Dr. Robert Bullard

Some People Don’t Have ‘The Complexion for Protection’

When, in 1979, Dr. Robert Bullard wrote a study called Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community, nobody had heard of environmental racism (see the special report in this issue). It would be three more years before anyone used that phrase, but Dr. Bullard had plainly made the connection between toxic siting and communities of color, leading to the first lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, (filed by his wife) that used civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination. By 1991, when Bullard helped plan the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., the fight for environmental justice was well-established, with activists from around the country making common cause with each other.

Photo: Robert Bullard

Dr. Bullard is the author or editor of three landmark texts, Confronting Environmental Racism (1993), Dumping on Dixie (1994) and Unequal Protection (1996). He serves on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, offering direction on complaints filed under the anti-discriminatory Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Dr. Bullard, who teaches sociology and heads the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, has become the country’s leading authority on toxic discrimination. His most recent book is Just Transportation, a look at barriers to mobility in minority communities. Dr. Bullard says he’s heartened by recent decisions showing the federal government taking an increasingly activist role against do-nothing state environmental agencies that collaborate with polluters. Environmental racism isn’t going away, he says, but communities are banding together to fight it and, in many cases, winning.

E: Maybe we can start with the general concept of environmental racism, where the term originated and how it has come into broad acceptance.

Dr. Robert Bullard:: The phrase “environmental racism” was coined back in 1982 by Reverend Ben Chavis, then the director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ). He was talking about Warren County, North Carolina and the siting of a toxic waste landfill in that predominantly black county. People saw that the only reason Warren County was selected was because it was poor and black. The process by which that happens has now been codified and defined in all kinds of reports and books. Basically, environmental racism is another form of institutionalized discrimination.

In 1987, CRJ published a report entitled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which looked at the siting of hazardous waste sites by race and income. It concluded that the most important factor in locating these facilities was race.

Before that time, was there very little awareness of this as an issue?

There was a lot of awareness in terms of local communities. As a matter of fact, in 1979 my wife filed a lawsuit in Houston, Texas charging the city and one of the largest national waste companies, Browning Ferris Industries, with environmental discrimination in siting its facilities. And that was the first environmental justice lawsuit filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But most of the awareness was local. There was no pulling together of the fact that African-American children are poisoned with lead in their homes and on the playgrounds at a greater rate than any other group. And this is one of the reasons why kids are dropping out of school, put in classes for the retarded, and told they’re slow learners.

Where the freeways go, where the landfills and the bus barns are, that’s where you’ll find environmental injustice. And it wasn’t until people started to meet and talk and share their notes that we saw this national pattern. And we begin to see that environmental racism is more than where the garbage dump is, it’s all those other things, too.

In Convent, Louisiana, there is an incredible concentration of plants in a very small black community. There’s just been a very precedent-setting ruling in which the EPA is actually holding up state licensing of the proposed Shintech polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic plant there. Maybe you could talk about how significant that is and the implications if this plant is not licensed.

The fact is that this community is already over-burdened with polluting facilities. It has a dozen already, and 60 percent unemployment there, so there is certainly no correlation between the number of facilities and the jobs they allegedly create. The Title VI case is now being looked at by the EPA, and it’s very important. This is our Brown v. Board of Education, as significant as that ruling desegregating the schools. If we can’t win in Convent, we might as well throw in the towel. So there’s a lot of eyes that will be looking at Convent, especially since President Clinton’s 1994 executive order reinforcing Title VI on his watch.

Title VI says no federal funds can be used to discriminate based on race or color, and that the law has to be used to enforce equal protection when it comes to housing, education, employment and voting. The president was saying that now’s the time for us to do a better job of enforcing our environmental laws equally across the board. The order also reinforces the National Environmental Policy Act, which was passed by Congress in 1969. The Act says that before any type of operation can go in that may have a negative impact on the environment or on health, a socioeconomic impact assessment must be done.

In Chester, Pennsylvania, the local citizens group has also won an order allowing them to continue with their civil rights suit against the state.

The Chester case is very important because the city is inundated with all kinds of toxic waste facilities. That community basically said that it’s had enough, and it filed suit. Chester is almost 75 percent black, and it has a large low-income population. They’ve won their case so far, getting a state judge to say that their complaint can be heard under Title VI. There was another case similar to that in Flint, Michigan last year. The predominately black community there filed suit to stop an incinerator, saying that the state of Michigan didn’t even require this company coming in to do an environmental impact assessment. So the community sued and won, with the state judge saying that the state of Michigan has an obligation to protect all of its citizens.

That brings up something that seems to me to be a pattern in the communities I visited. The local residents usually not only don’t have a voice in siting these plants, they’re also in the dark about what the plants really do.

Exactly, Most of these communities have no idea what these facilities are, the kinds of emissions and pollution that will be coming from them. Most of these facilities don’t even hire people that live in the community. So the community really doesn’t have anything to gain by having these facilities next door. People could walk to work at the 12 plants in Convent, but you have a 60 percent unemployment rate.

These companies also get tax breaks, which means they don’t really provide much in the way of economic relief, either.

They don’t provide much in terms of anything

, except for the very few people who commute in, get the jobs and leave. This has never really been closely examined before, and that’s why I say, look at Chester, Convent and Flint, because they’re very significant. There’s another case that should be studied, because it’s an example of communities that aren’t polluted yet. It’s Forest Grove and Center Springs in northwest Louisiana. The communities got together, formed Citizens Against Nuclear Trash, and decided that they would not accept a proposed $700 million uranium enrichment plant that was going to be built in the middle of the road separating them. The facility would have been so large that people would have had to drive nine miles around to the other community. This is the arrogance the company, Louisiana Energy Services, had. These communities, which were founded in 1860 and 1910, were treated like they were invisible, and not even listed in the environmental impact statements.

Photo: Robert Bullard

In May of last year, the judges from the Nuclear Regulatory Licensing Board denied the plant a permit based on environmental justice grounds. In April of this year, the NRC upheld the board’s decision and denied that permit on appeal. Now I hear the company has packed up and left. The plant, which would have been the first privately owned uranium enrichment plant in the country, will not be built.

Are we going to see that uranium plant appear somewhere else now, another impoverished community?

I doubt it. In the process of gathering the data, we established that this facility was not only dangerous and sited in a very racist way, it was not even needed. We don’t need any more enriched uranium. It’s already being produced by the Department of Energy, and no new nuclear power plants are being built.

Another problem is that the state departments of environmental protection, particularly in Texas and Louisiana, appear to be very much collaborative with industry. They seem to see their roles as helping new industries get established. Is this a pattern you’ve seen?

Of course. There are very few of these departments that act as advocates for communities, that are aggressive in making sure that environmental justice exists. There’s a lack of understanding that the state should be operating for the benefit of all its citizens, not just the most powerful ones. You’ll find these agency heads going in and out of jobs with industry. That’s why people look to the federal EPA to really hold these state agencies’ feet to the fire. As the feds move more of their federal mandates down to the states for enforcement, we’re going to see more of these challenges.

In New Mexico, I visited with former uranium miners in Shiprock. They say they’ve been unfairly compensated for the 50 years they were subjected to radiation, and are pressing Congress to enact a new benefits package.

Whether we talk about the miners in New Mexico, or the nuclear dump proposed for California’s Ward Valley, which would also affect Native Americans, or the Sierra Blanca nuclear dump in Texas, in a mostly Hispanic area, there’s clearly a pattern of attacks on communities of color, and they’re forming alliances. The Navajos are not alone, and the people of Ward Valley are not alone. It’s a signal that the environmental justice movement has matured, and we can tap into each other’s resources, experiences and expertise. It’s not enough, today, for a community to hire a lawyer and try to fight these very powerful institutions on its own. It needs a team approach. In Convent, a whole lot of organizations are working together on the national issues, including Greenpeace, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and that has allowed the local community to organize and have an impact locally. We get accused of being outsiders, but the communities don’t see it that way; they value the assistance.

What can you do for a community like Convent that has been so effectively poisoned already, with a dozen plants, that stopping Shintech’s PVC facility won’t change that much?

That’s the point we’ve been making all along. Winning the Shintech case won’t be the end of it. There’s still an environmental justice issue in Convent, because of the concentration of polluters and the proposals that are pending. We have to talk now about targeted enforcement and compliance. We need the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the federal EPA, to closely examine what’s happening in that community in terms of emissions, and study the cumulative effects. It is possible for companies to be in compliance, but the overall situation to be highly dangerous. We should see an aggressive waste minimization and emissions reduction program, and in some cases we may have to change production processes. The next battle is coming up with a standard that says that Convent’s toxic burden has been reached.

Do you agree with the adage that “waste attracts waste”?

It is very common for an industrial polluting plant to go in, and after that only other plants like it come into the area. Once you get one, it’s easy to get another, and when there’s two, there soon is three. You don’t get these types of incinerators and chemical plants being compatible with clean industries or office towers. To create white-collar office jobs you have to attract the population, and usually people like to live near where they work.

When the toxic landfill came into Warren County, North Carolina, giving birth to the environmental justice movement, the county started to lose major businesses, because people started to identify the county with hazardous wastes.

In Chester, municipal corruption is a major factor in the siting of these plants. How big a role do you think kickbacks and under-the-table arrangements play in what gets built?

When we look at the political process on the local or state level, we always find corrupt politicians willing to do the bidding of industry. Whoever industry can buy off or pay off, they’ll do that, because it’s about money. The politicians then take on the role of trying to sell these industries to the community—but, increasingly, it doesn’t fly. The communities have right on their side, and in many instances they’ve been able to withstand all the cash and the temptations.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.