When Green Means Stop

There's no longer a police department in Winona, Texas. Just 17 years after a chemical waste company came to town, promising a new era of economic development, Winona is a ghost town, its three-block downtown boarded over.

People have left Winona, too. One of them is Wanda Erwin. Four years ago, she wrote an open letter about Gibraltar Chemical Resources, whose toxic waste injection wells were located just south of her home. “On February 14, 1994, my son Jeremy, age 8, started having a nose bleed about 7 p.m. I could smell the strong toxic odors inside my home,” she wrote. Erwin says she made repeated efforts to report the constant fumes and the health effects to Texas' Natural Resources Conservation Commission, but nothing was ever done. Finally, after she received a small settlement from Gibraltar, Erwin moved away, taking her house with her. Once a strapping woman, friends now say she can barely handle the weight of her handbag.

There are thousands of Wanda Erwins—and hundreds of Winonas—in the U.S. today. Children are the most vulnerable, from the underage fruit pickers in the California strawberry fields breathing in methyl bromide, to the kids of Altgeld Gardens in Chicago, who have nowhere to play but toxic waste dumps. Their stories make up the profiles in this special issue of E.

There's actually nothing new about siting waste facilities in communities of color; it's an age-old practice. What is new is the federal government's involvement in the issue, and the ruckus that's raising in many states. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 clearly prohibits state approval of environmental discrimination, and the Clinton administration is the first to take that mandate seriously. It recently offered guidelines on how to do just that to the civil rights division of the Environmental Protection Agency. In Texas, Louisiana and other states, where environmental agencies have operated as virtual arms of industry, politicians are howling about federal interference.
If the issue of environmental racism succeeds in keeping the giant Shintech PVC plastic factory out of Convent, Louisiana, it will be a precedent of vast importance, ultimately calling into question any such sitings. Toxic industries tend to go where land is the cheapest, and where they'll encounter the least organized resistance—that means poor, minority communities. The advantages of locating there are actually spelled out for polluters in a 1980s study by Cerrell and Associates. What will happen to these toxic merchants if they can't play the color card? Wealthier communities stand ready to mobilize phalanxes of lawyers in opposition to any proposal. Will we relocate our waste incinerators and toxic dumps overseas, turning them into somebody else's problem?
The only possible answer lies in cleaning up our industrial processes, and building non-toxic factories that any community would be proud to have as a neighbor. The toxic terrorists don't have much of an option, because people are fired up and they're not going to take any more. Just listen to 77-year-old Essie Youngblood, a retired teacher and activist in a Louisiana community that just successfully derailed a uranium enrichment plant: “They thought we were too poor and uneducated to fight back, but they were wrong.”

Jim Motavalli