Blacks take stand against pollution

October 14, 1990|By Phillip Davis Sun Staff Correspondent

LOTHIAN -- Paul Scott will allow that he was slightly amazed to find himself carrying a picket sign last spring in Annapolis, protesting what he and his neighbors said were the environmental violations of a landfill near his home here.

"I never thought I would be doing a protest," the 61-year-old truck driver said the other day from his home overlooking the Al-Ray Super Concrete Rubble landfill in the southern Anne Arundel County town of Lothian. "But it got so bad that I had to do something."

The county, he and his neighbors say, would like to ignore Lothian and its claims that the landfill stays open later than permitted and is disrupting the flow of Ferry Branch, a creek that runs into the nearby Patuxent River.

"We hate to say this, but we see a double standard here. We feel they are letting this happen because this neighborhood is mainly black, and they could care less about us," Mr. Scott said.

So the neighborhood got organized. Last year, Mr. Scott and other residents formed the Concerned Citizens for a Clean and Safe Environment.

Since then, the group has protested the 76-acre landfill, has written letters to state and local officials and has insisted that the well water be regularly tested

Some members of the group have joined Save Our Streams, a statewide water quality and conservation organization.

The Lothian neighborhood is not alone in its newly found activism. While environmentalism has long been thought of as a white, middle-class phenomenon, activists now perceive that black and other minority communities here and across the nation are becoming increasingly concerned with environmental issues.

These communities have even begun to confront the country's mainstream environmental organizations and persuade them to address minority and urban environmental problems such as poor air quality, said Norris McDonald, a black environmentalist from Landover who was a founder of the Center for Energy, Commerce and the Environment in Washington.

A New Mexico organization, for example, sent letters to the 10 largest environmental groups during Earth Day festivities in April attacking them for their overwhelmingly white staffs and their ignorance of minority communities.

The big organizations, Mr. McDonald said, "are perceived as white and white-oriented, and with more esoteric concerns -- save the whales, save the snail darter."

In many minority communities,he said, environmental concerns are much more pressing.

"You have to be concerned with yourself as a species before anything else. The quality of the air in the cities, the lead in the water from old pipes, conserving energy when homes are like sieves -- those are the concerns," he said.

Moreover, these communities are increasingly aware that they are much more likely to be exposed to hazardous waste sites and other forms of pollution than white communities, because of an insidious combination of racism, poverty and lack of neighborhood organizations.

More than three of five minority people live near a source of hazardous waste, which can include used oil, printers' ink and other toxic chemicals, according to a landmark report written in 1987 by the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice.

The commission hired a New York database consultant, Public Data Access Inc., to do an exhaustive statistical analysis of the location of hazardous waste sources and ZIP codes with majority non-white populations.

It found "race proved to be the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities."

In Baltimore, according to the report, 55 percent of blacks lived in the same ZIP code area as a hazardous waste site in 1987, while 44 percent of whites did.

"This is going to be the issue of the 1990s," said the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who directed the commission's report.

"Blacks are disproportionately the victims of toxic injustice, and the alarm is just being sounded in many communities," he said.

"You could ask why are black people not more actively involved in fighting environmental pollution," said Charles Lee, the report's author.

"The answer is they are. There's a tremendous ferment of activity in the minority community around the country. It's one of the most significant developments in the environmental community in the last several years."

Mr. Lee said the trend could be traced back to Warren County, N.C. There, the largely black community rose up against a state plan to allowdisposal of cancer-causing PCBs there, just 15 feet above the water table, although 50 feet is the usual standard. During the ensuing protests, more than 500 people were arrested. The landfill was approved, but other minority communities took notice.

"In Robeson County in North Carolina, in the whole area around the Mississippi River in New Orleans, on the South Side of Chicago, communities are organizing," Mr. Lee said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.