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Patterns emerge on race and environment

National studies and federal action cause changes in how environmental justice issues are determined and addressed

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a series that will examine issues related to environmental justice and to the fight of the Rogers and Eubanks roads community to be relieved of what they allege to be an undue burden. To read the first story in this series and for other resources, go to www.carrborocitizen.com/main/rogers-road

On Nov. 5, the Orange County Board of Commissioners announced they were reopening the site search for a solid-waste transfer station. The commissioners had voted unanimously last March to place the station on Eubanks Road.

While this was but one of the demands made by the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism, the decision to reopen the search was, for the community, an essential step forward. This community alleges it has suffered the effects of public policy decisions that reflect what Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, calls a “pattern” of environmental racism in underserved communities.

Undeniably, though, significant strides have been made in 25 years of environmental justice organization and action to turn back this pattern. As a result, the Rogers-Eubanks community proceeds today on firmer ground.

Significant disparities revealed

In October 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington D.C. Seventeen principles of environmental justice were drafted and adopted. Among those were assertions that environmental justice “demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias”; “affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples”; “demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making”; and “protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages.”

In 1992, a landmark study published in the National Law Journal titled “Unequal Protection: The Racial Divide in Environmental Law” revealed significant disparities in the way the federal Environmental Protection Agency enforced environmental laws. The report read: “There is a racial divide in the way the U.S. government cleans up toxic waste sites and punishes polluters. White communities see faster action, better results, and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live.”

In 1994, Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” The order asserted that, “To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law … each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionally high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories …”

Its intent was to follow on the principles of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discriminatory practices by anyone who receives federal funding.

The EPA’s definition of environmental justice goes on to affirm that environmental justice “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

And yet, a dozen years after the “Unequal Protection” study, 10 years after the signing of Executive Order 12898, the inspector general of the EPA acknowledged that his agency was doing a poor job of achieving the stated goals of federal action against environmental injustice.

“On a grade [scale] of ‘A’ to ‘F,’ I’d give the government a ‘C’ or a ‘C-,’” says Bullard. He says that while progress was made in putting policies and programs in place under the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, the current administration has worked to roll back those gains.

“So if I had to rate this current administration, it would be an ‘F,’” he says.

Changing a mindset

Unquestionably, though, it’s harder for government to today ignore environmental injustices.

“We’ve made important strides as relates to changing policy and gaining awareness and getting more scientists and health professionals to look at the risks and impacts of having these [waste] facilities placed so close to communities,” says Bullard.

He cites research conducted on the effects on families drinking well water that may have been contaminated by waste facilities and how government has very often ignored them.

“They can’t ignore this anymore,” he says.

“So what has happened is that the environmental justice movement has raised the awareness, and in some cases changed the laws, in other cases brought communities into the room, to the table, to say, ‘We need to have equity to address these issues.’

“Twenty years ago … in many cases, black people were not even allowed in the room.

“So we’ve made strides. But when you’re fighting 200 years of these patterns, I wouldn’t think it would be fair to say you can change these horrific conditions in 25 years.

“We have a lot of uphill battles to fight, but there are more people fighting them, there are more individuals in government who are more sensitive to these issues today. Not everybody is sensitive to them — because there are some people who are in elected offices who see nothing wrong with placing every single facility in one community and saying, ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with it because it has to go somewhere.’

“That mindset is now being challenged, and, hopefully, at some point in our history, we can really just erase that kind of thinking from the face of the earth.”

Robert Cox is a former national president of the Sierra Club and helped establish the club’s environmental justice organizing program. He’s now a professor of rhetorical studies in UNC’s department of communication studies.

Cox says: “I believe there is an emerging sense in this country that society can no longer expect to profit from the benefits of an industrial-chemical economy and all of its products and services while asking some parts of its citizens to bear the burden of the production and/or disposal of these same products.”

In a recent environmental justice-focused issue of The Crisis magazine, published by the NAACP, Bailus Walker Jr., a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Howard University, writes:

“Addressing environmental health disparities calls for more than tinkering at the edges, or more biomedical research and scientific analyses. It requires more active participation and leadership of governments of all levels. Governments must be more sensitive to the importance of having the voice of poor and underserved groups in decisions that affect their health, environment and quality of life.”

From the community, for the community

But the short history of the environmental justice movement indicates that the participation of government will not be forthcoming till the community at risk instigates that participation.

Bob Hall, director of Durham-based Democracy North Carolina and editor of the book Environmental Politics: Lessons from the Grassroots, acknowledges that many people attribute the fight to keep a waste facility out of one’s community as welling from a “not-in-my-backyard” mindset — a mindset that serves as the source for the raising of awareness and as the inspiration for grassroots organizing.

Hall says he believes that community-generated environmental justice campaigns have often inspired individuals to explore “the power of government and the power of their own organizing.”

“And these are legitimate grievances they have,” Hall continues, “and they should be organizing to protect their backyards.”

Some then return to relatively quiet lives, others are compelled to the next encounter.

“While most of those folks would try and get back to their daily lives,” says Hall, “some of them would end up getting involved in other fights. Some of them would get on the county planning board — because they would see the power of the planning board. Or they might run for county commission or the school board and get more into politics.”

John Cooper of the Chapel Hill-based nonprofit MDC says that the bottom-up nature of an environmental justice initiative — the fact that the foundation is built by, and immediately for, those who are at risk — generates and encourages leadership skills.

“[These campaigns] are much more egalitarian than the larger mainstream organizations, in that these small, underfunded organizations don’t operate as corporations with boards of directors and staffs, but basically with volunteers,” Cooper says. “You can see how they’re tied to the community because they are the community. They’re not headquartered in D.C. or New York or San Francisco or LA, but in the community.”

And, as many scholars of environmental justice observe, though women may not always be the most recognizable faces in an environmental justice campaign, they are most commonly the most active organizers — women who have been drawn to the movement out of a very immediate concern for their families, their homes, their neighbors and their neighborhoods.

Says Bullard: “Grandmothers and retired schoolteachers and postal workers are coming to the front.”

Women are very often the true backbone of the local organization, says Hall. He believes women have a “deeper understanding of the community value” and of the risks being imposed upon that community … “and it’s something they take very seriously and are willing to fight about.

“So when it gets to that level, they perceive it quicker and can act on it with more passion, and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer — which is absolutely essential. You’ve got to have a level of tenacity to go through the different stages of being called stupid, then you’re a troublemaker, and you’re wasting your time — and you go through all these stages of intimidation that the powers-that-be will put on those who stand up.

“So they’ve got to have some real spunk and some driving spirit. And I think it has something to do with their really strong connection to a sense of ‘this is integral to my family and everything that I view about my values as a person on this planet. Who am I if I don’t defend my family against personal attack?’”

‘Broken promises’

On Sept. 20, Neloa Jones, a resident of the Rogers-Eubanks community and member of the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism, was allowed five minutes at the beginning of an Orange County Assembly of Governments meeting to speak on behalf of her neighbors. She said, in part:

“[I]n spite of the fact that Orange County prides itself on being aggressively opposed to social and environmental injustice, it has refused to honor decades of broken promises made to the Rogers-Eubanks Community. …

“The Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism supports this community in its demands for environmental justice.”

The coalition demanded that local governments do the following:

  • immediately eliminate the community as a site for the proposed solid-waste transfer station;
  • halt all solid-waste activities in the community no later than November 2009;
  • honor the promises made to this community over the past 35 years for having endured the negative impacts of the landfill; and
  • provide the community with municipal water and sewer services and other community enhancements.

With upcoming elections that focused in part on the issue and with officials in Chapel Hill and Carrboro expressing their unease with what was widely being perceived as an insufficient search for potential transfer station sites, the effort was well timed.

On Sept. 25, County Manager Laura Blackmon sent a letter to the City of Chapel Hill stating that the county would like to resubmit its request for a zoning permit for the station.

County Commissioner Mike Nelson went on record on Oct. 23 advocating reconsideration of the station decision.

On Nov. 5, the commissioners announced they were reopening the site search.

In the Nov. 29 issue of The Citizen: Charges of environmental racism in Orange County.

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  1. Neloa Jones

    Taylor,
    This article really spoke to me, really spoke to me deep down and expressed so much of how I have been feeling these past several months, feelings that even my husband doesn’t quite understand.
    I will be sure to contact Prof. Cox Cox to ask him to investigate why the Sierra Club has not supported this community. Interesting, my graduate studies in English at UNC-CH included an emphasis on Rhetorical Theory.
    Another interesting comment that caught my attention: I had accepted the landfill in my backyard b/c it was there . . . though I always thought it would someday go away. And then here comes the transfer station and Gayle Wilson actually stating that Orange County would be moving that stinking garbage dump (formally known as the convenience center) in my backyard. So, Taylor, I said to myself, “Enough is enough. This is going to stop. Now.” That was the final push for me. No more of this waste in my backyard.
    And this is where I am now, as Mr. Hall states, an “inspired” community member who is only now “explor[ing] the power of government.” In the middle of this transfer battle, I am already embroiled in the “next encounter,” motivated, yes, by “a very immediate concern” for family, homes, and neighbors, and neighborhoods.
    (I am also an ex-teacher. (Smiles)
    Wonderful article, Taylor. I wish this paper has much wider circulation.