan Kozol wrote about a decade ago in "Savage Inequalities" is virtually unchanged. It still has a high level of lead poisoning in its children. It still has the Dead Creek, a dried-up, polluted creek bed where children ride their bikes. It still has the Lanson Chemical plant superfund site right behind the homes of retired teachers and blue-collar workers who have high incidences of cancer and immune system disorders. It still has the large factories, like Monsanto and Pfizer/Warner-Lambert. They are still spewing their fumes into the air of East St. Louis. There is still pollution in the sewer system and ground of East St. Louis.

Technically, these plants are not located in the city, since they have created their own separately incorporated areas. That way they don’t have to pay property taxes to East St. Louis. Their "elected" officials often are plant employees.

The irony is that 15 years after "Toxic Waste and Race," East St. Louis is facing not only many of the same problems it did back then, but now it faces a new one. It seems after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Army has become concerned about the nerve gases that it has stockpiled. So, its plan is to "neutralize" these gases and to incinerate some of these "neutralized" nerve gases at the Onyx Environmental Services plant in East St. Louis. These "neutralized" nerve gas fumes will join those from the chemical plants and be breathed by the people of East St. Louis.  Incredible.

Ben Chavis once said that the best way to celebrate Black History Month was by making some Black history ourselves.  So, maybe the best way to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the release of the groundbreaking report, "Toxic Waste and Race," is by continuing the struggle for environmental justice today.

The United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries have joined the people of East St. Louis in their fight to stop the U.S. Army’s plans to add to the devastation by incinerating nerve gas there.

It will be our way of declaring to the world that our commitment to environmental justice and our outrage at environmental racism are as strong today as they were 15-years-ago.

Join us in recommitting yourself to fighting environmental racism and join us in celebrating Earth Day not only by planting trees or cleaning up our parks, but by writing to the Secretary of the Army, Thomas E. White (Thomas E. White at 109 Army Pentagon, Washington, DC 20310-0109) and urging him to end the plan to incinerate neutralized nerve gas in East St. Louis–or anywhere else. Join us and communities of color across the nation as we struggle to clean up our cities, our reservations, our playgrounds and our work sites.

A luta continua–the struggle continues!

(Bernice Powell Jackson is executive director of the Commission for Racial Justice.)

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