Pollution in US Cities Hits Minorities Hardest

PARTLY a symbol, partly a protection, the battered chain-link fence around the dirt and weeds of Kingsley Street park in Buffalo, N.Y., is a reminder of an unpopular environmental legacy. United States cities are just beginning to face the fact that most inner cities are disproportionately riddled with all kinds of pollution.

Until the late 1970s, when city officials built new incinerators, designated municipal landfills, or approved the building of factories discharging hazardous wastes, such projects were nearly always located in or near low-income, minority neighborhoods.

Kingsley Street park, for instance, the site of an arsenic-producing factory until the 1940s, reportedly caused numerous respiratory and circulatory problems in the low- and middle-income neighborhoods surrounding it. When the state acknowledged the cause of the problems, two feet of topsoil in the park had to be removed. In some places, eight feet of soil was removed to eliminate the elevated levels of arsenic. Dumping called racist

"Black neighborhoods were usually the path of least resistance," says Robert Bullard, a sociology professor at the University of California at Riverside, and author of several books on the environment and race.

"Historically," he says, "the communities didn't have a lot of political clout, and the notion was that black communities were valued less, were also `valueless,' and therefore these things that the white people didn't want near them could be placed in the city. That's racism."

Dr. Bullard says studies document the environmental problems of inner cities in Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, and intermediate cities such as Richmond, Calif., near Oakland.

"Environmental racism is an extension of institutional racism in terms of land use and planning," he says. "In many cases, the only housing available to minorities was in places near highly polluted areas."

Up until the late 1970s in Houston, for instance, all city-owned landfills, and 6 of the 8 garbage incinerators, were in black neighborhoods. Bullard says that the result was lower property values, accelerated physical deterioration, and disinvestment. The neighborhoods became "dumping grounds" and attracted such facilities as junkyards, paint shops, cement plants, used-car lots, and garages.

Bullard also says that a 1987 study done by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice revealed that 3 out of 5 black Americans lived in communities with abandoned toxic-waste sites and that blacks constituted higher percentages of the populations in cities with the largest number of abandoned toxic-waste sites - including Memphis, St. Louis, Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta.

David Hahn-Baker, a political consultant in Buffalo, N.Y., and a member of the board of directors of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says: "When environmental health problems do occur, they tend to have a greater impact on people of color because they have less access to health care and good food. For instance, in Buffalo, two-thirds of the children in the city are classified as lead poisoned, under the new Center for Disease Control standard."

When any community is under consideration for facilities such as waste control or an incinerator, Mr. Hahn-Baker wants the risks spelled out carefully. "We're never going to have a risk-free society," he says, "but part of choosing to take risks is based on the benefits. Industries have to recognize they are asking communities to take risks, and communities should have some degree of control over risks, and have some of the profits from that risk." Prevention efforts

Lois Epstein, an engineer with the Environmental Defense Fund who works with communities, emphasizes the benefits of pollution prevention. "It doesn't make sense to keep generating wastes in communities and then deal with it afterwards," she says. "A better approach, for instance, is not to produce chemicals with toxics.

"The point is to shift upstream, away from the pipe to prevention," she says.

Many black and minority communities today are no longer the "path of least resistance" when it comes to potentially harmful facilities.

"All over the country," Bullard says, "working people in cities have organized themselves into civic groups and neighborhood associations to address the issues, whether it's fighting a facility or the cleanup of a waste dump, or even garbage pickup. I have identified over 200 organizations of people of color actively involved in environmental issues in their communities. It's unfortunate that the larger society has not come to understand the diversity now within the environmental movement."

In Los Angeles, when garbage seem destined to overwhelm city facilities in 1979, the city developed a plan to build three, huge waste-to-energy incinerators. The first was to be built in the south central area, the predominately black section of L.A. But local residents organized when they heard about the plan and successfully stopped the construction.

Bullard says the definition of "environmentalism" is changing to include all conditions within a city, and not just the natural environment.

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