As the nation ruminates on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement this Black History Month, environmental justice activists are calling attention to what they say is the new frontline of the human rights struggle: chemical contamination of communities of color.
“When corporations decide where to build chemical plants, landfills, or water treatment plants where chemicals leach, they most often choose low income communities of color,” Richard Moore, a long-time civil rights and environmental justice leader with the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, said in a statement.
“This is the next frontier of the Civil Rights Movement,” Michele Roberts, co-coordinator for the alliance, told the AFRO. “People of color and the poor have borne the brunt of exposure to toxins and have a disproportionate share of health issues because of the prevalence of chemical sites in their communities. You even have people migrating because they are losing their communities.”
Roberts pointed to Mossville, a town just outside Lake Charles, La. that was built by Black freedmen in the late 1700s, and now faces a corporate buyout because “they are surrounded by 14 of the most toxic facilities ever.”
The environmental justice movement began in the 1960s when farm workers organized by Cesar Chavez fought for workplace rights, including protection from toxic pesticides in California fields, and when African-American students took to the streets of Houston to oppose a city dump that claimed the lives of two children.
But the movement truly took off in 1982 when residents from Warren County, N.C., a poor, rural and overwhelmingly Black jurisdiction, fought to block the dumping of 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs in their community.
“For us, environmental justice is about protecting where we live, play, work and pray,” Roberts said. She added of the history, “Grassroots communities came together to form the environmental justice movement. They looked at what Dr. King said about creating the ‘Beloved Community’ and honed in on that to say that we must have environmental remediation and policies in those communities.”
Those early efforts led President Bill Clinton to issue Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” in 1994.
But activists complain that Clinton’s executive order and other laws, such as the General Duty Clause of the Clean Air Act which requires facilities that produce, process, handle or store hazardous substances to take proactive measures to prevent accidental releases, are not being implemented.
Despite strides in legislation and executive actions, “communities continue to experience disasters,” Roberts said. “What we now need are standards and regulations to enforce these laws and protect these communities now and for future generations.”
On Jan. 9, a West Virginia chemical spill contaminated the water supply of nine counties, leaving 300,000 people without drinking water. On Dec. 20, an explosion at the Axiall plant near Mossville, La., sent several people to the hospital. In August, an explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people. On June 13, a chemical explosion in Geismar, La., killed one person, injured at least 75 others and released a plume of toxic fumes across the area.
President Obama’s Executive Order 13650, “Improving Chemical Safety and Security,” mandates “listening sessions” across the country, with the next scheduled for Feb. 27 in Newark, N.J. At the meetings, stakeholders who live and work near chemical plants have the chance to express their concerns.
Roberts said the move signals new momentum in the thrust for chemical policy reform and the environmental justice movement.
“I really believe we have a very strong chance because we’re getting more and more people involved” including the United Steelworkers, health advocates and more, Roberts said. “If we work collectively together, especially in the waning years of this administration, we would be able to get the reforms we need to protect our communities.”