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General News    H3'ed 7/5/09

Environmental Justice Leaders Call on Obama Administration to Roll Back Bush-Era Wastes Rule

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Preliminary mapping of the damage sites in several regions of the U.S. indicates that hazardous- waste recyclers are located predominantly in low-income communities and communities of color. Given what the research shows nationally about the location of treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDF), there is a high likelihood that the national pattern of damage cases will also follow the pattern of concentrating in people of color and low-income communities.

Using EPA data, a 2005 Associated Press study found African Americans are 79 percent more likely than Whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. African Americans in 19 states and Latinos in 12 states are more than twice as likely as Whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution poses the greatest health danger. Using a national, census tract-level data set, two University of Colorado sociologists in their 2009 study found "blacks experience such high pollution burden that black households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are, on average, more polluted that the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $1,000 live."

A similar pattern was found for people of color in the 2009 Justice in the Air study that tracks pollution reported in the toxic release inventory (TRI) database and EPA's Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI). Across the U.S., African Americans and Latinos tend to live on the "wrong side of the tracks" and are exposed to greater health risks from industrial pollution. The deregulation of hazardous waste will likely send more risky "recycling" operations and toxic materials into low-income and people of color communities-many of which because of discriminatory land use and zoning practices-have more than their fair share of waste facilities.

Neighborhoods Zoned for Other People's Waste

Zoning has shaped much of our built environment and is the most widely applied mechanism to regulate urban land use in the United States. Local zoning policies also contribute to inequitable development, environmental injustice, and the production of riskscapes. Zoning tends to act as the "gatekeeper" in terms of where noxious uses can be legally sited-concentrating in poor and people of color industrial neighborhoods due to re-zoning more affluent and less minority industrial areas to other uses, and expanding industrial zones in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. Discriminatory planning and zoning practices preclude many communities from growing smarter, fairer, and healthier.

Nowhere is the harmful effects of the practice, "zoned for other people's waste," more apparent than in Dickson, Tennessee, a city located 35 miles west of Nashville. The Dickson case has been called the "poster child" for toxic racism. Although African Americans make up just 4.5 percent of the Dickson County population, all of the county's permitted solid waste facilities have been sited in the mostly black Eno Road community.

The Eno Road community has been the solid waste "dumping grounds" dating back more than four decades. The black neighborhood was first used as the site of the Dickson "city dump" and subsequent city and county sanitary landfills, construction and demolition landfills, balefills, and processing centers. The site is currently being used as a C&D landfill, garbage transfer station, and recycling center.

Even under the more stringent RCRA standard, the Dickson County Landfill contaminated the African American Harry Holt family's homestead and their private wells with trichloroethylene or TCE, a "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Government records indicate that trichloroethylene was found in the Holt family's well drinking water as early as 1988, the same year the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) issued a permit to Dickson County for operation of the facility as a sanitary landfill.

Test results from the Harry Holt well in October 9, 2000 registered 120 ppb TCE and a second test on October 25, 2000 registered 145 ppb-24 times and 29 times, respectively, higher than the maximum contaminant level (MCL). In 2003, the Holt family filed a lawsuit against the City of Dickson, County of Dickson, and Scovill, Inc. (Scovill Inc. is the company that owned the former Scovill-Shrader Automotive manufacturing plant in Dickson). The Holt family is sick and some have died of cancer they believe is connected to the TCE in their drinking water. In March 2008, two Holt family member filed suit to get the Dickson County Landfill cleaned up under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Both lawsuits are still pending.


Hazardous materials destined for recycling must be subject to clear, mandatory and protective standards that ensure they are properly contained at all times. Until now, hazardous waste recyclers were compelled to meet protective RCRA standards that explicitly defined safe storage in tanks and other structures, often with monitoring and secondary containment structures to ensure that toxic material did not escape into the air, water and soil. The new rule wholly abandons these requirements and asks only that hazardous materials be "contained," without once defining the term. This is unacceptable, because the rule fails to provide standards for facilities to follow or any benchmark for regulators to enforce.

The EPA should therefore withdraw this rule, particularly given the agency's failure to consider the environmental justice impacts of removing vital safeguards on hazardous waste recycling. The agency should withdraw this rule, which significantly weakens the public's protection from millions of tons of hazardous waste. EPA's rule allows the manufacturer to decide whether or not RCRA should apply. When it comes to storing, handling, using, and transporting hazardous waste, it defeats RCRA's fundamental purpose to allow industry to self-regulate.

Our nation is now feeling the effects of government deregulation of the banking industry and so-called "toxic assets" that have nearly wrecked our economy. Deregulation of hazardous wastes will expand "toxic hot spots" and increase health threats to low-income and people of color communities. This is unacceptable. EPA must use its authority under RCRA to ensure responsible cradle-to-grave management of hazardous wastes. The agency should consider seriously how this rule endangers the public and our environment and take the steps necessary to ensure that hazardous waste, if recycled, is done so safely, under clear and enforceable rules of law, and to ensure that no community is unfairly burdened or endangered.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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