America needs to stop using ethnic minority communities as dumping grounds. But new guidelines released by the Environmental Protection Agency may make it more difficult to address this problem.
This is a step backward for the Clinton administration. Back in 1993, it recognized the severity of environmental racism and made a commitment to attacking it. ``People of color and low income are disproportionately affected by some environmental risks -- the risk of living near landfills, municipal-waste combustors or hazardous waste sites,'' EPA Administrator Carol Browner testified before Congress. ``I have made environmental justice one of the key policy themes of my administration.''
In 1997 the Clinton administration backed up that commitment when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected a permit for Louisiana Energy to build a nuclear plant near two black neighborhoods in northern Louisiana. But the EPA's guidelines released in late June stipulate that ``both the demographic disparity and the disparity in rates of impact (must be) at least a factor of two times higher in the affected population'' for the EPA's Office of Civil Rights to pursue civil-rights cases against companies.
Environmental racism already is hard to prove. Now it's going to be twice as hard. Ethnic minorities are 50 percent more likely than whites to live in communities with hazardous waste facilities, according to the National Black Environmental and Economic Justice Coordinating Committee, a lobbying organization that represents more than 100 minority neighborhoods in 30 states.
This exposure increases the risks for ethnic minorities of getting asthma, prostate cancer and other deadly diseases.
For minority communities, this issue strikes all too close to home. In New York City, Bronx residents are up in arms about American Marine Rail's proposed waste-transfer plant. The state's Department of Environmental Conservation has granted a waste-management company permission to build a barge-to-rail transfer station in the heart of its community.
Blacks in West Oakland, Calif., are concerned by the high levels of vinyl chloride, a gas that has been linked to a rare form of liver cancer. Since the 1950s, the federal land nearby has been used by the military as a dumping ground for biological materials. Some longtime residents and community organizers worry that the rates of asthma, breast cancer and prostate cancer have increased dramatically among black residents.
Nearby Richmond, a black residential area, has the dubious honor of being No. 1 among Bay Area black communities in terms of its pollution level. According to government records obtained by activists, more than 350 industrial facilities handle hazardous materials in the area, and 210 hazardous chemicals are stored or released nearby.
Companies emit 800,000 pounds of toxic air contaminants, almost 18,000 pounds of pollutants in wastewater and 179,000 tons of hazardous waste yearly, according to The Sun Reporter. Communities affected by environmental racism ought to be able to depend on the EPA to take their side against polluters. But with the new guidelines, the EPA is reneging on its commitments. Ethnic communities may pay a high price for this.
Juleyka Lantigua is managing editor of Urban Latino magazine in New York City.
©2000 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services