Fighting Environmental Racism

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by Scott Dyer

BATON ROUGE, LA.

The National Conference of Black Mayors unveiled a partnership Friday with environmental consultants Envirosource and Historically Black Colleges and Universities aimed at studying the impact of landfills on African-American communities.

Robert Bowser, mayor of East Orange, N.J. and president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, said that 2,800 of the 3,000 landfills in the U.S. today are located in African-American communities.

“There’s a lot that can be done, as far as cleaning up the landfills that we already have,” Bowser said.  The National Conference of Black Mayors is having its annual convention in Baton Rouge this week.

In addition, Bowser said the HBCUs and minority-owned Envirosource  are looking at alternative disposal methods that are a lot cleaner that traditional landfills. The catch is that the alternative disposal methods require more volume than smaller cities can generate, he said.

“A lot of our cities are not that big, and the disposal methods that we’re going to talk about tomorrow need a certain amount of volume of business to operate. So we may have to look at combining two or three or four communities together to get the volume they need,” Bowser said.

On behalf of Envirosource, Don Baylor said his company wants to work with the National Conference of Black Mayors and the HBCUs to develop plans to educate municipalities about the problems associated with environmental racism, to promote green alternatives to traditional landfills and toxic waste dumps, and to help empower minority populations that are adversely impact by those dumping facilities.

Baylor introduced Sheila Holt-Orstead of Dickson, Tenn. as a poster child of the impact of environmental racism. Holt-Orstead noted that Dickson County officials built a dump next to her family’s farm in 1968, and allowed toxic waste to be dumped there over the years.

Holt-Orstead said her family was told in 2000 not to drink water because of  contamination from the landfill.

Holt-Orstead noted that through a search of public records, she learned that letters were sent years earlier to White families who lived around the landfill, warning them not to drink or even bathe in water from their wells due to toxic contamination.

Holt-Orstead said she returned to the farm for a Christmas visit in 2002 to learn that her entire family had cancer. When Holt-Orstead underwent a checkup a short time later, she was told that she had breast cancer.

Her father eventually died of cancer, and she has filed a lawsuit against several agencies, including Dickson County.

“I’ve been told that the people we are suing are just waiting for me to die. They feel that time is on their side,” Holt-Orstead said.

Holt-Orstead said she attended the National Conference of Black Mayors convention to help raise awareness among the Democratic presidential candidates there about environmental racism.

Four Democratic presidential candidates are slated to visit the convention in Baton Rouge this week: U.S. Sen. Hilary Clinton, D-New York; U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois; former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Baylor noted that the problems associated with environmental racism are not just limited to contaminated drinking water. Baylor pointed to a 2002 study that showed 71 percent of African-Americans in the U.S. resided in counties that violated federal air pollution standards, compared with 58 percent of the White population.

As part of the new partnership, Baylor said his company and the National Conference of Black Mayors intends to work with HBCU researchers like Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

“We’re not a think tank, we’re an act tank,” Bullard said, noting that the center has worked with the Holt family and others to battle environmental racism.

Bullard has published several books and papers on environmental racism, including “Dumping on Dixie.”

–Scott Dyer

 

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