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Government Allows BP to Dump Oil-Spill Waste on Black Communities

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For three months the nation watched and held its breadth as the busted British Petroleum (BP) well spewed as much as 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Government officials estimate that the ruptured well leaked between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, surpassing the record-setting, 140-million gallon Ixtoc I spill off Mexico's coast from 1979 to 1980.

Clearly, the massive BP oil spill disaster has created an environmental nightmare on the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government closed more than 81,181 square miles in the Gulf to fishing, which is approximately 33.5 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters. The spill fouled 120 miles of U.S. coastline, imperiled multibillion fishing and tourism industries and killed birds, sea turtles and dolphins. The full health, environmental, and economic impact of this catastrophe may not become clear for decades.

While the media spotlight has focused attention on efforts at stopping the massive oil leak and cleaning up the spill, the same level of attention has not been given to where the oil-spill clean-up waste is eventually dumped--even after an Associated Press spot check showed mishandling of waste and shoddy disposal work. Before one drop of oil was cleaned up, black people were asking "where will the oil- spill waste go after it has been collected from the beaches and skimmed off the water?" The answer: solid waste landfills. Concern mounted about which communities would be selected as the final resting place for BP's garbage. Because of the size of the massive oil spill, even white communities in the Gulf Coast began asking this same question, "where is the waste going?"

Given the sad history of waste disposal in the southern United States, it should be no surprise to anyone that the BP waste disposal plan looks a lot like "Dumping in Dixie," and has become a core environmental justice concern , especially among low-income and people of color communities in the Gulf Coast--communities whose residents have historically borne more than their fair share of solid waste landfills and hazardous waste facilities before and after natural and man-made disasters.

For decades, African American and Latino communities in the South became the dumping grounds for all kind of wastes--making them "sacrifice zones." Nowhere is this scenario more apparent than in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi from Baton Rough to New Orleans. Gulf Coast residents, who have for decades lived on the fenceline with landfills and waste sites, are asking why their communities are being asked again to shoulder the waste disposal burden for the giant BP oil spill. They are demanding answers from BP and the EPA in Washington, DC and the EPA Region 4 office in Atlanta and EPA Region 6 office in Dallas--two EPA regions that have a legacy of unequal protection, racial discrimination, and bad decisions that have exacerbated environmental and health disparities.

A large segment of the African American community was skeptical of BP, the oil and gas industry, and the government long before the disastrous Gulf oil disaster, since black communities too often have been on the receiving end of polluting industries without the benefit of jobs and have been used as a repository for other people's rubbish. It is more than ironic that black and other communities of color get BP's garbage, while mostly white companies rake in the millions in BP contracts. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out this inequitable flow of benefits.

An NAACP investigation this month concluded that "Community members and business owners [of color] have been locked out of access to contracts for cleanup and other opportunities related to addressing this disaster." Using the latest Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) information (July 9, 2010), environmental writer Brentin Mock reports that "minorities see little green in BP oil spill jobs." He finds only $2.2 million of $53 million in federal contracts, a paltry 4.8 percent, has actually gone to small, disadvantaged businesses. Women-owned businesses received 4.2 percent of contracts. And of the 212 vendors with contracts, just two are African American, 18 are minority-owned, none are historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), despite the three in New Orleans alone: Xavier University, Dillard University and Southern University at New Orleans.

In mid-June, environmental justice and equity concerns were aired on an EPA conference call meeting "attended" by more than 370 callers. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who was on the call for 30 minutes, emphasized that environmental justice was a priority and she indicated that her agency has added staffers to the Joint Information Center to work specifically on environmental justice concerns in day-to-day operations.

In an August 2009 letter to environmental justice stakeholders, Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER), posited some key questions and challenges for his office. One question seems especially relevant for the BP spill. Stanislaus, asks, "How can we develop better strategies for handling waste or cleaning up contaminated sites?" The answer is simple: make the strategies fair, just, and equitable without regard to race color or national origin, or income status.

African American communities in the Gulf Coast still see the "PIBBY" (Place in Blacks Back Yard) principle operating that allows a disproportionate share of black communities to be targeted for BP oil-spill waste disposal. Gulf Coast residents who live on the fenceline with landfills are determined not to see past mistakes repeated where waste from a major industrial accident or disaster get dumped on poor and politically powerless African American communities.

We saw this pattern emerge more than twenty-five years ago with toxic the dumping of PCB-waste cleaned up from roadways and later dumped in a landfill in mostly black and poor Warren County, North Carolina in 1982. We also saw the pattern continue in 2009 when 3.9 million tons of toxic coal ash from the massive Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant spill in East Tennessee were cleaned up and shipped more than 300 miles south by train and disposed in a landfill in rural and mostly black Perry County, Alabama.

Today, we are seeing this disturbing pattern re-emerge in the disposal of the BP oil-spill waste. Because of the haphazard handling and disposal of the wastes from the busted well, the U.S Coast Guard and the U.S. EPA leaned on BP and increased their oversight of the company's waste management plan. BP's waste plan, "Recovered Oil/Waste Management Plan Houma Incident Command," was approved on June 13, 2010. The company hired private contractors, including Waste Management, Inc., the nation's largest trash hauler, to cart away and dispose of thousands of tons of polluted sand, crude-coated boom and refuse that washed ashore. At the beginning of July, waste haulers sent more than 3,913 tons of oil garbage to landfills in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Although the U.S. EPA has made environmental justice one of its seven priorities, no environmental justice or equity analysis has been conducted as to where the BP oil-spill clean-up waste ends up. The approved Gulf Coast solid waste landfills (Subtitle D landfills) and the percent minority residents living within a one-mile radius of the facilities are listed below:


Chastang Landfill (Waste Management Inc.), Mount Vernon, AL (56.2%)

Magnolia Landfill (Waste Management Inc.), Summerdale, AL (11.5%)

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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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