HBCU Experts Call on Congress to Assist Minority Communities Near Toxic Waste Sites

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by Charles Dervarics

Experts from two Black colleges are calling on Congress to help low-income, minority communities, which are disproportionately more likely than other communities to live near toxic waste sites with health hazards for children and families.

The House and Senate should hold hearings, clarify legal mandates and adopt new regulations to promote environmental justice, the witnesses told a Senate subcommittee in late July.

“Our communities cannot wait another 20 years,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, noting that advocates have sought attention on this issue for at least two decades. Risks have increased since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as oil spills and flooding have left many Gulf Coast areas with long-term damage.

“Getting government to respond to the environmental and health concerns of low-income people and people of color communities has been an uphill struggle long before the world witnessed the disastrous Hurricane Katrina response nearly two years ago,” he told the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health.

Minorities are overrepresented near hazardous waste facilities in 90 percent of all U.S. states, Bullard said. They also constitute the majority of U.S. residents living within two miles of the worst toxic waste sites.

In addition, minority communities often face a long-term battle to get support for site cleanups. In DeBerry, Texas, he said, Black families had their water supply contaminated for years from an underground waste well from oil drilling operations. After getting no remedy from the state, families filed suit in federal court last year.

In Port Arthur, Texas, the Army and the local government agreed to locate a nerve agent incinerator facility next to a predominantly Black public housing facility with no opportunity for the public to comment before the signing of project contracts.

Blacks and others in New Orleans face particularly daunting cleanup challenges, not only in addressing mold and building dangers but also little-seen contamination of area soils, said Dr. Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University.

Telling lawmakers that she “lost everything I owned in this storm,” Wright said the federal government is not helping the cleanup effort as it issues confusing and contradictory regulations. In particular, federal and state agencies fail to recognize contaminated front and backyard soils that pose hazards to children.

“Issues related to health and the environment have hardly been mentioned in the discussions of rebuilding the city,” she said.

In seeking action from Congress, Bullard offered a series of recommendations:

  • Congress should create a legal mandate so that low-income minority communities have equal protection under law from environmental hazards.
     
  • The Environmental Protection Agency should adopt site location standards requiring a safe distance between a residential area and an industrial facility. 
     
  • Federal and state governments should release more timely information on toxic waste and emissions to promote a community’s “right to know” local hazards.
     
  • All levels of government should promote tax incentives for developers to promote environmental justice in long-range plans for the restoration of former toxic waste sites.

–Charles Dervarics

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