Schools atop dumps: environmental racism?

A lawsuit in Providence, R.I., pits the need for more schools againstthe safety concerns of minority residents.

When Deborah Wray peers through the chain-link fence on Springfield Street here, she sees more than a school construction site. She sees lead-tainted dust on the windows. She sees 50 years' worth of garbage underground.

To her, building schools above an old landfill amounts to environmental racism - a disregard for health, safety, and community that would not have occurred if local families had whiter skin or higher incomes.

From inside Springfield Elementary, a school that has already opened on the site, principal Fran Rotella has a different view. She's undisturbed by an elaborate system of monitors and underground pipes set up to prevent explosive accumulations of methane gas from one of Providence's old dumps. What she sees are 400 children who now have an opportunity to learn in a beautiful, high-tech building instead of being bused across town.

These two women may never agree on the issue. But in coming months, a Rhode Island judge will decide whether city and state officials violated the civil rights of local schoolchildren - who are mostly minority - by building on a landfill.

The charges of environmental racism, currently echoing in a number communities around the United States, signal a new sense of empowerment among groups who, until recent years, rarely carried the environmentalism banner. And as the movement toward "environmental justice" gains momentum, it is forcing more scrutiny of how everything from siting a plastics plant to repairing a sewer system affects low-income and minority communities.

"What's happened during the '90s is the emergence of the environmental dimension of civil rights law," says Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.

Since the 1980s, studies have found that poor and minority communities bear a disproportionate share of environmental hazards. Industry groups object to the label "environmental racism," but with the Clinton administration's recognition of the problem in the early 1990s, more legal tools became available to activists.

Other current battles with environmental-justice overtones include the following.

*In Los Angeles, the school board will decide soon whether to finish a $250 million half-built high school situated on a former oil field. Concerns have been raised about methane and toxins on the site, but hundreds of students recently marched in support of finishing the school.

*In Jacksonville, Fla., Nellie Tulson wants the city to relocate a school and homes that were built 30 years ago on top of an incinerated-trash ash heap. She says local officials are in a state of denial about the hazards faced by the primarily African-American community. "I've always been interested in the environment ... but I never really looked at it as being a situation where there is environmental racism, until now," she says.

In fact, it usually takes a provoking incident right in the backyard to inspire most environmental-justice campaigns. For Nicholas and Linda Marsella of Providence, it was the bulldozers showing up without warning just steps from their backyard, to clear the lot for the Springfield Street schools.

For 25 years they had lived next to the old landfill without concern for their safety, because it sat undisturbed, covered by brush and trees. But they say the idea of sending children to school on top of it, not to mention the stench that pervaded the neighborhood during the digging, was too much.

The Marsellas are white, and their daughter is grown. But they became involved in the lawsuit against city and state officials because they believe residents and parents were betrayed by the speedy building-approval process.

The lawsuit - brought by a local tenants' group that Ms. Wray heads, among others - contends that the community was not given adequate notice about how to get involved in the process. It also argues that the state-approved "remediation plan" - designed to make the new schools safe for 1,200 elementary and middle-school students - is inadequate. It characterizes that risk as environmental racism because the children in the Providence public school system are 80 percent African-American, Latino, or Asian.

Studies indicate that Providence's schoolchildren have higher rates of asthma and lead poisoning, health problems that the plaintiffs argue could be exacerbated by long-term exposure to the school site.

Providence official Alan Sepe says the city has taken appropriate steps to ensure safety and inform the community. "I don't look at the race of the kids in the school.... I'm going to make it safe regardless of their color," he says. This site was the best option for building a neighborhood school to relieve overcrowding, he adds.

One common denominator of environmental-justice campaigns is the question of how much decisionmakers should defer to community perceptions. "Sometimes the harm is caused by the dread associated with the risk, rather than its physical realization," Professor Lazarus says.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has been developing guidelines to ensure that states consider environmental-equity issues when granting project permits. Since 1993, the EPA has received 85 civil rights complaints. The only one to be resolved was decided in favor of the state.

The Providence plaintiffs say they are willing to fight all the way to the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, they frequently monitor the school site to make sure safety measures are followed. They say their vigilance resulted, for instance, in the erection of a green mesh fence to keep construction dust from blowing on the new school.

Still, they worry about risks the children may face. "What I want to know," says Wray, "is who is going to be accountable."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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