Poor, minorities suffer most from dumps, forum told

July 14, 1991|By Traci A. Johnson

The first memory of poverty Richard Regan has from his childhood in Pembroke, N.C., is the "the dampness, coldness, unsightliness, offensiveness and embarrassment" of an outhouse.

"If not for my mother marrying a white man from New Jersey who could build houses, I probably would have had many more visits to the outhouse than I care to remember," Mr. Regan said.

But he remembered a lot yesterday at "Citizenship and the Earth: A Call to Action," an environmental forum at Towson State University.

He told members of environmental groups and other concerned citizens that although he escaped his outhouse, many poor and minority citizens cannot get away from the filth of communities that have become the country's toxic waste dumping grounds.

"If you are poor and a person of color, your chance of living in a community where a toxic waste dump will be [placed] is much higher than if you are an affluent, white person," said Mr. Regan, 33, a Lumbee Indian.

"This is called environmental racism," he said.

Mr. Regan -- the Washington, D.C., representative for Southwest Research and Information Center, which compiles information for environmental groups -- spoke at the forum sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Environmental Center and the U.S. Citizen's Network on the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

His ideas, and those developed through discussions of other environmental issues, will be used in a report to be discussed at the June 1992 United Nation's Earth Summit in Brazil.

In addition to endangered species and the ozone layer, Mr. Regan wants the summit to take up the plight of racial minorities and the American underclass.

"The government and mainstream environmental groups . . . care about the trees and the air and the bunnies, but what about the poverty-stricken and minorities?" Mr. Regan said.

Robeson County, N.C., where Mr. Regan's hometown is located, is 40 percent Lumbee Indian and 23 percent black. From 1986 to 1990, Robeson and two adjacent counties in southeast North Carolina were targeted as potential sites for a radioactive waste incinerator, a liquid hazardous waste plant -- which would dump 500,000 gallons of waste into the town's drinking water source daily -- and two hazardous and radioactive waste plants, he said.

"And it's the same just about anywhere. Most likely the side of town with the spacious parks, well-maintained streets and police protection is where few poor persons or people of color reside," he said. "The other side of town is where there is the jail, substance-abuse centers, landfills and incinerator, and the high concentration of minorities and the poor."

Protests by citizens staved off the proposed projects in North Carolina, he said.

Mr. Regan said most environmental groups are made up of middle-class citizens who expect disadvantaged groups to understand and sympathize with issues that may not directly affect them.

"Try to convince a homeless person about the need for mandatory recycling or tell a migrant farmer why radon contamination is a higher environmental priority than pesticide poisoning," he said.

He added, "It is one thing to save the whales and the redwoods, but an entirely different thing to save jobs or housing for the poor."

Mr. Regan hopes the Earth Summit will redefine environmental issues to include the people who are hurt by "solutions" to environmental problems. He cited landfills that contaminate water in urban areas.

He said the research center is trying to get federal regulations that stipulate where waste-treatment plants may be built so that everyone will have their fair share of the responsibility for waste treatment.

"It is not just about the environment, it is about social justice," he said.

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