The Quest for Environmental Justice in Dixie

Some of the most toxic communities in the country confronted the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, hoping for a sign that the new administration is more willing than its predecessor to deal with the legacy of environmental racism in the south.

EPA Region 4 includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The region is dotted with poor, Black and Latino communities who live and work in the midst of hazardous waste and industrial pollution. The Obama administration is looking to appoint a permanent administrator for the area, and community activists are looking for accountability.

At a meeting in Atlanta with acting administrator A. Stanley Meiburg, the Associated Press reports, environmental justice advocates--representing 36 organizations, ranging from the Sierra Club to the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association--expressed frustration with a federal bureaucracy that has allowed ecological assaults to fester:

They argued that EPA officials have been bullied into overlooking environmental transgressions, and demanded everything from apologies to families impacted by pollution to a floor-to-ceiling overall of the federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment.

Earlier this month, the groups sent a letter to Rep. John Lewis calling for a federal probe into the EPA's failure to act on its environmental justice mandates in Region 4 communities. The letter catalogued some of the issues that have surfaced over the years:

Numerous examples abound where Region 4 and state environmental agencies have failed to adequately respond to toxic contamination and public health threats in environmental justice communities, including Athens, GA (Dunlap Road and Pittard Road contaminated wells); Triana, AL (DDT water contamination); Anniston, AL (PCB contamination); Tallevast, FL (beryllium contamination); Pensacola, FL(Creosote, pentachlorophenol, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxin contamination); Hattiesburg, MS (Kerr McGhee contamination); Columbia, MS (chemical plant explosion contamination); Dickson, TN (TCE water contamination); Memphis, TN (military toxic contamination); Scarboro/Oakridge, TN (radioactive contamination) and others.

Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, wrote in a commentary last week:

These leaders are calling for fundamental change in Region 4, a problem region whose history is steeped in slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and resistance to civil rights and equal environmental protection. It is not an accident that the modern civil rights movement and environmental justice movement were born in the South. Nearly four decades of Region 4 harmful and discriminatory decisions have turned too many low-income and people of color communities into the dumping grounds, lowering nearby residents' property values, stealing their wealth, and exposing them to unnecessary environmental health risks.

In a statement, the EPA pledged to try to address these problems. But Bullard, whose research has revealed vast racial disparities in exposure to pollution throughout the region, said the meeting ended without the kind of commitment the activists were seeking.

Still, it's hard to know what to expect from the new administration on the toxic crisis in the Deep South. The history of environmental racism runs so deep in these communities, the job of cleaning up the mess will last generations; no single administration could hope to finish it, no matter who's in the White House.

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