TAMPA, Florida - The quiet village of Tallevast in Florida's Manatee County traces its roots back to the 1890s, when a community of shacks was built there for African-American labourers who worked tapping sap from the local pine forests to make turpentine and grew sugarcane, celery and strawberries in the fields.
Today, Tallevast is home to about 250 people, many of them descendants of the former slaves who founded the town. But those families now face a bitter choice.
For 25 years, from 1961 to 1996, the American Beryllium Company ran a plant in Tallevast that made parts for nuclear reactors and weapons. Because beryllium has a low density and is stronger than steel, the metallic chemical compound is often used by aerospace industry companies. With the end of the Cold War, the need to produce such materials subsided and the plant was closed in 1996.
Unbeknownst to residents, an underground leak had released beryllium into water wells in the village. And when the defence company Lockheed Martin Corp. bought the plant and discovered the problem in 2000, it failed to inform the people of Tallevast for another three years.
Residents cite anecdotal information on cancer, miscarriages, nose bleeds and other health conditions, but no one has yet carried out a scientific survey to document the illnesses. The Environmental Protection Agency says that beryllium is a probable human carcinogen.
According to members of a local group called Family Oriented Community United Strong, or FOCUS, Tallevast is a prime example of environmental racism, or the deliberate targeting of low-income and minority communities for hazardous waste.
"Now there's an underground plume of toxins that is under all of Tallevast and about 200 acres," said Laura Ward, president of FOCUS.
Tallevast's representative in the Florida State Legislature, Bill Galvano, thinks the whole town should be moved to a new site. Last week, Galvano sent Lockheed a proposal suggesting that the company pay for most of the relocation costs, to a new site selected by Tallevast residents. In exchange, Galvano is asking the town's residents to drop their lawsuit against Lockheed filed in 2005, claiming charges of property damage and mental anguish.
"There's a willingess to help (from the state government) but once everybody gets lawyers, that slows things up," Galvano told IPS.
"Everybody takes sides; I know how it works since I'm a lawyer myself. I'm not saying that the residents don't have a right to bring a lawsuit since they believe they were put in harm's way. That's their right and that's why we have a court system. I'm just saying that I truly believe that if everybody got together and talked about it, we could resolve this," he said.
FOCUS members, however, are still furious and demanding action.
"There should have been an environmental evaluation done (before the plant opened in 1961). They (Lockheed) assumed that we wouldn't make a fuss because we're in a poor black community. They were wrong," Wanda Washington, vice president of FOCUS, told IPS.
"We're happy with his (Galvano's) attempts to come to the table. We have made a couple of trips to Tallahassee (the state's capital, to speak with legislators) and I haven't heard anything back from the governor. It's hard to get our information out of the county. The local and state governments are trying to downplay it," Ward added.
This past summer, a state agency reported that people who had drunk water from Tallevast's contaminated wells have an elevated risk of developing kidney cancer, leukemia, liver cancer or lymphoma. The contaminated wells have been capped and many of the villagers now use municipal water.
Under state law, Lockheed Martin, as the current owner of the plant, must deal with the beryllium pollution under the direct supervision of the state of Florida. The company has offered its own 10-million-dollar Remedial Action Plan, but a full-scale clean-up is not expected to begin for at least another 10 months.
"We've implemented a house-selling programme (for Tallevast residents), where they can get fair market value for their houses, in case some people decide to leave the area. We don't administer this, it's done by an independent party," Gail Rymer, director of environmental communications at Lockheed, told IPS.
"The key point is the community is safe and they're not being exposed to any contaminants and they will continue to be safe, once the groundwater cleansing system we're working on is finished. They're on a public water system, so they're in no danger," Rymer asserted.
Ward and Washington disagree. "We're still at a point where Lockheed is still doing evaluations to effectively clean the community. We don't want to be exposed to the contamination...What happens if there's still contamination in the water (after the remediation)?" asked Ward.
"Our property values are down. We have some new residents in the community who have bought homes that are on properties with the capped wells and were never told about it. It (the clean-up of the toxins in the water) will never be done in my lifetime or my children's lifetime or maybe even my grandchildren's lifetimes. We definitely think that this is a case of environmental racism," said Washington.
Similar problems have been documented nationwide. In March, Dr. Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Centre at Clark Atlanta University, and colleagues published "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007," which followed up on a landmark investigative report issued in 1987 by the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries.
The 2007 report found that of the more than 9 million people estimated to live within 1.8 miles of the nation's 413 commercial waste facilities, more than 5.1 million are people of colour.
Other research has confirmed similar disparities. A 2000 study by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas-Dallas found that almost half of the nearly 2 million federally-subsidised apartments for low-income people were within about a mile of factories releasing toxic emissions.
A 2001 report by the Latino Policy Forum determined that 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of coal-fired power plants, compared to 56 percent of whites. And a 2005 Associated Press investigation found that blacks are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in areas most at health risk from industrial air pollution.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded 1 million dollars in small grants to improve the environment in low-income communities, an EPA spokesperson told IPS. Twenty community-based organisations are receiving 50,000-dollar grants each for projects aimed at addressing such environmental and public health issues as exposure to toxins, farm workers pesticide protection, indoor air quality, drinking water contamination, and pollution from shipping ports.
However, the agency's overall record is spotty on environmental justice issues. According to an audit last year by the EPA's internal watchdog, 60 percent of programme and regional office directors were not conducting environmental justice reviews of their policies and activities.
"We haven't heard anything from anybody there in the agency (since that September 2006 report)," said Luke Cole, director of the Centre for Race, Poverty, and the Environment, in San Francisco, California.
"My sense is that everybody there and also in the entire [George W.] Bush administration is just hunkering down and waiting until Mr. Bush's term ends so that they can pass off all of their environmental-related problems along to the next president, whoever he or she may be. So it's status quo until a new president is elected next year," he told IPS.
© 2007 Inter Press Service