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Keeping black areas green.

Five years ago, the Commission for Racial Justice, a department of the United Church of Christ (UCC), published a landmark study. It revealed that many minority neighborhoods are surrounded by toxic waste, polluters and contaminated land and water.

Disturbingly, the study showed these communities often don't know they are being exposed to risks far in excess of those of most Americans. Now a growing grass-roots environmental movement is linking up with Congress to help fight back with a crucial weapon: information.

Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) knows the value of information in social change. He and vice presidential candidate Sen. AI Gore (DTenn.) are mandating that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

identify communities under environmental assault. "People have a right to know what is in the air we breath, what is in the water we drink and what is in the food we eat," says Lewis. "People need to know how landfills, hazardous-waste sites and incinerators affect our health."

The UCC report, Toxic Wastes and Race In The United States (available for $20, call 212-870- 2077), points the way. Using census data, it showed that minority communities are far more likely to be the site of hazardous-materials use or disposal. The report also documented a disturbing trend: Polluters and hazardous-waste dealers often target minority communities by playing upon their environmental ignorance and political impotence. They cite the fact that three of America's five largest hazardous-waste dumps are located in black or Hispanic communities. A fledgling grassroots movement of community organizations is fighting this waste by pressing for "environmental justice," or the right to clean air and water even if a neighborhood is located next to a waste dump.

The lack of hard data has hamstrung the movement. Emissions of many toxic chemicals are not measured under current law. Those that are measured are difficult to track down, since most of these records are filed in different places, according to emission type. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., UCC executive director, says that the Environmental Justice Act is an essential first step for these communities. "The bill has the potential to galvanize millions of people across the country to take stronger measures to protect the environment," he says.

The act would require the EPA to examine emissions of all hazardous chemicals and identify "environmental highimpact areas" with the greatest levels of exposure.

The EPA disagrees. EPA administrator William K. Reilly says his agency actively investigates environmental inequities. In fact, the EPA has a draft of its own entitled Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk for All Communities. Not surprisingly, this study calls into question the UCC's findings. The agency says the only correlation between race and environmental contamination is the high exposure to lead in minority communities. The EPA admitted it didn't have sufficient data to draw other conclusions.

CBC member Cardiss Collins (D-III.) is also pressing to release information. She sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee and has joined Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) in attaching a provision to the Resource Conservation and Recovery bill to force landfill and incinerator operators to pay for community impact statements before they begin operations. "This amendment would provide a community with a role in determining its own fate and an opportunity to have its interests fully considered," Collins says.

The bill's fate is uncertain. Conservative Republicans say the country does not need more environmental laws. But Chavis says, "We view the environment as a moral issue that demands that public policy be based on justice for all."

--Phillip Davis
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:pollution in minority neighborhoods
Author:Davis, Philip
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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