Reading responses

Reading responses

From the Ground Up

C R I T I C A L A M E R I C A

General Editors: RICHARD DELGADO and JEAN STEFANCIC

White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race Ian F. Haney López

Cultivating Intelligence: Power, Law, and the Politics of Teaching

Louise Harmon and Deborah W. Post

Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America

Stephanie M. Wildman with Margalynne Armstrong, Adrienne D. Davis, and Trina Grillo

Does the Law Morally Bind the Poor? or What Good’s the Constitution When You Can’t Afford a Loaf of Bread?

R. George Wright

Hybrid: Bisexuals, Multiracials, and Other Misfits under American Law

Ruth Colker

Critical Race Feminism: A Reader Edited by Adrien Katherine Wing

Immigrants Out! The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States

Edited by Juan F. Perea

Taxing America Edited by Karen B. Brown and Mary Louise Fellows

Notes of a Racial Caste Baby: Color Blindness and the End of Affirmative Action

Bryan K. Fair

Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State

Stephen M. Feldman

To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation

Bill Ong Hing

Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America

Jody David Armour

Black and Brown in America: The Case for Cooperation Bill Piatt

Black Rage Confronts the Law Paul Harris

Selling Words: Free Speech in a Commercial Culture R. George Wright

The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Po- lice Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions

Katheryn K. Russell

The Smart Culture: Society, Intelligence, and Law Robert L. Hayman, Jr.

Was Blind, But Now I See: White Race Consciousness and the Law Barbara J. Flagg

The Gender Line: Men, Women, and the Law Nancy Levit

Heretics in the Temple: Americans Who Reject the Nation’s Legal Faith David Ray Papke

The Empire Strikes Back: Outsiders and the Struggle over Legal Education

Arthur Austin

Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation in Post–Civil Rights America

Eric K. Yamamoto

Black Men on Race, Gender, and Sexuality: A Critical Reader Edited by Devon Carbado

When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice

Edited by Roy L. Brooks

Disoriented: Asian Americans, Law, and the Nation State Robert S. Chang

Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom Andrew E. Taslitz

The Passions of Law Edited by Susan A. Bandes

Global Critical Race Feminism: An International Reader Edited by Adrien Katherine Wing

Law and Religion: Critical Essays Edited by Stephen M. Feldman

Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity Clara E. Rodríguez

From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster

Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster

FROM THE GROUND UP

ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM

AND THE RISE OF THE

ENVIRONMENTAL

JUSTICE MOVEMENT

a New York University Press

New York and London

NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS New York and London

Copyright © 2001 by New York University All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Cole, Luke W., 1962–

From the ground up : environmental racism and the rise of the environmental justice movement / Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster.

p. cm. — (Critical America) Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 0-8147-1537-0 (pbk.) — ISBN 0-8147-1536-2 (cloth) 1. Environmental justice—United States. 2. Environmental

policy—United States. 3. Minorities—United States—Political activity. I. Foster, Sheila R., 1963– II. Title. III. Series.

GE180 .C65 2001 363.7’0089’00973—dc21 00-010595

New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper, and their binding materials are chosen for strength and durability.

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Ralph Santiago Abascal LUKE W. COLE

For My Family SHEILA R. FOSTER

C O N T E N T S

Acknowledgments xi

Preface: We Speak for Ourselves: The Struggle of Kettleman City 1

Introduction 10

ONE

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement 19

TWO

The Political Economy of Environmental Racism: Chester Residents Concerned for Quality of Life 34

THREE

Environmental Racism: Beyond the Distributive Paradigm 54

FOUR

Buttonwillow: Resistance and Disillusion in Rural California 80

FIVE

Processes of Struggle: Grassroots Resistance and the Structure of Environmental Decision Making 103

SIX

In Defense of Mother Earth: The Indigenous Environmental Network 134

SEVEN

Transformative Politics 151

Appendix 167

Notes 185

Index 231

About the Authors 244

| ix |

A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S

This book is the product of the work and input of many people over the past six years. We particularly thank Maricela Alatorre, Bineshi Albert, Bradley Angel, Jerome Balter, Francisco Beltran, Lydia Beltran, Arnold Cohen, Joseph Della Fave, Juanita Fernandez, Lorenzo Garcia, Tom Goldtooth, June Kruszewski, Mary Lou Mares, Lupe Martinez, Esper- anza Maya, Joe Maya, Zulene Mayfield, Dora Montoya, Eduardo Mon- toya, Saul Moreno, Sylvia Moreno, Dennis Palla, Juan Reyes, Rosa Solorio-Garcia, Tiwana M. Steward-Griffin, and Jackie Warledo for their help in the case studies found in the Preface and chapters 2, 4, 6, and 7, and for teaching us about environmental justice. Judith Lurie and Miriam Montesinos conducted field interviews for chapter 4; Henry Ko- mansky provided invaluable research for chapter 2 and parts of chapter 7; Jen Gadbow and Sergio Garza helped transcribe interviews. Ralph Abascal, Skip Cole, Giovanna Di Chiro, Michel Gelobter, Nancy Shelby, and Katie Silberman provided insightful feedback and editorial advice. Charles Lee, himself a one-person history of the Environmental Justice Movement, has been an invaluable colleague and source of information. Dana Alston, Carl Anthony, Robert Bullard, Deeohn Ferris, Tom Gold- tooth, Vernice Miller, and Richard Moore have all provided important direction both to the Movement and to us at various stages of our think- ing about environmental justice. Our editors, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, have been unwavering in their support of this project during its long gestation period. Rutgers University School of Law-Camden also provided crucial support, both tangible and intangible, toward the completion of this book.

Parts of this book were adapted from the following previously pub- lished articles: Luke W. Cole, The Theory and Reality of Community- Based Environmental Decision-Making: The Failure of California’s Tan- ner Act and its Implications for Environmental Justice, 25 Ecology Law Quarterly 733 (1999); Luke W. Cole, Environmental Justice and the

| xi |

Three Great Myths of White Americana, 3 Hastings West-Northwest Journal 449 (1996); Luke W. Cole, Macho Law Brains, Public Citizens, and Grassroots Activists: Three Models of Environmental Advocacy, 14 Virginia Environmental Law Journal 687 (1995); Luke W. Cole, Civil Rights, Environmental Justice and the EPA: The Brief History of Ad- ministrative Complaints under Title VI, 9 Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation 309 (1994); Luke W. Cole, Environmental Justice Litigation: Another Stone in David’s Sling, 21 Fordham Urban Law Journal 523 (1994); Luke W. Cole, The Struggle of Kettleman City for Environmental Justice: Lessons for the Movement, 5 Maryland Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues 67 (1994); Luke W. Cole, Empowerment as the Key to Environmental Protection: The Need for Environmental Poverty Law, 19 Ecology Law Quarterly 619 (1992); Luke W. Cole, Remedies for Environmental Racism: A View from the Field, 90 Michi- gan Law Review 1991 (1992); Sheila Foster, Justice from the Ground Up: Distributive Inequities, Grassroots Resistance, and the Transformative Politics of the Environmental Justice Movement, 86 California Law Review 775 (1998); and Sheila Foster, Impact Assesment and Public Participation in The Law of Environmental Justice: Theories and Procedures to Address Disproportionate Risks (Michael B. Gerrard, ed., 1999).

Acknowledgments

| xii |

P R E F A C E

We Speak for Ourselves

The Struggle of Kettleman City

El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido (“The people united shall never be defeated”) —Chant and slogan from the farm-worker justice movement

Stories are one way we transmit our history, share our successes, and learn from our losses. Stories are also an important part of the movement for environmental justice, which has as one of its central tenets the idea “We speak for ourselves.” This book tells the stories of ordinary men and women thrust into extraordinary roles as community leaders, grassroots experts, and national policymakers. We invoke these stories to illustrate the human reality behind the numerous studies that chart the dispro- portionate distribution of environmental hazards, and the burgeoning grassroots movement for environmental justice that has sprung up around the country.

The first story is about Kettleman City, one of the defining struggles of the early days of the Environmental Justice Movement. The story is a classic David-and-Goliath tale, in which a small farm-worker town took on the largest toxic waste dumping company in the world—and won.

Kettleman City is a tiny farm-worker community of 1,100 residents in Kings County, in California’s San Joaquin Valley.1 Ninety-five percent of Kettleman residents are Latino, 70 percent of the residents speak Span- ish at home, and roughly 40 percent are monolingual Spanish speakers. They are primarily farm-workers who work in the fields that spread out in three directions from Kettleman City. Kettleman City is much like many other rural communities in the Southwest, and few people would know about it were it not for the fact that Kettleman City is also host to

| 1 |

the largest toxic waste dump west of Alabama, a landfill that is owned and run by Chemical Waste Management, Inc, about three and a half miles from town, hidden behind some low hills. The dump was created in the late 1970s without the community’s knowledge or consent.

People marvel that a gigantic toxic waste site can be placed just miles from a community without the community’s knowledge. In California, under state environmental laws, government agencies are required to provide public notice in three ways: (1) through notices printed in a newspaper of general circulation, which in Kettleman City means a small box in the classified ads in the Hanford Sentinel, published forty miles away; (2) by posting signs on and off the site, which means on a fence post three and a half miles from Kettleman City; and (3) by sending no- tices through the mail to adjacent landowners.2 The adjacent landown- ers to the Chem Waste facility are large agribusiness and oil companies such as Chevron.

Residents of Kettleman City found out about the dump in the early 1980s, after reading in the local paper about multimillion-dollar fines levied against the Chem Waste facility for violations of environmental laws. While residents were unhappy to find out their town was host to a huge toxic waste facility, they saw few ways in which they could challenge the dump.

Things changed in 1988, when Chem Waste proposed to build a toxic waste incinerator at the dump site. Residents in Kettleman City heard about this proposal not from Chem Waste, not from Kings County or state officials, but from a phone call from a Greenpeace organizer in San Francisco. Bradley Angel, Southwest campaigner for Greenpeace’s tox- ics campaign, had received a phone call from the Kings County sheriff one afternoon in January 1988, asking him whether Greenpeace planned to demonstrate at the hearing in Kettleman City that night. After find- ing out about the hearing, Angel called one of the few people he knew in Kettleman City at the time, Esperanza Maya, and said, “Espy, did you know that there’s a hearing tonight in your community about a toxic waste incinerator?” She said, “I haven’t heard a thing about it.”

Maya grabbed a few of her neighbors and went to the hearing. They were shocked to find out that Chem Waste was proposing to build an incinerator that would burn up to 108,000 tons—216,000,000 pounds—of toxic waste every year. That translates to about 5,000

Preface

| 2 |

truckloads of toxic waste that would pass through the Kettleman area each year, in addition to the hundreds of daily truckloads bound for the existing toxic dump.

After the hearing, many Kettleman City residents began to do their homework about the dump, the incinerator, and the company, Chemi- cal Waste Management. They formed a community group, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water). The group found out that the air in the San Joaquin Valley was already contami- nated, that the Valley is considered the second-worst polluted air basin in the United States, ranking behind only Los Angeles. And, whereas Los Angeles has ocean breezes to cleanse it, the San Joaquin Valley, because of its unique bathtub shape, is a closed system, so pollutants stay put and fill the Valley.

Members of El Pueblo also found out about a 1984 report done for the California Waste Management Board. That report, known popularly as the Cerrell Report, and paid for California taxpayers’ dollars, sug- gested to companies and localities that were seeking to site garbage in- cinerators that the communities that would offer the least resistance to such incinerators were rural communities, poor communities, commu- nities whose residents had low educational levels, communities that were highly Catholic, communities with fewer than 25,000 residents, and communities whose residents were employed in resource-extractive jobs like mining, timber, or agriculture.3 When members of El Pueblo looked around Kettleman City, they were startled. “The Cerell report fit us to a T,” says Mary Lou Mares, one of the leaders of El Pueblo. The inciner- ator proposal suddenly also made sense to Kettleman residents: “If there’s a report that specifically tells them what to look for, of course they’re going to target us,” observes Mares.

El Pueblo also looked at California’s other toxic waste dumps. Cali- fornia has three Class I toxic waste dumps—the dumps that can take just about every toxic substance known to science. The group found out that in addition to Kettleman (95 percent Latino), the two other dumps were in Buttonwillow, where 63 percent of the residents are people of color, primarily Latino, and in Westmorland, which is 72 percent Latino.4 “It seemed like a conspiracy,” says Mary Lou Mares, “although it’s logical if they are using the Cerrell report.” Both Buttonwillow and Westmorland look just like Kettleman: they are small, predominantly Latino, rural

Preface

| 3 |

farm-worker communities marked by high levels of poverty. People in Kettleman City began to put two and two together.

The Pattern

Then El Pueblo looked at the company, Chemical Waste Management, the largest toxic waste dumping company in the U.S. Chem Waste runs the largest toxic waste dump in the country (and, probably, the world) in Emelle, Alabama, which is in the heart of Alabama’s black belt, in a community that is about 95 percent African American.5 Emelle actually looks a great deal like Kettleman City—small, rural, poverty-stricken— but the residents are black instead of brown.

Even more interesting were the locations of Chem Waste’s other in- cinerators. At the time, Chem Waste owned three other toxic waste in- cinerators: one on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood that is 55 percent African American and 24 percent Latino;6 one in Port Arthur, Texas, in a community that is about 80 percent black and Latino;7 and one in Sauget, Illinois, which is surrounded by neighborhoods that are 95 percent or more African American,8 including East St. Louis, an over- whelmingly African American community that has been called “Amer- ica’s Soweto.”

The residents of Kettleman City started to see a pattern. “Our initial reaction was outrage,” says Maricela Alatorre, a student leader during El Pueblo’s struggle who has lived in Kettleman City her entire life. “We felt we were being targeted, that Chem Waste as a corporation was tar- geting these communities on purpose because their ethnic make-up would make people least likely to protest.” Every single community where Chem Waste operated its toxic waste incinerators is a community of color, and substantially so: 79 percent in Chicago and Port Arthur, in the 90s in Sauget, and 95 percent in Kettleman City. They found out later that Chem Waste had planned to build an incinerator in Tijuana, Mexico, thereby hitting the 100 percent mark.9

The residents of Kettleman City then turned to Chem Waste’s com- pliance record. At the Kettleman City facility, Chem Waste had been fined $3.2 million for more than 1,500 incidents of dumping too much waste into its evaporation ponds.10 Chem Waste’s incinerator in Chicago had blown up and been shut down by the Illinois EPA.11 Illi-

Preface

| 4 |

nois State Representative Clem Balanoff came to Kettleman City and told residents about Chem Waste’s overfilling of the Chicago incinera- tor, which then spewed black smoke plumes, and about the fine Chem Waste faced for having turning off the incinerator’s air monitoring equipment so that nobody would know what was coming out. And it did so once, not twice, but many times over a period of months.12 In Vickery, Ohio, Chem Waste took in PCB-contaminated oil for dis- posal and then turned around and resold it to a company that used it to repave streets and as fuel oil in nearby communities.13 The residents took note of Chem Waste’s actions in Louisiana, where the company was caught storing toxic waste in one of those store-yourself rental lockers.14

El Pueblo also discovered that Chem Waste and its parent company, Waste Management, had paid more than $50,000,000 in fines, settle- ments, and penalties for price fixing, bribery, and related environmental crimes. “They could get away with all this because they were a multimil- lion dollar corporation,” notes Alatorre. “These fines meant nothing to them.” The company, they found out, was such an environmental bad actor that the San Diego District Attorney’s Office had told the San Diego Board of Supervisors that “the company’s history requires ex- treme caution by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors or any other governmental entity contemplating any contractual or business re- lationship with Waste Management” because of a pattern of continuing criminal behavior.15

Nor was Chem Waste’s behavior ancient history. In the fall of 1992, as the incinerator project was under consideration, Chem Waste was fined a record $11.5 million for a botched Superfund cleanup in Penn- sylvania.16 In Kettleman City, Chem Waste was caught “sample pack- ing.” Ten trucks of waste would show up at the gate of the dump; by law Chem Waste was required to sample each truck to determine its contents to ensure that incompatible wastes were not disposed of together. What Chem Waste was doing, however, was taking ten samples from the first truck and then waving all the other trucks through.

Kettleman City residents felt justified in being a little alarmed by the prospect of having this company run yet another facility near their town. The residents figured that if the company can’t run a hole in the ground correctly, it shouldn’t be given the ability to do something worse.

Preface

| 5 |

The Process

As part of the permitting process for the incinerator, Kings County is- sued an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The Environmental Im- pact Report was about 300 pages long, with another 700 pages of ap- pendices, for a total of about 1,000 pages. Kettleman City residents, 40 percent monolingual Spanish speakers, 95 percent Latino, said to Kings County, “Look, to include us in this decision, you need to trans- late these documents into Spanish.” Kings County was unresponsive. The County decision makers likely did not want to set a precedent; if they translated the EIR, they would have to translate documents in other situations, which is something the people of Kettleman City thought would probably be a good idea. Chem Waste, in a generous offer, translated a five-page executive summary and distributed that to every household in Kettleman City. English speakers in Kings County thus had about 1,000 pages of data to pore over, while Spanish speak- ers had five pages.

Despite being shut out by the lack of environmental review in their own language, Kettleman City residents nevertheless attempted to take part in the process. “We thought if we could get enough people to write and express their opinion, it would be important,” says El Pueblo leader Mary Lou Mares. Mares and her allies generated almost 120 letters from the tiny community, and more than two-thirds of all the comments by individuals on the EIR were from the people of Kettleman City—in Spanish. Residents wrote in saying, in effect, “Hey, translate this docu- ment. Include us in the process. Let us know what you are proposing to do up on the hill. If you say it’s safe, why won’t you let us know what you are doing? Why won’t you translate this document?”

The public hearing on the incinerator was scheduled not in Kettleman City but forty miles away, in the county seat of Hanford. It was held in the largest venue in Kings County, the County Fairground building, which is about the size of a football field. The hearing room was set up with a raised dais in the front, with a table at which sat the Planning Commission, looking down on the room. Then there was an open space; beyond that, two microphones set up for the public. Behind the micro- phones were about fifty rows of seats, and there were some bleacher seats at the back of the room. Behind the bleachers was empty concrete floor

Preface

| 6 |

back to the very rear of the auditorium, about 300 feet from the Plan- ning Commission.

Kettleman City residents showed up at the meeting in force. About 200 people came by bus and carpool from Kettleman City, and, as one of the their leaders made clear, “We’re here, we want to testify on this project, and we brought our own translator.” The chair of the Kings County Planning Commission looked down on the crowd and said, “That request has been denied. The translation is taking place in the back of the room and it won’t happen up here.”17 Residents looked at where the Planning Commissioner was pointing: they looked from the Plan- ning Commission up on their dais, they looked at the open space and the microphones, they looked at all the rows of chairs, and they looked at the bleachers. And then they looked way back behind the bleachers, nearly at the rear of the room, where there was one forlorn man sitting sur- rounded by a little circle of about twenty-five empty chairs. The Planning Commission chair said again, “Why don’t you go back there? There are monitors back there. We are all in the same room.” The 200 people from Kettleman City looked around, and they looked at the back of the room at those twenty-five chairs, and they looked at the empty chairs up front, and they said, “Adelante, adelante” (“forward, forward”), and they moved up to the front of the room. Residents testified in Spanish, from the front of the room, that the last time they had heard about people being sent to the back of the room was when African Americans were sent to the back of the bus—a policy dumped in the dustbin of history a generation ago. They said they weren’t going to stand for that.18 “The incident summed up what the County felt for the people out here in Ket- tleman City,” notes Maricela Alatorre. “Our rights were second to this huge corporation.”

The public hearing on the project brought to a close the public’s abil- ity to comment on the incinerator. Subsequently, the Planning Commis- sion voted to approve the incinerator, and El Pueblo appealed that deci- sion to the Kings County Board of Supervisors.

The Benefits and Burdens of Waste

California has a compensated siting law.19 Under the law, local govern- ments can tax hazardous waste facilities up to 10 percent of their gross

Preface

| 7 |

revenues. What does this have to do with the story? As Kettleman activist Mary Lou Mares sums it up, “When it comes to politics, the ones that have the money win out.”

Kings County, which is about 65 percent white, has five members on the Board of Supervisors. At the time of El Pueblo’s appeal, all the board members were white. Most white residents in Kings County live in one area, while most of the Latinos live in another part of the County. If this page were a map of Kings County, almost all the white people would live up in the upper right corner of the page, in and around the county seat of Hanford. And most of the Latino people would live at the bottom of the page—Kettleman City would be in the lower left of the page, and the Chem Waste dump would be next to it. Every single town in Kings County is majority white except for Kettleman City, which is 95 percent Latino, way down in the lower left of the page. Under the California law that provides for compensated siting, Kings County was receiving about $7 million per year in revenue from Chem Waste’s preexisting dump. That $7 million was about 8 percent of the County’s annual budget.20

Most of the money is spent up near Hanford (in the upper right of the page), in the white community, and very little of it trickles down to the people of Kettleman City (down in the lower left of the page). The in- cinerator promised to almost double that tax revenue, so the County would be receiving about one-sixth of its annual revenue from this sin- gle company. “The County knew people in Hanford didn’t give a damn one way or the other,” points out Joe Maya, a leader of El Pueblo. Not surprisingly, the white Supervisors voted for the incinerator on a three- to-one vote.

The Lawsuit

Faced with this situation, the residents felt they had no choice but to file a lawsuit. The lawsuit was successful when the judge ruled that the En- vironmental Impact Report had not sufficiently analyzed the toxic waste incinerator’s impacts on air quality and on agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley and, most importantly, that the residents of Kettleman City had not been meaningfully included in the permitting process.21 As the Court eloquently stated: “The residents of Kettleman City, almost 40 percent of whom were monolingual in Spanish, expressed continuous

Preface

| 8 |

and strong interest in participating in the CEQA [California Environ- mental Quality Act] review process for the incinerator project at [Chem Waste’s] Kettleman Hills Facility, just four miles from their homes. Their meaningful involvement in the CEQA review process was effectively pre- cluded by the absence of Spanish translation.”

Kings County decided not to appeal the lawsuit, largely because of the political pressure the Kings County Board of Supervisors was receiving from Kings County residents and from their supporters across California. A postcard campaign targeting the Board of Supervisors and the local Farm Bureau, orchestrated by El Pueblo and Greenpeace, generated more than 5,000 postcards to the Board and the Farm Bureau, while a petition campaign in the San Joaquin Valley by Citizen Action generated more than 17,000 signatures in opposition to the incinerator. Chemical Waste Management did not fold as easily, however, and appealed the judgment.22 Rather than go back and do the environmental study right in order to respond to the judge’s (and the residents’) concerns, the company was more comfortable staying in court. But Kettleman City’s struggle had become a national struggle. The residents of Kettleman City and their representatives were telling Kettleman City’s story at meetings, conferences, symposia, and rallies across the country. “I think they thought we would go away,” observes Mary Lou Mares, the Ket- tleman City housewife who appeared on national television to tell the Kettleman story. “But it was too dangerous to let an incinerator come in here—we had to do something about it.” The press loved the story, and soon people all around the country knew about the struggles of Kettle- man City.23

The Community Is Heard

On September 7, 1993, Chem Waste announced that it was withdraw- ing its application to construct the toxic waste incinerator near Kettle- man City.24 Although Chem Waste cited changing economic conditions and a new public policy turn away from incineration,25 the General Man- ager of the Kettleman Hills Facility personally hand-delivered the news to one of the leaders of the community group El Pueblo, acknowledging the group’s role in the decision.26 As the El Pueblo leader Espy Maya said, “I don’t care how they word it; we won.”27

Preface

| 9 |

I N T R O D U C T I O N

Environmental hazards are inequitably distributed in the United States, with poor people and people of color bearing a greater share of pollution than richer people and white people. This intuitive idea—think for a mo- ment about the most polluted parts of your region—has been borne out by dozens of studies completed over the past two decades.1 The disparate impact documented in studies has given birth to the term “environmen- tal racism.” When President Clinton signed an Executive Order on En- vironmental Justice in 1994, the phenomenon of environmental racism gained unprecedented recognition.2 Fueling this recognition is a re- markable rise in grassroots activism communities across the country. Thousands of activists in hundreds of communities are fighting for their children, their communities, their quality of life, their health—and for “environmental justice.”

This book is about both the phenomenon of environmental racism and the movement that propelled environmental racism into national consciousness and forced action at the highest levels of government. The events and strategies chronicled here ultimately developed out of an al- liance of grassroots activists, lawyers, other professionals, and concerned citizens whose efforts constitute the broad movement for social and eco- nomic justice known as the Environmental Justice Movement. The movement continues to shape environmental policy while creating in- creased opportunities for marginalized communities to speak out about their own disenfranchisement and the social and economic policies that subject them to daily environmental hazards.

We approach the subject from both an external and internal perspec- tive. The internal perspective looks at the movement from the “ground up”—from the experience of communities that struggle daily with envi- ronmental degradation and with their disenfranchisement from the in- stitutions and structures that control their living environments. The ex- ternal perspective casts a critical eye on the political economy of envi-

| 10 |

ronmental degradation, including the structure of environmental deci- sion making in disaffected communities. We believe both perspectives are crucial to understanding the scope of the problem and the shape of solutions.

These perspectives—internal and external—also mirror our respective positions vis-à-vis the Environmental Justice Movement. One of us has spent more than ten years primarily working with, and providing legal representation to, grassroots groups in their struggles for environmental justice in their communities. The other author is a legal academic who has spent more than five years primarily studying and observing the phe- nomenon of environmental racism. Our goal in writing this book is to bring together, in one place, an analysis that reflects the disparate ele- ments of the movement for environmental justice and that combines our individual and collective insights.

Our Perspective

In bringing our insights to bear on the subject of environmental racism, we are mindful of the lens(es) through which we view this problem. Both of us are lawyers by training, though our combined experience with com- munities struggling with environmental degradation has broadened our perspective. Our legal background thus undoubtedly colors, but does not unduly constrain, our analysis. We recognize, and call to our readers’ at- tention, the rich body of existing literature on this subject, written from a variety of disciplines and viewpoints. However, since so much of envi- ronmental decision making is structured by legal institutions, it is impor- tant to understand the way in which environmental laws can both con- tribute to and mitigate the injustice experienced by many communities.

The law, however, is part of a larger social structure. Understanding environmental racism and injustice requires a broader, structural per- spective. This broader perspective, what we call the “political economy” of environmental racism, is crucial both to framing the issue and to ad- dressing the injustice so many communities experience. This perspective examines the relationship among economic, political/legal, and social forces as they influence environmental decision-making processes and environmental outcomes. Part and parcel of a political economic per- spective on the issue of environmental racism is an understanding of the

Introduction

| 11 |

experience of people in those communities that bear the disproportion- ate impact of environmental hazards.

The Importance of Grassroots Experiences

The stories of communities like Kettleman City (profiled in the Preface) are spread throughout the book. These stories, or case studies, are not intended to be representative of all aspects of the grassroots movement for environmental justice (though we chose case studies with regional, racial, organizational, and strategic diversity in mind). Rather, our case studies are illustrative of some of the facets of this diverse, complex, and evolving movement, which has its roots in previous social justice grass- roots movements. In chapter 1, we trace the origins of environmental justice activism to various social reform movements, such as the Civil Rights and the anti-toxics movements. These movements have sought self-determination and power for different groups and communities much like those profiled in this book.

Grassroots experiences are critical to our understanding of environ- mental racism and justice for both our internal and our external per- spectives. For our internal perspective, grassroots accounts tell a crucial narrative that “reveals the particular experiences of those in social loca- tions, experiences that cannot be shared by those situated differently but that they must understand in order to do justice to the others.”3 Grass- roots struggles can help us understand, and “unmask,”4 the way in which individuals in disenfranchised communities experience the very social and structural constraints upon which, as we argue in chapter 3, the en- vironmental decision-making process relies. For our external perspective, grassroots struggles are a window into the social relations and processes that underlie distributive outcomes. A view from the ground (or the field) allows us to see the many dimensions of power struggles, the rela- tionships of actors within these struggles, and the role of the legal and regulatory framework in structuring those relationships.

Focusing on the structural dynamics of grassroots struggles, particu- larly as these struggles interact with the state/public apparatus, also shifts the attention away from individual actors and the fruitless search for clearly identified perpetrators. As we explain in chapter 3, the insistence on establishing a linear, causal connection between disproportionate

Introduction

| 12 |

outcomes and a “single bad actor” permeates our society’s legal and so- cial understandings of racism and injustice.5 This prevailing understand- ing obscures the forces at work in producing environmental racism, how- ever, by disaggregating communities and institutions and by isolating them from their social settings. By looking at the political economy of distributional outcomes, we hope to articulate a broader causal analysis and understanding of environmental racism. This broader analysis, in turn, forces us to go beyond framing the problem as merely a distribu- tive one—certain communities get an unfair environmental burden— and to reconceptualize grassroots activism as more than an attempt to disrupt the decisions of private corporations and state agencies. Instead, grassroots struggles are a crucial arena in which to restructure social re- lations through systems of localized environmental decision making.

We map out some of the processes of struggle, in chapter 5, as way of giving context to the grassroots accounts. In mapping these processes, we do so with both our own experiences working with and observing grassroots efforts in mind and with the benefit of countless struggles memorialized in the impressive, and growing, body of environmental justice literature. The processes of grassroots struggle involve the formal and informal mechanisms of environmental decision making and the var- ious obstacles experienced by community residents after they discover that a private company or government official has made the decision to locate an environmentally hazardous facility in their neighborhood. These processes also involve a community’s decision to organize and be- come involved in the decisions that shape its lives and health. In their ef- forts to take control of their environment, grassroots groups inevitably run up against a system of environmental decision making that was not designed with their full participation in mind, as our case studies in the following chapters illustrate. Understanding the structure of environ- mental decision making, particularly on the state and local levels, where these struggles occur, is crucial to understanding the motivation, stages, and strategies of grassroots activism.

Transformative Politics

In portraying and analyzing environmental justice grassroots activism, we do not intend to reduce grassroots struggles to a new consciousness

Introduction

| 13 |

on the part of the poor and people of color about environmental con- cerns, even as that term is broadly construed. What is important about the communities that we portray, and the grassroots movement as a whole, is the self-representation and agency inherent in “speaking for ourselves.” As Giovanna Di Chiro writes, what is “new” about the Envi- ronmental Justice Movement is not the “elevated environmental con- sciousness” of its members but the ways that it transforms the possibili- ties for fundamental social and environmental change through redefini- tion, reinvention, and construction of innovative political and cultural discourses and practices. This includes, among other things, the articu- lation of concepts of environmental justice and environmental racism and the forging of new forms of grassroots political organization.6 These exciting developments are what we call the transformative politics of the Environmental Justice Movement. This transformation takes place on a number of levels—the individual, the group, the community—and ulti- mately influences institutions, government, and social structure.

Individuals are transformed through the process of struggle by learn- ing about, and participating in, a decision that will fundamentally affect their quality of life. Using lawyers and other technicians, residents in em- battled communities both build upon their knowledge of their commu- nity’s environmental problems and acquire knowledge about the sub- stantive and procedural aspects of environmental decision making. Their home-grown, and acquired, expertise empowers local residents and helps them to develop a grassroots base to influence environmental de- cision making.

The community is transformed by the grassroots environmental jus- tice groups established in the midst of environmental struggles. These groups help to transform marginal communities from passive victims to significant actors in environmental decision-making processes. Grassroots groups are often fighting against a decision already made to place a toxic site in their neighborhood without any negotiation or consultation with those most affected by that decision—community residents. The groups rightly challenge, first and foremost, the legiti- macy of the decision-making process and the social structures that allow such decisions to be made without the involvement of those most intimately concerned.

Part of what also empowers individuals and communities to demand

Introduction

| 14 |

participation in decisions that fundamentally affect their lives is the real- ization that power relationships within a decision-making structure are fluid and open to contestation. Once this realization takes hold, com- munity residents can move from a reactive mode to one in which they take the initiative and decision makers begin to respond to their con- cerns. In this way, decision-making bodies—government institutions and corporations—are also transformed. This mutually transformative power dynamic in disaffected communities reveals an important facet of envi- ronmental justice politics. That disaffected communities are both vul- nerable to disproportionate siting practices and, simultaneously, often successful at halting those practices suggests a paradoxical combination of socially oppressive sociopolitical constraints and self-determining ca- pacities at work in these communities.

The transformation of environmental justice participants, and their local communities, ultimately lies in the forging of coalitions and the net- working of grassroots organizations across substantive areas. Environ- mental justice groups are networking with other groups to provide in- formation and technical expertise to grassroots constituencies on various issues of interest to disenfranchised communities, beyond environmental justice. Because of these networks, residents in marginal communities will continue to shape environmental policy, both locally and nationally, as well as create more opportunities for community input into the spec- trum of policy making that affects their material conditions.

Words Have Power: A Note on Our Terminology

We use the terms “environmental racism” and “environmental injustice” interchangeably in the book. While “environmental racism” is the bet- ter-known term, “environmental injustice” is broader and encompasses both the racial and the class aspects of the political economy at work in communities that face toxic assault.7

We use the term “environmental justice” deliberately. Some govern- ment agencies and industry groups prefer the term “environmental eq- uity,” because they feel it “most readily lends itself to scientific risk analy- sis”8 and avoids those sometimes controversial terms “racism” and “jus- tice.” We use the term “environmental justice” because it both expresses our aspiration and encompasses the political economy of environmental

Introduction

| 15 |

decision making. That is, environmental justice requires democratic de- cision making, community empowerment, and the incorporation of so- cial structure—for example, existing community health problems, cu- mulative impacts of preexisting environmental hazards, the effect of seg- regative housing patterns—in environmental decision-making processes.

Most important in our concept of environmental justice is the element of democratic decision making, or community self-determination. Cur- rent environmental decision-making processes have not been effective in providing meaningful participation opportunities for those most bur- dened by environmental decisions.9 “Meaningful,” in this context, means substantive dialogue among administrators, experts, and affected communities along with the opportunity for affected communities to in- fluence the decision-making process.10 This means early, direct, and col- laborative public participation. More important, it presupposes a power- sharing process in which government is but one party to the ultimate de- cision or agreement.11

We refer to the “environment” in a broader context than many envi- ronmental groups traditionally have defined it, using the Movement de- finition: the environment is where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we learn.12 Historically, poor communities of color have been marginalized within the environmental movement. These commu- nities view traditional environmentalism as associated with the preserva- tion of wildlife and wilderness—concerns that are just not central to the everyday survival of poor communities and communities of color.13 The Civil Rights Movement, the movement most closely aligned with these communities, also has not viewed environmental concerns as a priority. Consequently, until recently there has been a noticeable dearth of knowl- edge regarding environmental policy and processes of decision making in disaffected communities. Grassroots environmental justice activists recognize this neglect and are constructing a new meaning of “environ- mentalism” that links environmental preservation to their material envi- ronment and community.

The notion of “environment” for environmental justice groups and networks has come to mean home and community.14 These are the places that need to be preserved and protected from pollutants and other harms. This community preservation principle15 recognizes that the harms that result from the disenfranchisement of the most vulner-

Introduction

| 16 |

able communities from environmental decision making are not only health related but include other, broader consequences, such as the re- duction of community cohesion, the feeling of powerlessness, and so- cioeconomic damage that result from the loss of businesses, homes, and schools.

A Final Note: The Focus on Waste

The movement for environmental justice seeks much more than merely to stop the siting of waste facilities, and other locally undesirable land uses in low-income communities and communities of color. Waste facility sit- ing battles are but one aspect of the movement for environmental justice, which also concerns itself with the cleanup of contaminated industrial sites, the elimination of occupational hazards, lead abatement, enforce- ment of existing environmental regulations, and the guarantee of repre- sentation in the environmental decision-making process. The movement for environmental justice is also about creating clean jobs, building a sus- tainable economy, guaranteeing safe and affordable housing, and achiev- ing racial and social justice.16

Given the diversity of various community struggles, and the complex- ity of issues represented in environmental decision making, it is difficult to capture, in one place, the multifacetedness of the Environmental Jus- tice Movement. We do not pretend to attempt such a feat. Our structural analysis and profiles of grassroots struggles in this book focus, in large part, on decisions regarding commercial waste facilities. The distribution of hazardous, or potentially hazardous, facilities is important enough to environmental justice issues, and central enough to grassroots struggles, that it deserves the focus of our stories and analysis.

Waste facility siting is also the arena in which a great deal of grassroots action takes place. It is no coincidence that some of the first major envi- ronmental justice studies to chart disproportionate impact focused on commercial waste facilities. These facilities can pose great risk to human health and the environment and are the subject of ongoing public scrutiny and concern. Moreover, the siting of hazardous waste facilities is at the heart of the anti-toxics movement, a movement that, as we ex- plain in chapter 1, is an important predecessor to the Environmental Jus- tice Movement.

Introduction

| 17 |

The stories, analysis, and lessons contained here are equally applicable to other types of environmental justice struggles, and indeed to social justice struggles in general. On one level, the issues are the same—com- munity empowerment, the structure of institutional decision making, policy reforms that address our most vulnerable communities. It is our hope that the lessons learned in the communities we profile, and the analysis offered here, can be translated into, and replicated within, other struggles for justice.

Introduction

| 18 |

O N E

A History of the

Environmental Justice

Movement

The determination and persistence of residents in communities like Ket- tleman City is firmly rooted in past social justice movements in the United States. Many of the techniques employed by groups like El Pueblo in Kettleman City did not, of course, originate in those struggles. Coalition building, mastery of technical language, development of tech- nical expertise, direct action, litigation, and direct participatory democ- racy have all been used in various social reform movements for decades. Nevertheless, as applied to environmental struggles in poor communities and communities of color, these techniques are helping to redefine both ecological awareness and the meaning of the “environment” itself.

Pointing to a particular date or event that launched the Environmen- tal Justice Movement is impossible, as the movement grew organically out of dozens, even hundreds, of local struggles and events and out of a variety of other social movements. Nevertheless, certain incidents loom large in the history of the movement as galvanizing events.

Many observers point to protests by African Americans against a toxic dump in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982 as the beginning of the movement. The sociologist Robert Bullard points to African Ameri- can student protests over the drowning death of an eight-year-old girl in a garbage dump in a residential area of Houston in 1967.1 Others note that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was traveling to Memphis to support striking garbage workers in what is now considered an environ- mental justice struggle when he was assassinated in 1968.2 The United

| 19 |

Farm Workers’ struggle against pesticide poisoning in the workplace, be- ginning in the 1960s (and continuing to this day), is the starting point for some. Some Native American activists and others consider the first environmental justice struggles on the North American continent to have taken place 500 years ago with the initial invasion by Europeans.

Rather than an incident-focused history of the movement, however, we think it more useful to think metaphorically of the movement as a river, fed over time by many tributaries.3 No one tributary made the river the force that it is today; indeed, it is difficult to point to the headwaters, since so many tributaries have nourished the movement. Particular events can be seen as high-water marks (or perhaps, to push the metaphor, exciting rapids) in each stream, or the main river. With this idea in mind, we discuss here some of the most important tributaries of the river of the Environmental Justice Movement.

Foundations of the Environmental Justice Movement

The Civil Rights Movement

Perhaps the most significant source feeding into today’s Environmental Justice Movement is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Through that movement, hundreds of thousands of African Americans and their allies, primarily but not solely in the southern United States, pressed for social change and experienced empowerment through grassroots activism.4

The spirit and experience of resistance through the Civil Rights Move- ment was widespread in the southern United States and in many north- ern urban areas. The movement was strongly church-based; many of its leaders, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, were ministers. When the Environmental Justice Movement began building momentum in the early 1980s, it was church-based civil rights leaders, seasoned in the Civil Rights Movement, who were at its fore. The 1982 protests in Warren County, North Carolina, against a PCB dump were led by local church officials and by the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, a longtime civil rights activist and at that time the head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice.5 The Envi- ronmental Justice Movement’s roots in civil rights and church-based ad-

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 20 |

vocacy is evidenced in the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice’s landmark 1987 study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. Perhaps the single best-known work documenting the dis- proportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color, Toxic Wastes and Race galvanized the movement. (Its author, Charles Lee, while working for a church-based civil rights group, also helped organize early meetings of academics to talk about environmental justice issues.)

Environmental Justice Movement leaders coming out of civil rights organizing include not only those who advocated for the rights of African Americans but also Latino activists. Movement leaders like Jean Gauna and Richard Moore of Albuquerque came out of Chicano politi- cal organizing in the Southwest, which involved mass protests against the Vietnam War, police brutality, and racism in housing and education.6

Civil rights activists brought three things to the Environmental Jus- tice Movement: a history of, and experience with, direct action, which led to similar exercises of grassroots power by the Environmental Justice Movement; a perspective that recognized that the disproportionate im- pact of environmental hazards was not random or the result of “neutral” decisions but a product of the same social and economic structure which had produced de jure and de facto segregation and other racial oppres- sion; and the experience of empowerment through political action. The seasoned civil rights leaders recognized environmental racism and set about using the tools and techniques they knew in their effort to com- bat it. The Warren County protests, for example, in which more than 500 people were arrested in acts of civil disobedience,7 directly echoed the sit-ins and civil disobedience of the 1960s. Similarly, marches, a sig- nature of the Civil Rights Movement, have become a fixture in local en- vironmental justice struggles.

Civil Rights Movement leaders now in positions of power have also lent assistance to the Environmental Justice Movement. For instance, in 1992, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a prominent participant in the protests of the 1960s, introduced the Environmental Justice Act.8

Though the Act did not pass Congress, it raised environmental justice is- sues to a new stature in Washington. Lewis, in speaking about the bill, recognized that “the quest for environmental justice has helped to renew the civil rights movement” through its call for environmental protection as a “right of all, not a privilege for a few.”9

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 21 |

The Anti-Toxics Movement

The second major tributary to the river is the grassroots anti-toxics movement. Communities have long resisted and organized against haz- ardous waste facilities, landfills, and incinerators.10 The grassroots anti- toxics movement burst into national prominence in the late 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal, New York, a disaster area and evacuated residents of a housing development built on a former toxic waste dump.11 While Love Canal and the subsequent evacuation and relocation of another contaminated community at Times Beach, Missouri, are perhaps the best-known early examples of “grassroots en- vironmentalism,” similar stories have taken place across the United States. The proliferation of local actions marked an important shift in en- vironmental activism when it began in the late 1970s: as Andrew Szasz notes, these local environmental conflicts “tended not to be about na- ture, per se, but about land use, social impact, [and] human health.”12

These local actions and activists also transformed toxic waste from a “nonentity to a full-fledged issue.”13

The grassroots anti-toxics movement grew to prominence after the Civil Rights Movement; in contrast to that movement, its leadership is generally characterized by a lack of political organizing experience before a particular toxic struggle. “I have never been an activist before this fight” is a common story in the anti-toxics movement, in which resi- dents, primarily women, are galvanized to action by threats to their health, their families, and their communities. As these grassroots leaders heard about other, similar anti-toxics fights in nearby communities, they slowly linked their local struggles together into a larger “movement.”14

The anti-toxics movement became loosely organized under several national umbrella organizations in the 1980s, which helped make its actions more technically sophisticated and strategically coherent. For example, Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes (CCHW), an organization founded by former residents of Love Canal, has assisted grassroots activists nationwide for the past fifteen years, working with more than 7,000 local groups.15 Thousands of these groups used (and continue to use) direct action protests to effectuate their demands. National groups like CCHW and regional groups that sprang up, such

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 22 |

as the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego, California, also used science and technical information, placing a high premium on de- mystifying arcane documents such as environmental impact statements and processes such as risk assessment. The anti-toxics movement sought to understand, and then restructure, the system of toxic waste production in the United States. Growing out of their concrete experi- ences in their own communities, anti-toxics activists came up with the idea of “pollution prevention”—that is, eliminating the use of toxic chemicals in industrial practices so that the production of toxic waste is stopped as well. Under the force of years of organizing, pollution prevention has moved from being a movement demand to being na- tional policy.16

Like the Civil Rights Movement, the grassroots anti-toxics movement also brought the experiential base of direct action into the Environmen- tal Justice Movement. It further contributed both the experience of using (and, when need be, discrediting) scientific and technical informa- tion and the conceptual framework that pushed pollution prevention and toxics use reduction as policy goals. Anti-toxics groups also had built na- tional networks by linking local activists, an experience that they brought to the movement.

The grassroots anti-toxics movement also contributed a structural un- derstanding of power, albeit different from civil rights leaders’. Civil rights advocates came, through the process of the civil rights struggles, to understand discrete racial assaults (from epithets to lynchings to seg- regation laws) as part of a social structure of racial oppression that ulti- mately had to be dismantled if racial justice was to be achieved. Anti-tox- ics activists, through the process of local fights against polluting facilities, came to understand discrete toxic assaults as part of an economic struc- ture in which, as part of the “natural” functioning of the economy, cer- tain communities would be polluted. Anti-toxics leaders thus focused on corporate power and the structure of the U.S. and the global economies and on strategies for changing that structure. It was when, in the 1980s, civil rights leaders began to embrace the anti-toxics movement’s eco- nomic analysis and the anti-toxics leaders embraced the civil rights ac- tivists’ racial critique that the conceptual fusion took place that helped create the Environmental Justice Movement.17

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 23 |

Academics

A third important contributory stream to the Environmental Justice Movement comes from a seemingly unlikely spot: academia. Academics, however, have played a crucial role in both sparking and shaping the En- vironmental Justice Movement, perhaps a larger one than they have played in any other broad-based social movement in the United States. Beginning in the 1960s, isolated researchers discovered that environ- mental hazards had a disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income people.18 Dr. Robert Bullard, studying Houston land use patterns, found in the late 1970s that garbage dumps had a dispropor- tionate impact on African Americans; this research led to Bullard’s pio- neering work in the field. In the late 1980s, Bullard did a literature search using the terms “minority” and “environment” and found twelve articles—six of which he had written. At that time, several academics, led by Bunyan Bryant at the University of Michigan, Bullard (then at the University of California-Riverside), and Charles Lee of the United Church of Christ, began to discuss the findings of disparate impact among themselves and held conferences on the subject.

In 1990, a group of academics convened at the University of Michi- gan to discuss their most recent findings. At that meeting, they de- cided that the energy and the momentum generated in their weekend together were too exciting to let dissipate in the usual academic pa- pers. Instead, the group wrote letters to Louis Sullivan, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and to William Reilly, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the letters, the professors, who came to be known as the Michigan Group, set out some of their findings of disproportionate impact and asked for a meeting with the officials to discuss a government re- sponse. As Bullard reports, the group never heard from Secretary Sul- livan. William Reilly, however, agreed to meet with the Michigan Group, and, later in 1990, seven professors met with Reilly and EPA staffers in Washington, D.C.19 The result of the Michigan Group’s ad- vocacy with Administrator Reilly was EPA’s creation of a Work Group on Environmental Equity.20 Reilly later created an Office of Environ- mental Equity, which newly appointed EPA Administrator Carol Browner renamed the Office of Environmental Justice in 1993.

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 24 |

Beyond lobbying the federal government, the academics researched and wrote (and continue to produce) studies that demonstrate the dis- proportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color and on low-income people. These studies, dialectically fueled by and fueling the movement, played a series of roles. For one, the studies sparked and moved forward local struggles. In Los Angeles, for example, a commu- nity struggle led by Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles against a giant garbage incinerator received what its leaders call crucial support when, before a key vote of the City Council, the UCLA School of Urban Planning released a 700-page critique of the incinerator pro- ject and its disproportionate impact on people of color in Los Angeles.

The academics’ work also shaped or reaffirmed movement leaders’ consciousness about the structural or systemic nature of environmental oppression. “I thought it was just us until I began to hear about the United Church of Christ study and the other studies,” says Mary Lou Mares, an activist who has fought for more than ten years against Chem- ical Waste Management’s toxic dump near her Latino community of Ket- tleman City. “Then I realized we were part of a national pattern.”21

At other times, the academics have provided expertise to community groups during litigation or administrative advocacy in a local environ- mental justice struggle. In fact, the career of the most prolific and influ- ential academic, Dr. Robert Bullard, was launched by a court case in Houston in the late 1970s in which his wife needed an expert witness.22

Bullard and others have since prepared studies and testified for dozens of community groups nationwide. In perhaps the best known example, Professor Bullard’s documentation of racially biased decision-making cri- teria in the siting of a nuclear waste processing facility in rural Louisiana was directly responsible for the federal government’s decision to deny a permit to the facility.23

The concrete victories achieved in Los Angeles, Louisiana, and else- where were marked by the synergy between community activism and the academic support that played a critical role in each fight. On a local level, the education went both ways: the academics learned from community residents the situation on the ground, while local residents came to un- derstand their community’s struggle in the context of a larger regional or national pattern and movement.

Finally, the academics’ work provides a basis for policy changes at the

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 25 |

local, state, and national levels. In signing the Executive Order on Envi- ronmental Justice, for example, President Clinton acknowledged the need to “focus Federal attention on the environmental and human health conditions in minority communities and low-income communi- ties with the goal of achieving environmental justice.”24 Without the pre- vious decade of studies that had established the scope of the environ- mental injustice in these communities, the problem never would have reached the attention of the White House.

Today, academics continue to play a crucial supporting role through such institutions as the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark- Atlanta University, founded and run by Robert Bullard, and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Or- leans, run by Beverly Hendrix Wright. These centers, and others like them, provide crucial research that aids local struggles, as well as train a new generation of professionals of color.

Native American Struggles

A fourth significant stream feeding the Environmental Justice Move- ment has been organizing by Native Americans. Native Americans have struggled for self-determination in land use decisions since their first en- counters with Europeans more than 500 years ago.25 Activism by Native Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the precursor to today’s organizing around environmental issues by Indians on and off the reser- vations, organizing that contributes one of the most vibrant and ever ex- panding tributaries to the movement. The struggles that led to the cre- ation of the American Indian Movement were often focused around land and environmental exploitation, including such well-known and iconic incidents of Indian resistance as the shootout at Pine Ridge in 1975, which took place on the very day that the corrupt Pine Ridge Tribal Chair Dickie Wilson was in Washington, D.C., signing away rights to mineral exploration in the sacred Black Hills to major oil companies.26

Native American activists brought to the Environmental Justice Movement the experiences of centuries of struggle for self-determina- tion and resistance to resource-extractive land use. The struggles of the 1870s to protect tribal land honed skills that would be useful later. As the

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 26 |

first victims of environmental racism, Native Americans brought a deep understanding of the concept to the Environmental Justice Movement.

The Native American tributary to the movement also helped define one of its central philosophies, the concept of self-determination. The centuries-old Native American idea of sovereignty echoed with, and helped create, the Environmental Justice Movement’s credo, “We speak for ourselves.” While for some other communities the slogan was an at- tempt to take back environmental policy decisions from traditional envi- ronmental groups, for Native Americans the slogan defined their rela- tionship to state and federal governments.

The significant contributions of Native Americans to the Environ- mental Justice Movement were institutionalized in the formation of the Indigenous Environmental Network in 1990, the history and function of which is the subject of chapter 6.

The Labor Movement

Various strands of the labor movement have also contributed to the Environmental Justice Movement. The largest labor tributary has been the historical struggle of farm-workers to gain control over their working conditions. The farm-worker movement of the 1960s, led by Cesar Chavez, was perhaps the first nationally known effort by people of color to address an environmental issue. Much of the activity took the form of union organizing drives. For instance, the United Farm Workers (UFW) included in its initial organizing and contractual de- mands the ban of certain dangerous pesticides, including DDT. Union contracts in the late 1960s prohibited the use of such pesticides, and the lawsuits that ultimately led the U.S. government to ban the chem- ical outright were brought by migrant farm-workers.27 Farm-workers’ struggle for self-determination in the workplace—for the power to control decisions that affected their lives, such as the use of pesti- cides—mirrored the struggles by Native Americans and African Amer- icans for political self-determination and by the grassroots anti-toxics movement for a role in local decisions. Unionization and protection of farm-workers’ health and safety were integrally linked from the earliest days of the farm-worker organizing drives, and they continue to be

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 27 |

linked today; it was thus natural for farm-workers to become active participants in the movement for environmental justice.

A second, and much less significant, labor tributary, one fed by the public health activism of the 1970s, is the occupational safety and health movement. The rise of Committees on Occupational Safety and Health (COSHs) across the country in the 1970s and 1980s brought increased attention to the environmental hazards faced by workers in the work- place. The COSHs were active in regions of the country—the South, for example—and in industry sectors—such as textiles and high-technol- ogy—that traditionally had little or no union representation. COSH ac- tivists, such as Mandy Hawes in San Jose, California, became early orga- nizers of and advocates in the Environmental Justice Movement.

A third labor tributary is the increased attention paid to occupational safety and health by industrial unions. Led by sometimes renegade union activists such as Tony Mazzochi, unions such as the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union have paid increased attention to environmental justice issues. While industrial unions have often believed that their in- terests lay with further development or expansion of industrial plants, some visionary union leaders have understood that the push for safer jobs and a cleaner workplace can help build political support for labor from fence line communities and environmentalists. This awareness has led to an important collaboration between the Environmental Justice Move- ment and organized labor in the Campaign for a Just Transition; through this campaign, movement and union leaders have been exploring com- mon ground in phasing out the use of dangerous chemicals. This tribu- tary is still a trickle, but it is an exciting addition to the movement.

Traditional Environmentalists

A very small, and late, tributary to the Environmental Justice Movement is the traditional environmental movement. Perhaps it is the history of the traditional environmental movement that has made it such a small contributor to the Environmental Justice Movement.

Two major waves of traditional environmentalism have swept the United States. The first wave began around the turn of the century, when John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and other lovers of wilderness advo- cated the preservation of natural spaces in the United States. Like the

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 28 |

second wave, the first wave encompassed two divergent views that even today remain in tension: the preservationists, who advocate preserving wilderness from humans, and the conservationists, who want to preserve nature for human use through wise stewardship.28

Modern environmentalism, or the second wave, began after World War II with the rapid expansion in the use of petrochemical products. When the consequences of the shift to petrochemical production began to be felt, a new wave of activism sprang up, fueled by searing critiques of industrial practices such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This wave of environmentalism coalesced around Earth Day in 1970 and was institu- tionalized in the proliferation of legal-scientific groups such as the Nat- ural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF), and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), organi- zations that currently dominate the national scene.29 The second wave— what we call the traditional environmental movement30—and the body of statutes and case law known today as environmental law grew out of the social ferment of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement and the anti–Vietnam War movement, the two movements in which the second wave has its roots, were explicitly oriented toward social justice.

The second-wave environmentalists have moved away from this social justice orientation, however. In particular, they have moved from a par- ticipatory strategy based on broad mobilization of the interested public, such as that used in the civil rights and the anti-war movements, to an in- sider strategy based on litigation, lobbying, and technical evaluation.31

The movement away from a participatory strategy paralleled the move- ment away from the social justice issues that dominated the speeches given on Earth Day in 1970.32 It also coincided with the traditional groups’ desire to control the environmental establishment or at least to have power within it; as one commentator observes, “Shedding the rad- ical skin of their amateur past seemed necessary to achieve that goal.”33

The second wave, made up overwhelmingly of lawyers, focused pri- marily on legal and scientific approaches to environmental problems.34

Second-wave lawyers helped write most of the environmental legislation on the books today, from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA),

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 29 |

the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act (SARA). These laws created complex administrative processes that exclude most people who do not have training in the field and necessitate specific technical expertise. The laws, while in some cases successful in cleaning up the environment, have also had an unintended consequence—the exclusion of those without expertise from much of environmental decision making.

Having designed and helped implement most of the nation’s envi- ronmental laws, the second wave has spent the past twenty-five years in court litigating. Lawsuits are now the primary, and sometimes the only, strategy employed by traditional groups.35 As the executive director of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund stated in 1988, “Litigation is the most important thing the environmental movement has done over the past fifteen years.”36

Until relatively recently, the traditional environmental law community has largely ignored environmental justice issues.37 In some cases, the lack of attention has been intentional: in a 1971 national membership survey, the Sierra Club asked its members, “Should the Club concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities?” According to the Club’s Bulletin, “[t]he balance of sentiment was against the Club so involving itself,” with “58 percent of all members either strongly or somewhat opposed” to the idea.38

Racism and other prejudices have historically excluded activists of color and grassroots activists from the traditional environmental move- ment.39 In fact, some of these activists regard the traditional environ- mental groups as obstacles to progress, if not outright enemies.40 Some in traditional environmental groups have pushed for a greater focus on environmental justice—one hired an environmental justice coordinator, another hired several environmental justice fellows and announced a new focus on such cases—but, for the most part, the Environmental Justice Movement has operated without the input or assistance of the traditional environmental groups, perhaps to its benefit.41 Given the second wave of environmental activism’s roots in the grassroots activism of the 1960s, this disconnect is ironic, and poignant.

Some have described the grassroots movement for environmental jus- tice as the third wave of environmental activism,42 but we see the Envi-

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 30 |

ronmental Justice Movement as separate from and as transcending the environmental movement—as a movement based on environmental is- sues but situated within the history of movements for social justice.

The Summit

The disparate strands of the Environmental Justice Movement—civil rights, grassroots anti-toxics, academic, labor, indigenous—were con- sciously brought together for the first time in 1991 at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. The Summit served notice that the Environmental Justice Movement had arrived as a force to be reckoned with on the national level. It was also, in some ways, a de- claration of independence from the traditional environmental move- ment; a telling statement from attendees was, “I don’t care to join the environmental movement, I belong to a movement already.”

Ironically, the Summit grew out of the Environmental Justice Move- ment’s challenge to traditional environmental groups. In early 1990, Richard Moore, of the SouthWest Organizing Project, and Pat Bryant, of the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization, drafted a letter, ultimately signed by more than 100 community leaders, to the ten largest tradi- tional environmental groups in which they accused the groups of racism in their hiring and policy development processes.43 An article in the New York Times on the letter 44 initiated a media firestorm around the issue, and in an interview on CNN, the Rev. Ben Chavis, one of the signatories of the letter and at the time the head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, called for an emergency summit of envi- ronmental, civil rights, and community groups. “In his mind, he was thinking about a small group of people getting together to negotiate it out,” says Charles Lee, who directed the environmental justice program at the Commission for Racial Justice. Lee had other ideas, however, and, as he put together a planning committee, the summit quickly evolved from a small negotiating session into an event at which people of color could actively put forward their own environmental agenda.

The Summit was the product of eighteen months of intensive orga- nizing by movement leaders, including Lee, Bryant, Moore, Dana Al- ston of the Panos Institute, the Indian activist Donna Chavis of North Carolina, and the academic Robert Bullard. Chavis’s initial idea of a

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 31 |

small gathering ended up a national event that brought together more than 300 delegates and 400 observers and supporters for three heady days in Washington, D.C. There were speeches by leaders in the national social justice movement, such as Jesse Jackson and Dolores Huerta, strat- egy sessions on issues such as toxic dumps and legal challenges, and cau- cuses for delegates organized by region and by race.

Unprecedented alliances were formed at the Summit, and participants made conceptual linkages between seemingly different struggles, identi- fying common themes of racism and economic exploitation of people and land. Many there came to understand their issues in the context of a larger movement, and on a deeper level than before. Latinos saw the racism African Americans had experienced and likened it to their own ex- periences; foes of toxic waste dumps understood the fights of those who opposed uranium mining. The raised consciousness took place at a vari- ety of levels: “Native Americans stressing a spiritual connection with the environment were able to find a common ground with Christian African Americans and Mexican Americans,” recalls Tom Goldtooth, a delegate to the Summit who now coordinates the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Some say that from October 21–24, 1991, the environmental move- ment in the United States changed forever. Certainly, those in atten- dance went back to their communities across the country with a renewed understanding of the need for environmental justice and with new ideas on how to fight for it; nascent environmental justice networks (such as the Indigenous Environmental Network profiled in chapter 6) gained momentum. Environmental justice as a concept had reached the national stage, and it was not long afterward that two key planners of the Sum- mit, Ben Chavis and Robert Bullard, were appointed to President-elect Clinton’s transition team. On a more tangible level, perhaps the most important result of the Summit were the Principles of Environmental Justice, seventeen principles agreed to by the delegates.

Environmental Justice Activists

Despite the many tributaries from which they come to the Environmen- tal Justice Movement, at least three characteristics unite the movement’s activists: motives, background, and perspective. With respect to motives,

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 32 |

grassroots activists are often fighting for their health and homes. Envi- ronmental justice activists usually have an immediate and material stake in solving the environmental problems they confront; they realize the hazards they face affect the communities where they live and may be sick- ening or even killing them or their children. Because grassroots activists have such a personal stake in the outcome of particular environmental battles, they are often willing to explore a wider range of strategies than other advocates, including traditional environmental advocates.

Second, with respect to background, grassroots environmentalists are largely, though not entirely, poor or working-class people. Many are peo- ple of color who come from communities that are disenfranchised from most major societal institutions. Because of their backgrounds, these ac- tivists often have a distrust for the law and are often experienced in the use of nonlegal strategies, such as protest and other direct action.

The third trait, perspective, is an outgrowth of the first two. Most en- vironmental justice activists have a social justice orientation, seeing envi- ronmental degradation as just one of many ways their communities are under attack. Because of their experiences, grassroots activists often lose faith in government agencies and elected officials,45 leading those ac- tivists to view environmental problems in their communities as con- nected to larger structural failings—inner-city disinvestment, residential segregation, lack of decent health care, joblessness, and poor education. Similarly, many activists also seek remedies that are more fundamental than simply stopping a local polluter or toxic dumper. Instead, many view the need for broader, structural reforms as a way to alleviate many of the problems, including environmental degradation, that their com- munities endure.

These shared traits influence the tactics and strategies used by local ac- tivists, as we explore throughout the stories in this book. The motives, backgrounds, and perspectives of most environmental justice activists are shaped by their experiences in a deeply racially and economically strati- fied society, a stratification that we explore in more detail in chapter 3.

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

| 33 |


Comments are closed.