On Tuesday, representatives from the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) traveled to Detroit as part of a delegation calling on NAACP leaders to take on environmental justice and environmental racism as a national campaign. NBEJN is a national preventive health and environmental and economic justice network with affiliates in 33 states and the District of Columbia. The nation’s oldest civil rights organization held its 2007 national convention in the Motor City.
Donele Wilkins and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) kicked off the toxic tour for delegates with a press briefing at its office located at 4750 Woodward Avenue in Detroit. “Given the findings of the recent United Church of Christ Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report, we felt compelled to have national NAACP leaders see firsthand the toxic nightmare residents experience 24-7,” said Wilkins, who directs DWEJ, an organization formed in 1994 to address the disproportional burdens faced by people of color and low-income residents in environmentally distressed communities.
The 2007 report findings reveal that environmental laws don’t protect communities of color any more than they did twenty years ago when the original UCC report was commissioned. Detroit is home to 12 hazardous waste sites. Of large metropolitan areas, only Los Angeles, with 17 has more. Nearly 70 percent of the residents living within two miles of a commercial hazardous wastes facility in the Detroit metro region are African Americans and other people of color.
Joining the activists included Beverly Wright, a New Orleans native who directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. Wright voiced concerns mainly about the slow pace of post-Katrina cleanup in New Orleans and the recent Army Corps of Engineers flood risk report. “We are calling on the national NAACP leaders to take a stand on the issue of environmental contamination as it affects the health of African Americans and their neighborhoods in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are also requesting them to investigate why a disproportionately large swath of Black New Orleans once again is left vulnerable to future flooding after billions have been spent,” said Wright whose center started the Safeway Back Home voluntary neighborhood cleanup program conducted with the United Steel Workers union and other volunteers.
After nearly two years and $7 billion of levee repairs, the Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that there is a 1 in 100 annual chance that about one-third of the city will be flooded with as much as six feet of water. Increased levee protection maps closely with race of neighborhoods with black neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and New Orleans East receiving little if any increased flood protection. “This is clearly an environmental justice issue which could lead insurers and investors to think twice about supporting the rebuilding efforts in our neighborhoods,” added Wright.
Jimmie Garland, president of Clarksville-Montgomery County, Tennessee branch of the NAACP, announced a joint effort that’s underway with the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP to get environmental justice and toxic threats to fence-line communities on the national organization’s radar. “I am proud to report that we were successful in getting an environmental justice resolution passed at the convention today,” said Garland. “We now have to put some teeth in it and follow through.” Passing a resolution may be easy compared to taking concrete actions in the trenches and on the frontline where black communities are fighting life and death struggle to end environmental injustice and toxic racism.
“I am in Detroit seeking the support of the national NAACP on our case,” stated Dickson, Tennessee resident Sheila Holt Orsted whose father “Highway” Harry Holt died of cancer after drinking water for four decades that was contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) by the Dickson County landfill. TCE is a known carcinogen and also causes liver and kidney damage. Holt was buried this past January. “While we applaud the NAACP’s symbolic gesture to bury the N-word, we also want it to join our fight to bury environmental racism that is causing too many fence-line communities like mine to bury their family members and neighbors.” The Holt’s case has received national attention as the poster child of environmental racism.
The “toxics tour” traveled past chemical plants, steel mills, automotive factories, abandoned industrial sites with stops at the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, the largest incinerator of its kind in the United States, and the Marathon Oil refinery. According to the Ecology Center, the incinerator burns more than 700,000 tons of waste per year, about 3,000 tons per day, of which 60 percent comes from Detroit. The City spends about $77 million each year to burn and landfill its trash, nearly ten times the amount paid per ton by its suburban neighbors.
The giant incinerator is legally allowed to release more than 25 tons of hazardous air pollutants and more than 1,800 tons of other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, mercury, and lead, every year. The incinerator is located in a low-income neighborhood that is overburdened with health problems. The neighborhoods surrounding the facility have one of the highest rates of elevated blood lead levels in the city. Almost 40 percent of Detroit children with elevated blood lead levels live within 10 zip code areas in the center of the city, including the area containing the incinerator.
Detroit resident Ophilia Owens shared her experiences related to living in the shadow of the incinerator. “On some days the odor from the incinerator is so strong you could cut it with a knife,” states Owens. “The fumes, truck traffic, and dust make it hard for me and my children to breathe.” Owens and her two young boys suffer from asthma. At times, all three family members have been hospitalized after an extreme asthma episode. “It’s so frustrating because sometimes I am forced to choose between which of my boys I can give asthma medicine because my insurance only provides medicine for one,” said Owens. Her next door neighbors also have children with asthma.
African Americans have the highest asthma rates than any other racial/ethnic group in the United States. In 2002, the asthma prevalence rate in African Americans was almost 38 percent higher than among Whites. African Americans are three times more likely than whites to die from asthma. African Americans represent 12.7 percent of the U.S. population and 26 percent of all asthma deaths. African Americans are three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than Whites and five times more likely to seek care at an emergency room. Studies show racial differences in health services for patients with asthma.
The last stop on the tour was a neighborhood in southwest Detroit where Dolores “Queenie” Leonard has lived for more than fifty years. Her neighborhood is surrounded by industries, including Marathon Oil Refinery, Morris Salt mine, abandoned gas stations with underground storage tanks, and major freeways. “I remember this neighborhood before the industries came in with their pollution,” said Leonard. “People ask me, why don’t you just move out? I say, this is my home. This is my community. We were here first.”
African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. Most African Americans live near a power plant. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur. By comparison, about 56 percent whites live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.
Today, African Americans and other people of color make up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%). They also make up more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with clustered facilities. Percentages of African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asians/Pacific Islanders in host neighborhoods are 1.7, 2.3, and 1.8 times greater in host neighborhoods than non-host areas (20% vs. 12%, 27% vs. 12%, and 6.7% vs. 3.6%), respectively.
African American academic Beverly Wright along with her fellow NBEJN community activists Donele Wilkins, Sheila Holt Orsted, Ophilia Owens, Dolores “Queenie” Leonard, and others want the NAACP to use its influence, power, and prestige to end environmental racism that places black communities and their residents at special risk. They insist their communities cannot wait another twenty years.