Books and the Culture

Waste Warriors


243 pages, $45.

It’s downright un-American to worry about waste. Early Americans buried their trash in large pits on the outskirts of towns. Nineteenth-century industrialists dumped slag into rivers. Today we drive SUVs that guzzle fuel and layer the sky with noxious smog. Our nonchalance thrives on defining fables of abundance, narratives that mythologize America’s natural resources as bottomless wells of exploitable wealth. When it comes to getting rid of stuff, we are, and always have been, able to do so without much fuss.

But for all our denial, when America flushes its collective toilet, drags its trash to the curb, and incinerates its toxic waste, someone must live with the mess. As Luke Cole and Sheila Foster explain in their insightful examination of the Environmental Justice Movement, From the Ground Up, that someone is invariably an impoverished community of Latinos or African Americans. Run-down neighborhoods with cheap real estate and shrinking tax bases have become the nation’s reliable safety valves. These disposal sites fuel the myth of renewable abundance while heaping insult upon injury among those who live in their toxic midst. Cole and Foster–who are, respectively, head of a California legal aid society and a Rutgers law professor–fuse issues of health, economic injustice, race, and grass roots activism to introduce the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) as a viable approach to challenging environmental racism. Their argument is original and convincing.

The health problems which typically emerge around toxic waste sites, waste treatment facilities, and medical waste incinerators are legion. When Bill Clinton issued his Executive Order on Environmental Justice in 1994, the EPA undertook a study of Chester, Pennsylvania, a town the authors describe as being under “toxic assault.” The study found higher rates of cancer, respiratory problems, kidney failure, and liver disease as a direct result of Chester’s polluted atmosphere. Blood lead levels in 60 percent of Chester’s children exceeded the CDC maximum level. Air emissions from waste facilities accounted for a large component of cancerous and non-cancerous risks to Chester citizens. “The clustering of facilities in Chester,” the authors write, “heightens the perception that the community’s poor health status is linked to the surrounding waste processing facilities.” The point is clear enough. Waste facility siting isn’t the generic NIMBY concern. We’re not just talking about inconvenience, but about serious illness and, not uncommonly, death.

The immediate economic outcome of siting decisions is equally onerous. Consider the example of Kettlemen City, California, a town of 1,100 located in California’s San Joaquin Valley. In the early 1990s, Kettlemen City, with a 95-percent Latino population, was the only city in Kings County without a white majority. It was also, not incidentally, the only city housing a Chemical Waste Management toxic incinerator. Although Kings County collected $7 million a year in taxes from Chem Waste (8 percent of the County’s annual budget), Kettlemen City never saw a dime. Instead, under the direction of an all-white Board of Supervisors, the revenue from Chem Waste went to projects that benefited towns like Hanford, the county’s whitest and wealthiest town. For the white citizens of Kings County, the myth of abundance endured while Kettlemen City became a stinking pit of hazardous waste that conveniently generated an ample source of the county’s revenue.

Through case studies of several other communities with similar demographics, Cole and Foster demonstrate that such exploitation hinges on disparities in language, education, and media access. When Chem Waste tried to establish a second facility in Kettlemen City, the company submitted its required Environmental Impact Study in English, thus disregarding the city’s 40-percent monolingual Spanish-speaking population. Moreover, those residents who did speak English were forced to confront a daunting, needlessly abstruse document than ran over 1,000 pages. After constant badgering by residents for a clear translation, Chem Waste relented with a five-page summary in Spanish that necessarily obscured the fine print’s bad news.

These stonewalling tactics continued apace, but residents pressed on. Chem Waste arranged to have the public hearing for the new facility (advertised through a tiny notice buried in the back of the local paper) 40 miles from Kettlemen City, about as far as one could get from the town without leaving Kings County. Two hundred angry residents carpooled to Hanford, the very town that was enjoying the existing waste facility’s tax revenue, and showed up armed with their own translator. “We’re here,” the residents announced to the County Planning Commissioner. “We want to testify on this project, and we brought our own translator.” The chair of the Commission looked down on the crowd and explained, without elaboration, “That request has been denied.” Maricela Alatoore recalled the insult in the following terms: “The incident summed up what the County felt for the people out here in Kettlemen City. Our rights were second to this huge corporation.” Sure enough, the Planning Commission, despite the opposing testimony (in Spanish) of scores of residents, approved the second incinerator.

This is the stuff of shameless corporate exploitation. It’s insidious, unfair, and nasty. But is it racism? Couldn’t the location of waste facilities in communities of color be a function of rational economic choice rather than racial discrimination? If the siting of waste facilities–which undoubtedly follows an explicitly economic rather than a racial criteria–exacerbates pre-existing racial disparity, does that necessarily make it “racist”?

In their most conceptually astute moment, the authors offer a resounding yes. “Free market” explanations, they explain, are “notoriously incomplete.” In a chapter that rigorously traces the distribution of environmental hazards to historical patterns of residential segregation, the authors argue that older, racially driven exclusionary practices–including covenants, “expulsory zoning,” and discriminatory loan practices–have etched a historical “residential color line” that persists to this day. It’s a line that the EJM insists we not ignore. So, for example, when Chem Waste chooses a site based on cheap land only to discover that, lo and behold, it has also chosen a site that is majority black or Latino, it’s not off the hook. Instead, Chem Waste is deeply implicated in the underlying historical injustice; the past and present are inextricably linked. “Even if society were to purge itself of racism and become color-blind, and people were to behave purely as rational economic actors in their choices of mobility and residential location,” the authors explain, “racially segregated space would still persist today absent affirmative efforts to dismantle the vestiges of historical racism.”

The law, of course, doesn’t see it this way, and herein lies the EJM’s raison d’etre. The authors never miss an opportunity to express their distrust of legal solutions, arguing that environmental laws (and lawyers) have “had an unintended consequence–the exclusion of those without expertise from much of environmental decision making.” The “traditional environmental law community” has generally “ignored environmental justice issues.” “Some activists,” they continue, “regard the traditional environmental groups as obstacles to progress, if not outright enemies.” This disparity between environmental racism and the current legal framework designed to address it thus provides the Environmental Justice Movement with its broad theoretical underpinnings. Its ultimate mission is stoking grassroots activism.

The authors’ distrust of legal solutions becomes especially apparent with respect to suits that oppose waste facility siting on civil rights grounds. Initially, that approach showed promise. In 1979, Linda McKeever Bullard, on behalf of Houston’s Northwood Manor neighborhood, filed a suit claiming that the City of Houston and Browning Ferris Industries were discriminating against African Americans in their proposed siting of a dump facility. The authors describe the case as “the parent of environmental justice legislation” and “the inspiration for the legal piece to the Environmental Justice Movement.” But despite a promising start, civil rights legal claims have generally failed “to take into account the social, political, and economic vulnerability of poor communities of color,” they contend. The core problem is that the plaintiffs must show that “the decision maker had a discriminatory intent,” which is very difficult to prove. The authors conclude that taking environmental problems out of the streets and into the courts often has proven to be a tactical mistake.

It’s an unexpected stance for a couple of lawyers to assume, but the authors sing the virtues of those minorities willing to get their hands in the dirt and break “the cycle of quiescence.” One of the most influential cases occurred in 1989 in the small Navaho town of Dilkon, Arizona. When Waste-Tech Services proposed a $40 million “recycling plant” in Dilkon, the Navaho community, which had a 75-percent unemployment rate, showed interest in Waste-Tech’s promise of $600,000-a-year rent payments and the guarantee that 95 percent of its jobs would go to Navaho residents. Their excitement subsided, however, when Lori Goodman read the fine print and discovered that the plant was a specialized medical waste incinerator designed to burn amputated limbs. She called a handful of local activists and the group sat down at her kitchen table to strategize the mobilization of community opposition. Calling themselves Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (CARE), they created and continually stoked community outrage. The group grew to 80 (out of Dilkon’s 250 residents), moved their meetings to the local public school, and successfully worked to bring in a panel of experts to a public hearing. After listening to Goodman summarize the evidence against Waste-Tech’s proposal, the community voted almost unanimously to oppose the project. Waste-Tech, seeing the handwriting on the wall, backed out. Nary a lawyer was present. The kitchen, in this case, worked better than the courtroom.

Such victories are inspirational. But Cole and Foster are so enmeshed in these community victories that their rhetoric, somewhat understandably, often runs ahead of them. “When many people have individual epiphanies through a common experience,” they puff, “the result can be community transformation, as well–a collective emergence of solidarity, action and rebelliousness that builds on itself in an organic manner.” They tell us that “personal efficacy” and “self-confidence” combined to “dialectically build on each other in a way that transforms the personal and collective experiences of power relations….” Fortunately, they do more than just tell us these things, they show us as well, with real people like Lori Goodman forming real campaigns like CARE to oppose real threats like Waste-Tech. These men and women lose a lot of battles, but every now and then they win one. And the satisfaction of not getting dumped on goes a long, long way.

James E. McWilliams teaches history at Southwest Texas State University.