Fusing Civil, Environmental Rights

Hispanic residents claim racism in protest over plan to build incinerator in their fertile valley

BELOW the rolling, blue hills of the San Joaquin Valley, trucks laden with vegetables rush out, taking lettuce and asparagus to the nation's dinner tables, as others rumble in carrying toxic waste. But not without protest from the farm workers who live here. The controversy illustrates a new aspect to disputes over hazardous-waste disposal sites worldwide. The NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) syndrome has grown from a middle-class plaint to a fight for social justice among rural and low-income, minority groups.

Here at the largest toxic-waste landfill facility west of the Mississippi River, Hispanic residents contend they are victims of environmental racism.

``We're not being heard here,'' says Adela Aguilera, a local teacher's aide and mother of three who opposes a proposed incinerator at the facility.

They have mounted a fight reminiscent of Cesar Chavez's historic civil-rights battle for Mexican farm workers in the valley two decades ago. Their latest weapon is a legal suit marking the first time civil-rights law has been used to challenge a toxic-waste incinerator.

The suit, filed in February on behalf of a community group, People for Clean Air and Water, charges that Chemical Waste Management Inc. (ChemWaste) chose to locate a proposed incinerator at the landfill facility because it is near a community of mostly poor, migrant workers from Mexico.

``They thought people would not be complaining about it; they'd be tickled to death,'' says Joe Maya, a farmer and founder of the local coalition. ``It didn't turn out that way.'' The suit is scheduled for a September court hearing.

``ChemWaste throughout the country has engaged in the practice and pattern of locating [waste facilities] in poor, minority communities,'' says Luke Cole, an attorney on the suit filed by the federally funded California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

The suit states that the Kings County incinerator-permit process violated California environmental law and the civil rights of the Spanish-speaking residents because meetings, public hearings, and most technical information regarding the project were in English.

Claiming conflict of interest, the suit also challenges California law, which allows municipalities to decide the issue - in this case a Locally Unwanted Land Use (LULU) proposal - while taxing the revenue of the facility in question.

About 6 percent of Kings County's $88 million budget is paid for by ChemWaste taxes, according to the Kings County auditor's office.

``It's a make-work [suit],'' says Denis Eymil, counsel for Kings County. ``The buzzword these days in the environmental movement is environmental racism. It's a very, very sexy thing right now. [This suit] is one of the first where they're going to try to make something of it.''

Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Los Angeles office, disagrees. ``It raises serious issues that haven't been raised before,'' he says.

The theory of environmental social justice is catching on nationwide. Poorer and less politically powerful communities are trying grass-roots activism to keep waste-treatment facilities out of their neighborhoods.

Local coalitions have organized against toxic-waste facilities in places like Emelle, Ala., a predominantly black community and home to the largest hazardous-waste site in the United States, and East Los Angeles, which is mostly black and Hispanic.

A different group in south-central Los Angeles stopped construction of an incinerator in 1988. But more typical are the long fights, such as the unresolved 10-year dispute over a toxic-waste incinerator in rural East Liverpool, Ohio.

``It's very, very difficult to mobilize and sustain a movement over a long period of time,'' says Robert Bullard, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the 1990 book ``Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Equality.''

Minority communities are targeted by waste managers because they are ``economically deprived'' and ``politically powerless,'' says Charles Lee, research director for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, which published a 1987 report entitled ``Toxic Waste and Race in the United States.''

The commission's report says that ``race has been a factor in the location of commercial hazardous-waste facilities in the United States.''

Civil-rights organizations, normally dealing with issues of housing, jobs, and health of minorities, have expanded to environmental issues, Mr. Lee says.

``Five years ago you would not have heard of a community of color dealing with an environmental problem,'' he says. ``Now there are hundreds.''

Environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, have focused on minority communities where toxic landfills and incinerators are planned.

In response, the waste-management industry is building incinerators to burn off toxins. According to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fact sheets, the technology is safe and efficient and, when operated properly, a facility's emissions are not dangerous.

``This is a proven technology,'' says Nahid Zoueshtiagh, a permit writer for the EPA. ``Incineration and combustion are not new.''

Others disagree.

``There's a lot of unknowns and it's scary,'' says Espy Maya, Joe's wife and a founder of the San Joaquin Valley community group. ``When is government going to turn around and tell us the incinerator is bad for our health? It'll be too late by then.''

Greenpeace claims that Chemical Waste Management Inc., which own the San Joaquin facility, and its parent company, Waste Management Inc., have a policy to operate facilities illegally and absorb the cost of fines.

Countering those allegations, ChemWaste spokeswoman Sylvia Vickers says, ``You don't stay in business that way. Hundreds of thousands of dollars [in fines] do mean something to a business.''

ChemWaste's fines include $3.2 million for groundwater monitoring violations and the oversight of enforcement costs in 1985 at the Kettleman Hills Waste Management Facility, according to the EPA.

The company was fined $250,000 for violations in 1990, including operating its incinerator for four days without a stack gas monitor and burning waste faster than permitted at its facility in Sauget, Ill., according to a Greenpeace report.

ChemWaste was also fined nearly $5 million for violations in 1989, including failing to monitor emissions and to halt PCB waste-incinerating when scrubbers and stack monitors were not operating at its Chicago facility. The Chicago incinerator is not operating now because of an explosion in February.

If the Kettleman City, Calif., residents win, grass-roots coalitions will gain leverage. ``If we win this suit, it will enable other low-income communities to fight back when they're targeted by polluters,'' Cole says.

AT least 13 Western states dispose of their toxins in the agriculturally important San Joaquin Valley. The wastes include pesticides, gasoline contaminents, waste oils, heavy metals, paint sludges, and other hazardous substances, but exclude radioactive material, explosives, and biological agents.

Hispanic residents insist they now experience health problems that disappear when they return to Mexico. They can't prove a connection, but firmly attribute the problems to contamination from toxins buried in the hills.

``One way or another, we're being killed by spraying [pesticides] and by chemicals being buried over here,'' says Beatrice Juarez, whose husband is a foreman on a local ranch.

According to ChemWaste and Kings County officials, the geological formations under the more-than-20-year-old toxic landfill prevent contamination from reaching the water supply used by area residents or farmers.

And wind currents would prevent emissions from the proposed incinerator from building up, says Bill Zumwalt, Kings County planner. Many of the area's incinerator opponents are pessimistic.

In Kettleman City, the activism has served to empower people. ``They begin to understand the rights they do have and they begin to use those rights,'' says Mike Kanz, directing attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. office in Fresno.

Whether they succeed or fail, ``These are people who are really fighting for their citizenship in a very sincere way,'' says Carrie Johnston, public-involvement coordinator for the EPA.

Ms. Maya, who spearheaded the Kettleman City campaign of going door-to-door to galvanize neighbors, says, ``When I go out and talk to people, they say, `We're Mexican people. They're not going to listen to us.'''.

But as her efforts led to legal action, she has proved she can make a lot of noise and empower others. ``Us Mexican people,'' she says, ``we're not asleep anymore. What they don't know is we're going to stop the incinerator.''

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