NEW YORK — A stream of marchers, some wearing straw hats evocative of their Latin heritage, proceed down 138th Street in the Bronx. They carry red, white, and blue flags of Puerto Rico, which snap in the brisk winds. Small children are human ballasts for gaily colored balloons.
But it's clear this is no party. Some marchers carry an empty coffin. At the head of the line is a four year-old child attached to a portable respirator.
The marchers are protesting a medical-waste incinerator in the neighborhood, which they blame for a host of environmental and health woes. They want it shut down, and to aid their fight they are citing an argument used by an increasing number of poor communities across the United States - environmental racism.
It's an argument that may be gaining credence. Civil rights groups have taken up the issue, and several states have established commissions in response to the "environmental justice movement." Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with its own environmental justice unit, now looks beyond individual factories in its considerations.
"The EPA has truly gotten more aggressive," says Harriet Tregoning, director of the agency's Urban and Economic Development Division. "We are recognizing that place matters - there can be concentrations of pollution." Three years ago, President Clinton, through an executive order, gave the EPA the authority to act.
In recent months, the EPA has demonstrated how it intends to implement that order. The agency, citing environmental justice, in March recommended that New Jersey deny a permit to Bio-Gro, a division of Wheelabrator Technologies, for a sludge treatment plant in Newark's Ironbound section. The state denied the permit. Bio-Gro is appealing the ruling.
Like the South Bronx protesters, residents of poor and minority communities have been charging that their neighborhoods have become America's dumping ground. The cumulative effect of truck exhaust, smoke stacks, landfills, and chemical emissions, they claim, is one reason why people in poor communities are less healthy than those in wealthier suburbs.
The business community is watching the argument with concern. "It's important that all companies show sensitivity to their communities, but we see our inner cities collapsing," says Rob Schwarzwalder, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. "In the interest of environmental purity, many areas are being denied employment."
But the number of political hot spots is growing. Environmentalists say similar battles are under way in Flint, Mich.; Convent, La.; Brunswick, Ga., and the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. In Houston, a group of African Americans is charging Chevron Oil Co. with environmental racism in a lawsuit involving some old crude-oil storage pits, over which their homes were built.
Yesterday, residents of Chester, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, traveled to nearby Delaware to protest the shipment of waste to an incinerator in their town. A Chester community group has used civil-rights law to sue Pennsylvania, contending the state practices environmental racism by placing polluting facilities in minority and low-income neighborhoods.
"There is an increased awareness of the public in terms of what they have a right to know from regulatory agencies. People can cite chapter and verse," says Vernice Miller of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Environmental Justice Initiative.
One reason for this increased awareness is the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va. , which provides training for grass-roots groups.
"Companies have a profile [when siting an heavy industrial plant], and it usually involves finding areas with the least resistance," says the center's Ed Rush.
That was the case back in 1988, when the South Bronx medical-waste incinerator was built. Residents say the facility was built with almost no input from the local community. No Environmental Impact Statement was prepared.
"It's a perfect example of environmental racism," says Carlos Padilla, president of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition.
In recent months, grass-roots activists have mounted a campaign against the facility, which is now owned by Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. (BFI) in Houston. School children are writing letters to government officials, such as New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R), pleading with them to help close the plant.
Activists point to severe health problems in the area, saying as many as a third of local children use medical inhalers for shortness of breath. "There is more asthma than any other place in the US," says Harold Osbourne, head of the emergency center for nearby Lincoln Hospital.
But it's not clear that the incinerator is the cause of any health problems. In 1995, when BFI bought the facility, which was in bankruptcy, the incinerator had 125 state pollution violations. "It was disintegrating in front of us," says Philip Angell, assistant to the chairman of BFI.
The company spent $2.5 million on repairs, and the latest state report found only three violations, which were all corrected. "The regulators will not say this facility is having an unhealthy impact," says Mr. Angell. "We are the most visible symbol." One option for BFI, he says, is to shift to a high-pressure steam facility that would emit byproducts into the sewer system.
Next week, the state and the city will begin testing emissions from the facility's stack. Angell is convinced it will pass scrutiny. But the community feels so "insulted" by how the facility was first erected, he says, that it may not be possible to keep it operating as it does now.