Toxic Pollution in Our Backyard

Toxic dumping in poor neighborhoods isn't just an Ivory Coast problem. It's a global problem. Norris McDonald, President of the African American Environmentalist Association, tells Tony Cox about low-income communities in the United States that are fighting to keep toxic polluters out of their backyards.

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Toxic dumping in poor neighborhoods isn't just an Ivory Coast problem. It's a global problem, says Norris McDonald. He's president of the African American Environmentalist Association. And he told Tony that here in the U.S. poor black communities from Newark, New Jersey, to Port Arthur, Texas, are fighting to stop toxic facilities from polluting in their backyards. It's a problem even for our nation's capital.

Mr. NORRIS MCDONALD (President, African American Environmentalist Association): For instance, the Washington Navy Yard for decades dumped PCBs into the Anacostia River. There are a number of different pollution sites in black communities in Washington, D.C., east of the river, Ward 7 and Ward 8. Some of the toughest pollution sites in the city happen to be located in these African-American communities. And much of the dumping goes there. Just down the street, you had an incinerator for years right next to a utility plant.

So just as you have this international toxic waste trade that was described in the earlier segment, you have the same sorts of situations here: whether or not it's environmental racism, that is the intentional polluting of these communities just based on racism, or whether or not blacks end up living in these areas, and then - are moving into areas that are polluted and then are still exposed to toxic chemicals.

COX: Oh, that's really the problem, isn't it, Norris. The fact that in some cases you have industrial development that took place, you know, 30, 40, 50 years ago, and as whites moved out and as blacks and browns moved in, some of the problems associated around this industrialization became evident later. But it was too late for those folks who had already moved there. And then at the same time, you have cheaper land in other parts of the country perhaps where folks of a lower income strata move in to find that these dangers exist for them.

Mr. MCDONALD: Yes, some people who try to be apologists for unscrupulous polluters try to use that issue of whether or not the pollution site was there first or the people were there first. It really doesn't matter. If you're there and there's a danger, it should be dealt with.

Now there have been some attempts to deal with it. President Clinton signed an executive order, but it's been almost completely ineffective in protecting minority communities from toxic waste.

The African American Environmentalist Association has actually been trying to pass some national legislation that would help solve this problem: a national environmental justice act that would serve to protect these communities, to try to put some teeth into protection in the communities. Senator Obama and Senator Clinton introduced an environmental justice bill, but we believe you need more teeth than that particular bill contains.

COX: Isn't part of the problem that local government and the local control of areas where you'll have city councils or other community leaders who will enter into, in some instances, agreements with companies to allow them to leave waste material in exchange for promises of other types of development that may or may not actually end up happening.

Mr. MCDONALD: Well, this is an unfortunate situation. There is an unfortunate history of this sort of activity, and that was actually documented over a decade ago in a report called Toxic Wastes and Race that was written by Benjamin Goldman. You know, you have the same situation over in Ivory Coast. They're saying that the government approved them distributing the waste with a local company there. So they're trying to hold themselves harmless from that situation by saying that it was government approved. You have the same sorts of situation here where landfills end up in the black community, being targeted for the black community or blacks end up living next to those communities.

If you take every city in the United States, you take the southern part of the city, down where the docks probably are and where the industrial facilities are located, whether it's South Philly, Southeast Washington, D.C., you have these same sorts of situations.

COX: But you know in San Francisco, now think back to the earthquake of 1989. One of the more expensive areas in that city actually was built on a landfill. In Los Angeles, for example, the Marina del Rey, which is a very high-end part of the community, is also landfill - how as an individual, as a homeowner, as a renter even, can you protect yourself in terms of locating or situating yourself in an environment in a neighborhood that is safe?

Mr. MCDONALD: You know, information is power, and that's why we produce reports that illustrate or document where the pollution sites are located. We wrote a report called Our Unfair Share and you actually can document the sites: Superfund sites, RCRA sites - Resource Conversation Recovery Act sites - just lists where your toxic waste sites are so that you have some information.

People are supposed to inform you when they sell properties about these particular situations, but you should protect yourself and do your homework. But unfortunately, sometimes the powers that be work against minority communities. For instance, you mentioned Los Angeles. Well, let's talk about that for just a second.

COX: Okay.

Mr. MCDONALD: You know, the celebrities in Malibu are protesting a liquefied natural gas facility that's being targeted to be built 15 miles off the coast of Malibu. Well, you know, California needs that liquefied natural gas, and it's one of the better clean-air fuels. But at the same time, none of these celebrities came out when they proposed siting a new LNG facility down in Long Beach.

So what happens is powerful communities and people can get together and block these facilities through litigation. The poor communities and black communities and minority communities are so busy working that they don't have the time to attend the meetings and hire the lawyers to engage in the sort of litigation that would protect their communities, so the path of least resistance is taken. And so you get an LNG facility in Long Beach, but you don't get one 15 miles off the coast of Malibu.

COX: That's an interesting point that you raise, because you used the term earlier in our conversation - environmental racism. But is the issue, with regard to the environment, is it more about class and power economically than race?

Mr. MCDONALD: You know, we've been engaged in that debate for two or three decades now. It's about both. It's about race and it's about low-income people. Those are the paths of least resistance. Now for those who don't want to call it racism, fine. If you want to call it classism. It's the path of least resistance. It's the path where people cannot protect themselves. It's part of the reason we formed the African American Environmentalist Association.

I'm asked often: Why do you need an African-American environmental group? The environment affects everyone. Well, my response is that there is a black side of town in virtually every city in the United States and there are unique pollution issues on that side of town, and that's why we work on these issues.

So yes, there is a component of race. And in many cases, these minority communities are also low income. We need a national act with teeth to protect these communities.

COX: Norris McDonald, thank you very much.

Mr. MCDONALD: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: That was Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association speaking with NPR's Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, a call to arms. Wisconsin lawmakers propose putting guns in classrooms to curb school violence. And Halle Berry's new movie role proves art doesn't always imitate life. We'll discuss these and other topics on our Roundtable next.

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