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Defending the earth in '92: a people's challenge to the EPA.

In rejecting the 1992 official Commemoration of Columbus' so-called discovery, we can recall that 1492 not only led to genocide against humans, but also to devastation of what native people call Mother Earth. Indigenous habits of conservation and respectful use of resources gave way to a reckless imperial plunder that continues its destructive course today. In response, we have seen a major movement emerge to defend the planet. Yet even as environmentalism became a popular cause, it rarely saw its goals as related to social and economic justice.

This began to change five years ago with the publication of a study entitled "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States" by the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice. The report abounded in hair-raising examples of how toxic wastes were (and are) disproportionately dumped on communities of color. For example, the predominantly African American and Latino South Side of Chicago had the greatest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the nation. The world's largest hazardous waste landfill was (and is) located in a 78.9% Black county. Although class has also been a key factor, the United Church's study of 25 cities found that "race still proved to be more significant." Since then, many other forms of environmental racism have been identified, including farmworker children who suffer birth defects due to pesticides sprayed on their mothers during early pregnancy.

The Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been a leading force in combating environmentalism racism as practiced by industry, government, and the military. It has done much to expand the whole concept of "environmentalism" beyond traditional white middle-class concerns about conservation that leave human beings out of the picture. SWOP sees its task as demystifying the meaning of environmentalism, so that the term includes community struggles for social and economic justice that rise from abuses of natural resources.

During the last five years, SWOP has worked with barrio residents in New Mexico to win two major victories. The first was against a particle-board company that polluted the groundwater; in the second, a military base formally agreed to investigate -- with community participation -- whether it was contaminating that community's well water.

SWOP became nationally known in March 1990 for a letter sent to the "Big Ten" environmental organizations that charged them with a lack of accountability to communities of color, as reflected in their priorities and their own personnel. This campaign helped to generate the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit gathering in October 1991, in Washington, D.C. By then SWOP had also organized the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, bringing together over 50 organizations in eight states to create a multinational, multicultural force.

For starters, the Network took on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with a campaign launched simultaneously in Albuquerque, Dallas, and San Francisco on July 31, 1991. A letter to the EPA's administrator William Reilly spelled out the reasons for the campaign; the text follows. July 31, 1991 Honorable William K. Reilly, Administrator U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Washington, D.C. 20460 Dear Mr. Reilly:

We are writing you at a very critical time in history when we are facing an enormous national and global environmental crisis. We feel, as you no doubt will agree, that the United States Environmental Protection Agency must play a crucial role now and in the coming years to address this tremendous challenge. We are writing you in the sincere hope that we can work together to meet this challenge.

We are writing on behalf of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, a multicultural, multinational organization representing hundreds of organizations and individuals throughout the southwestern United States. In taking this initiative, we believe that we speak to concerns that are shared by millions of people throughout the United States.

It has been well documented that people of color in the United States suffer disproportionately from toxic contamination. We are deliberately targeted through racism, sexism, and a lack of economic and social justice. The result has been genocide of indigenous people and other people of color and the continued threatening of future generations. Children, the elderly and women -- especially women of color -- are the poorest of the poor and are paying the highest price from pollution with increased work and health problems and economic devastation.

The military, industry, agribusiness, and governments (at all levels) are the major polluters in our communities. The severe economic impacts include loss of resources -- clean water, land, air, and our communities. We suffer deterioration of health related to workplace hazards and environmental degradation. In the Southwest, our lifestyles are in jeopardy; the water we use daily in our religious ceremonies and to water our crops is polluted. Our children are bearing the brunt of the poisoning of our communities. Some examples follow.

* Children living around military installations have higher rates of cancer and

other illnesses. In Albuquerque's inner Rio Grande valley, an infant almost

died from drinking one bottle of formula mixed with contaminated water

from their well, downstream from Kirtland Air Force Base.

* Three out of five of the largest commercial hazardous waste landfills in the

U.S., with numerous environmental violations, are located in communities of

color, including the world's largest hazardous waste landfill at Emelle,


* Navajo teenagers have organ cancer seventeen times the national average.

Uranium spills on Navajo land have contaminated their water, air, and soil.

Few if any measures have been taken to determine the extent of contamination

of the people and of the environment. They report instances of deformed

livestock. The Havasupai, residents of the Grand Canyon, have been resisting

the permitting of United Nuclear by the U.S. Forester General to mine uranium

on their sacred lands.

* 50% of the children suffering from lead poisoning (resulting in low attention

rates, limited vocabulary, behavioral problems, and shortened lifespans) are

African American. Although the dangers of lead poisoning are well documented,

children in housing projects in Dallas and across the country still live

with lead-based paint on their walls.

* Children of farmworkers have suffered birth defects due to the spraying of

pesticides on their mothers during the early stages of pregnancy. Two-year-old

Jose Luis Gonzalez of McFarland, California, was born with cleft hands,

which has been attributed to pesticides being sprayed on grapes harvested by

his mother.

* In and around farmworker communities, children with cancer are common.

In Earlimart, California, the children are being afflicted at 12 times the expected

rate. Last year three-year-old Jimmy Caudillo from Earlimart died

from leukemia attributed to pesticide exposure. Says his mother, "we are surrounded

by fields, we work on them, and the pesticides are harming our


* Children whose mothers have worked in high-tech industry using dangerous

chemicals have high rates of birth defects, are born prematurely, and suffer

lower birth weights. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, children of women who

unknowingly used dangerous chemicals at the GTE Lenkhurt facility have

weighed only 20 to 22 pounds at 5 and 6 years of age.

* Children suffer loss of family due to the disablement or death of a parent due

to work-related and community poisoning. A Chicana in Albuquerque working

at a microelectronics plant was poisoned by deadly toxins, including

plutonium. She has lost her health, her income, and her ability to raise her

child. Her marriage has failed due to the stress of her illness and she worries

about her child's future. Sixteen women who were poisoned by GTE in

Albuquerque have died; many more have suffered from cancers and central

nervous system damage. Several women in Tucson, Arizona, have died -- leaving

many orphans -- due to groundwater contamination caused by

Hughes Aircraft.

* Children suffer loss of basic human needs -- decent shelter, nutritious food,

health care, and a decent education when a polluting industry "runs away"

from demands for decent and healthy jobs and a clean environment. In Las

Vegas, New Mexico, 52 fiberboard workers were fired when they went on

strike for a livable income, a healthy and safe workplace, and a clean environment

in their community downstream from the plant. The company is

blackmailing the community, threatening to move elsewhere if the workers

and residents demand higher wages and environmental regulation.

These are a few of many examples of the environmental racism that we face on a daily basis in the Southwest and throughout the United States.

Since the inception of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, we have requested assistance from the Agency to alleviate these disproportionate impacts from which we suffer. To the discredit of the EPA, we have seen many requests and pleas fall on deaf ears. Moreover, we have seen the EPA pursue policies that themselves have been detrimental to us and to communities of people of color in general.

The following are a few examples of the lack of accountability on the part of the EPA toward communities of color:

* Despite the fact that for years it was known that lead poisoning inordinately

impacts inner-city youth -- primarily youth of color -- no action was taken

by the EPA until studies confirmed that suburban children were impacted by

lower levels of the same poison. Prior to the EPA's finally taking action on

this issue in 1984, the Agency went so far as to side with oil refiners when

they attempted in court to roll back restrictions on the lead content of gasoline.

The court, to its credit, argued that the restrictions already in place were

not strong enough.

* In 1982, a top Agency administrator halted an EPA lawsuit against Dixie

Smelter in south Dallas after it was determined that a settlement would hinder

efforts of the Reagan administration to limit restrictions on gasoline lead

content. The permanent severe disablement of African American and

Chicano children in the area has been widely attributed to lead emissions

from the facility. The EPA went on to instruct affected residents to grow

grass (in order to keep dust levels down) and to simply stay indoors.

* When it was determined that residents of the predominantly white Times

Beach and Love Canal communities were walking on low levels of dioxins

that were contaminating the soil (with corresponding cancer risks ranging

from one in one million to one in one billion), the EPA, to its credit, moved

quickly to buy out these communities and relocate residents. The Agency

successfully sued the responsible parties -- Syntex and Occidental Petroleum

-- for hundreds of millions of dollars. However, when so-called "subsistence

populations downstream" (read communities of color) are poisoned by eating

local fish contaminated with high levels of dioxins from nearby bleached

paper mills (with unheard of cancer risks of two in ten), the EPA response

has been simply "don't eat the fish."

* In 1982, the EPA fought against civil rights organizations in Warren County,

North Carolina, who contested the disposal of PCB-contaminated road surface

soil near local African American communities (as opposed to a location

near a predominantly middle-class section of Charlotte). This disposal served

to destroy land values in the nearby communities. The EPA went beyond

merely failing to address the racist nature of the siting of the landfill -- it

actually argued in court that, even if such sites are in communities of color, it

is not in the statutes to be taken under consideration.

* From 1979 until the present, the EPA has consistently sandbagged farmworkers,

farmworker communities, and the general public by failing to develop

comprehensive pesticide regulations. The EPA has claimed that it has

inadequate information regarding the health and environmental impacts of

pesticide spraying. However, the Agency has never requested funding for adequate

epidemiological studies that would provide it with such information.

EPA has been promising these regulations to the public for over twelve years.

Meanwhile, EPA has only 4 staffpersons working on pesticide-regulation development

and enforcement as these relate to farmworkers (we would argue

that 400 or more are needed), compared with over 50 working to protect

predominantly middle-class single family homeowners from radon contamination.

EPA has capitulated to agribusiness in the course of developing the

regulations. By placing enforcement authority at the state level (often state

agricultural departments or agencies controlled by growers), the final regulations

may not be enforced at all.

* Despite a staff recommendation in 1988 to ban parathion from use as a pesticide,

the EPA sat on the issue through that election year, and is only now

taking steps to end parathion use. Meanwhile, four farmworkers have allegedly

died from exposure to the chemical.

* To its credit, the EPA Superfund Program seeks to involve those affected by

contamination in the process through public hearings, technical assistance

funding, and the promotion of local community organizations. However, the

Program presupposes that affected communities automatically have access to

the lawyers and other professionals needed to effectively implement the Program.

Moreover, the Technical Assistance Grant program of the Superfund

often requires state and local matching-fund requirements that can be used

against communities of color, depending on the politics of the state and area

in question and the amounts of matching money and in-kind resources


* The McFarland, California, Childhood Cancer Cluster is an area where

farmworker families live in a federally funded housing tract, built right on top

of a highly contaminated site previously used as a pesticide dump. Despite

this, EPA has taken no steps to relocate residents from the area. In fact, the

Agency has failed to release results of tests made in 1989 to residents in the

affected area.

* In Kettleman City, California, EPA has just approved a permit to expand the

Chem Waste Management (CWM) hazardous waste landfill. This toxic dump

is the largest such facility in the western United States, and is located in a

Latino farmworker community. No hearing was held in the community on the

permit proposal. The Agency has also encouraged CWM to pursue a hazardous

waste incinerator application in Kettleman, over the strenuous objections

of the community, which has been systematically excluded from real

participation in the permitting process.

* Mexican and Mexican American communities along the Mexico-U.S. border

have been burdened by pollution from maquiladora and agricultural sources

for many years. The growth of communities caused by the development of

the maquiladoras over the past twenty-five years has not been accompanied

by basic infrastructural development in many areas, leading to Third World

health conditions and high rates of gastrointestinal and other diseases.

Petrochemical, microelectronic, and other industries carry with them the

potential for catastrophic accidents in nearby communities, in addition to

ongoing workplace hazards. In spite of this, it was only when the Bush

administration began to push for a free trade agreement with Mexico that

EPA did anything to study and address the poisoning of communities in the

border region.

* EPA has taken it upon itself to lobby for U.S. government financial subsidy

of "debt for nature swaps." These are exchanges where Third World countries

sign over lands to conservation groups in exchange for creditor agreements

to erase a portion of that country's debt. In other cases, the debt is purchased

at reduced rates; the creditors can then write it off. This action by the

Agency legitimizes the Third World "debt" and furthers the continued expropriation

of resources from Third World countries to the United States.

"Debt for nature" erodes the basic sovereignty rights of people in these

countries, especially those of indigenous peoples living on land involved in

the "swaps." The "swaps" turn conservation groups into creditors to people

of color abroad. They further help to let off the hook those U.S. financial institutions

that created the "debt" in the first place and that continue to profit

from it, in some cases banks are prime beneficiaries in these "swaps."

* The EPA is pursuing significant efforts to address severe environmental

degradation problems in Eastern Europe. While this appears to be a noble

gesture, the Agency is neglecting similar problems caused by multinational

corporations and other U.S. entitles in the Third World, in addition to failing

to deal with those that impact people of color at home.

These policies and practices are not only unacceptable, but are also contributing to environmental degradation, illness, and death in our communities. According to the EPA Journal, the:

EPA is charged by Congress to protect the Nation's land, air, and water systems.

Under a mandate of national environmental laws focused on air and

water quality, solid-waste management, and the control of toxic substances,

pesticides, noise and radiation, the Agency strives to formulate and implement

actions which lead to a compatible balance between human activities

and the ability of natural systems to support and human life.

The EPA is not living up to its mandate. EPA activities, or lack thereof, show that the Agency is unable or unwilling to formulate and implement actions that support and nurture the lives and livelihoods of people of color. Clearly, institutional racism runs rampant at the Environmental Protection Agency.

We are aware of the very recent initiatives that the EPA has been forced to take to address its discriminatory policies in the field such as the Environmental Equity Workgroup, the Urban Environmental Initiative, and the financial support being given to academic institutions serving people of color. However, the Environmental Equity Workgroup does not even appear in the Agency's budget and Strategic Plans. The Workgroup has only one paid staffperson working quarter-time nationally; EPA regional staff have been asked to volunteer their time toward the pursuit of the Workgroup's stated mission. Furthermore, all of these initiatives emphasize the study of these issues, when action could be readily taken through regular Agency channels to address and alleviate many aspects of the poisoning of communities of color. We consider these initiatives to be token gestures at best, designed for maximum public consumption.

We are also aware, Mr. Reilly, of public statements you have made on these issues, such as your speech on the occasion of Martin Luther King Day this year in Atlanta, at which you planted a tree " a reminder of our obligation to work for environmental equity." There, you stated:

I have a dream that one day the poor and disadvantaged will be assured the

same protection from lead poisoning and hazardous waste and pesticide contamination

as are this country's more fortunate citizens ... that one day America

will truly be for all people a land of "beautiful for spacious skies ... from

sea to shining sea."

Mr. Reilly, we are asking you to wake up. The track record of the EPA toward people of color speaks for itself, the cases discussed herein are but a few of hundreds of examples of the unequal protection and selective-enforcement practices of the Agency. We conclude that both you, the EPA and President Bush are promoting environmental racism in the United States through the environmental and economic policies that you pursue.

We respectfully request that:

* Within sixty (60) days a meeting between yourself and our representatives take place in the Southwest at a mutually agreeable location where we will discuss the points raised herein and concrete, decisive, and adequately resourced measures that the Agency will take to address these concerns; and

* The Agency deliver to us within thirty (30) days a concise description of the

process in which decisions are made to act to address and alleviate environmental

degradation in communities composed of people of color, and

* The Agency deliver to us within thirty (30) days a concise description of actions

being taken to address and alleviate specific cases of environmental

degradation in communities composed of people of color, including, but certainly

not limited to, all information pertaining to the Environmental Equity

Workgroup; and

* The Agency deliver to us within thirty (30) days a concrete listing of all specific

cases in which the Agency has chosen not to take action to address arid

alleviate environmental degradation in communities composed of people of

color, and the rationale for doing so; and

* The Agency deliver to us within thirty (30) days a concrete listing of all specific

cases in which the Agency has used its own funds to clean up contamination

when industrial, military, agricultural, or other responsible polluters

could have paid the bill, and the rationale for doing so; and

* Within six (6) months the EPA develop and implement policies that will

guarantee the full, ongoing, and meaningful participation of those directly affected

by environmental degradation in any and all workgroups designed to

address discriminatory EPA policies in the field, and that these participants

be chosen by those directly affected, their organizations and communities.

In closing, we look forward to working together to assure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency carries out its mandate and obligation to treat people of color equally as provided by law, and to be accountable to those communities most directly affected by toxic poisoning. Like you, Mr. Reilly, we have a dream, and await your prompt reply. Sincerely, Ruben Solis, Co-Chair Richard Moore, Co-Chair

Note: A copy of the letter was sent to 33 government officials and leaders of community organizations as part of the campaign.

This writer had the pleasure of seeing that letter delivered to an uncomfortable EPA representative at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque during a ceremony in which the EPA made awards for "Environmental Excellence" to five companies. Two of the companies were known for contaminating water or distributing unsafe water, as the Network pointed out and the press reported.

Also on July 31, at the Dallas Regional Office of the EPA, 80 Chicanos, African Americans, and other people gathered to deliver the letter. They found the elevators locked, police in the stairwells, and police threatening to arrest them if they attempted to go upstairs. In San Francisco, 80 to 100 Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans from the Network were also refused entry and then picketed the EPA office.

When EPA administrator Reilly did not respond to the July 31 letter, new demonstrations took place at the EPA regional offices last fall. Protesters demanded that the EPA staff immediately send a FAX to Reilly communicating the Network's anger at his lack of response. The San Francisco group was able to get inside the EPA office, where they held a spontaneous rally and informational briefing attended by EPA employees. Both offices sent the FAX.

All this took place with a view to pressing the Network's position in the Washington, D.C., national headquarters of the EPA and also as the locus of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October. Although the Summit did not hold a protest demonstration at the EPA while it met, the pressure was mounting.

The year ended and still no response. In January 1992, the Network informed the Dallas EPA office that its members wanted a meeting the following month with EPA administrators -- not with public relations staff, as was usually offered. They would refuse to leave and would go to jail if necessary, they told the EPA.

By that time, the Network had been invited by California Congressman Henry Waxman, Chair of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, to testify during its hearings on the poisoning of children of color. The hearing was scheduled for the next day.

The Network enjoyed leverage from another source as well. The EPA's Associate Administrator Lewis Crampton had circulated an internal EPA memorandum dated November 15 and stamped CONFIDENTIAL, which spelled out a detailed strategy to improve the EPA's public image, particularly in what he called "the minority community." In Crampton's Environmental Equity Communication Plan, he states:

The goal of this strategy is to win the recognition the agency deserves

for its environmental equity and cultural diversity programs before

the minority fairness issue reaches the "flashpoint" -- that stage in an

emotionally charged public controversy when activist groups finally

succeed in persuading the more influential mainstream groups (civil

rights organizations, unions, churches) to take ill-advised actions.

From what we've begun seeing in the news, this issue is reaching that


This confidential memo was leaked to Congressman Waxman, who turned it over to the media -- ironically at a press conference called by the EPA as a first step in its media campaign. The leak led to coverage in The Washington Post of March 9.

The leaked memo, together with the upcoming congressional testimony, strengthened the Network's ability to bring pressure. It was not so surprising, then, when the Dallas EPA office agreed to meet with the Network on February 23.

Nine high-ranking EPA officials came to the Dallas meeting and heard Network representatives lay out the case against their agency. The Network's single demand: that the EPA regional administrator tour their communities, hosted by a local Network organization. "We wanted them to taste the water, smell the poison in the air, know what these places are like -- places they probably have never been," said Richard Moore, coordinator of the Network.

That same day the Dallas EPA office responded that it was willing to negotiate the Network's demand. Eventually, they agreed to visit some of the proposed areas, like the children's cancer cluster in McFarlane, California. The EPA knew that Richard Moore was scheduled to testify before Waxman's congressional subcommittee the very next day.

In San Francisco, 18 top EPA officials attended a similar meeting on March 22, where the Network presented the same single demand. The officials agreed to go to all the proposed sites.

On April 15, William Reilly finally answered the Network's eight-month-old letter at length and in considerable detail. Yet he still didn't answer the request in that letter for a meeting. The next day, however, he told Network representatives verbally that he would come to the Southwest for a meeting as requested. It has yet to take place and at this point Reilly's conflicts with President Bush, as well as his shaky future in the administration, raise many questions. But whoever heads the EPA in the future can expect no letup in the pressure to do its job and do it right.

"We have seen significant change in this whole process," Richard Moore commented.

Other groups have finally been getting responses on requests made

long ago. For years, in the Brownsville, Texas, border area, babies

have been born with all or part of their brains missing, almost all of

them to Latina mothers. We believe industrial pollutants are responsible.

The EPA has now agreed to do a health impact study. Pressuring

the EPA is a reactive agenda. On the pro-active side, we have to

develop Policy pieces, create new laws and regulations. But the campaign

is clearly working.

Throughout the endless maneuvering and the EPA's delaying tactics, the Network stood firm on two tactical principles. First, it insisted on meeting with EPA administrators, rather than the public relations mouthpieces who were usually dispatched. Second, it insisted on direct representation of the affected communities; there was no brokering by national leadership figures. In the end, it won on both issues -- while fully aware that winning battles is one thing, but the war itself will be far more difficult.

One is tempted to add: if the planet is ultimately saved, it won't be thanks to the Washington, D.C., bigwigs -- it will be thanks to ordinary folk, including many people of color.

Elizabeth Martinez is a teacher, author, and a member of the Editorial Board of Social Justice (P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140). The address of the Southwest Network for Environmental & Economic Justice, whose letter is included in its entirety, is 211 10th Street S.W., Albuquerque, NM 87102, (505) 247-8832, FAX (505) 247-9972.
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Title Annotation:Environmental Protection Agency
Author:Martinez, Elizabeth
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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