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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/26/11

Black Leaders Need to Weigh in on Theft of Black Health and Black Wealth from Pollution

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Generations of African Americans survived the horrors of slavery, post-slavery racism and "Jim Crow" segregation, but may not survive toxic contamination and pollution assault from industrial facilities. Toxic racism has not only destroyed hard-working African American families' health but has also robbed them of their transformative wealth--wealth, which resides largely in their homes and landholdings that could be past down to future generations. Toxic racism also adds to the widening wealth gap between blacks and whites. Currently, black wealth is less than 10 percent of white wealth.

Many environmental and economic justice advocates view this wealth theft as a human rights violation that needs to be made a priority among black political, civil rights, labor, business, and faith-based leaders. Black land theft has robbed African Americans property and landowners of wealth that would normally be passed down to their offspring. The world learned of this stolen legacy in the discriminatory treatment of black farmers at the hands of the USDA and their long wait for justice. And in December 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion dollars in appropriations for the Pigford II lawsuit after Congress approved the legislation in November 2010. According to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, from emancipation to 1910, blacks amassed 15 million acres of land of which 218,000 black farmers are full or part owners.  A steady decline of black land ownership began after 1910 through theft, intimidation, discrimination, back taxes, and economic loss.

And now we add land and property theft by pollution to this list. Pollution from government and private industry facilities is robbing African Americans of their true property and land values. Nowhere is the problem of poisoned black communities more acute than in the southern United States, where 55 percent of African Americans now reside. For decades, black land owners all across Dixie have seen their homesteads contaminated and their property devalued by contamination from a range of facilities, some government-owned and others privately owned.

Some examples of this disturbing toxic contamination pattern include a PCB landfill in mostly black Warren County, NC, chemical plants in Anniston and McIntosh, AL, a garbage landfill (that accepted toxic coal ash from a TVA power plant spill) in Perry County, AL, wood treatment plants in Hattiesburg and Columbus, MS, and Pensacola, FL, a defense contractor in Tallevast, FL, and a landfill in Campbellton, FL that has received the largest share of BP oil disaster waste. Too many black property owners in environmental "sacrifice zones" have seen their land, property and investments devalued due to contamination--leaving them to pass down "damaged goods" to their offspring.

The "poster child" for this practice is in Dickson County, Tennessee, where toxic chemicals from the Dickson County Landfill, located just 54 feet from the family's property line, has robbed the health of the Holt family and poisoned their wells and their 150-acre rural homestead that's been in the family for four generations. Harry "Highway" Holt, founding member of the Nashville gospel group the Dynamic Dixie Travelers, died on January 9, 2007 after a long bout with cancer. He was 66. He is buried in the old Worley Furnace Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, located on a hill just above the Dickson County Landfill, alongside dozens of his relatives. Some grave markers in the cemetery date back more than a century.

Dickson County is only 4.6 percent and covers more than 490 square miles, an equivalent of 313,600 acres. Yet, the only cluster of solid waste landfills in the county is located in the small black community along Eno Road historically the center of black farm land holdings in the county.

Drums of toxic wastes were dumped at the landfill in 1968, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis. Government officials first learned of the trichloroethylene or TCE contamination in the Holt family wells as far back as 1988--but assured the family their well water was safe to drink. However, in similar letters government officials wrote letters urging white families not to drink, cook with, or bath in the TCE-tainted water in local springs and wells.

TCE is a probable human carcinogen. Harry Holt's daughter, Sheila Holt Orsted is recovering from breast cancer. In 2003, the Holt family sued the city and county of Dickson, the State of Tennessee, and the company that dumped the TCE. The family in the Holt v scovill case is represented by the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). And in March 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sheila Holt Orsted and her mother Beatrice Holt filed a lawsuit against Dickson City and County governments seeking cleanup of alleged water contamination.

In January 2009, one of the private defendants, which had filed for bankruptcy since the case was first filed, agreed to settle with the Holts for $2.6 million. In March 2009, the trial court ruled against the remaining government defendants on their motions to dismiss the Holts' personal injury, property, and discrimination claims. Both the NAACP LDF and NRDC cases are now proceeding toward trial.

It has now been eight years since the Holt family filed their first lawsuit in 2003. To date, no national political or civil rights leader has weighed in on the theft of the Holt family's health and their farmland wealth.   This is a call for our national black leaders to take a stand but also take "toxic tour" of the Eno Road community to see up close and personal the "poster child" for toxic racism. It is easy to get to Dickson from anywhere in the U.S. You need only fly into Nashville, rent a car, and drive 40 miles or so west on Interstate 40 and you are there.   Ultimately, the "waiting game" is on the side of the perpetrators of this toxic insult--not the Holts who are fighting back--even though they are ill. Families and communities who are victimized by toxic racism need help, and they need it now.  


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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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