Eco-heretic puts jobs before trees Poor people need as much help as herons, says black ecologist

December 11, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It was an unusual position for an environmentalist: testifying against the Sierra Club and in favor of a developer planning to build a theme park on islands of wooded parkland in the Anacostia River.

But when Norris McDonald, president of the Annapolis-based African American Environmentalist Association, took the microphone in the District of Columbia's City Council chamber Oct. 20, he made it clear he's far from the usual environmentalist.

While six conservation groups protested the Children's Island entertainment complex proposed for Kingman and Heritage islands, McDonald, a 40-year-old former Capitol Hill lobbyist, supported the project as a way to add jobs, theaters and life to a poor black neighborhood.

Some say the clash between McDonald and mainstream environmentalists is representative of a rift that has opened among liberals in the past decade over whether activists should focus on preserving nature or improving the lives of minorities in urban and industrial badlands.

"The real issue here is that they [the other environmentalists] cannot tolerate a black man disagreeing with them," said McDonald, who lobbied for a largely white environmental group before he created his own 12 years ago.

"I think if they could get a noose around my neck and lynch me for this project, they would," McDonald said.

Hundreds of small "environmental justice" organizations have sprung up across the nation since the mid-1980s, demanding that environmentalists give blacks and Hispanics as much attention as herons and owls.

Responding to a plan to build an incinerator in East Los Angeles in 1984, a largely minority group called "Mothers of East L.A." rose up to fight the threat of air pollution.

In Paguate Pueblo, N.M., a native American organization called the Laguna/Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment has been fighting for more than five years to win compensation for uranium miners suffering from cancer.

And in Anniston, Ala., the Sweet Valley/Cobbtown Environmental Justice Task Force sued the Monsanto chemical company in 1995 for allegedly contaminating the soil in a black neighborhood.

President Clinton issued an order in 1994 compelling agencies that approve factories to first consider whether poor and minority people who live near proposed plants already bear an unfair burden of pollution.

Several studies nationally have suggested that minority neighborhoods suffer from a disproportionate amount of toxic waste. The United Church of Christ released a study in 1987 that said the best indicator of whether a person lives near a waste site is his or her race.

Others have challenged this theory, however.

In April, a pair of University of Chicago scholars released a study suggesting that racism in that city drove polluting industries away from black neighborhoods.

The president's order is currently being tested in a battle over a plan by the Shintech Inc. plastics company to build a factory in largely black St. James Parish, La.

Those who oppose the plant -- including both Greenpeace and a local minority-based group -- claim Shintech targeted the area because the company believed residents didn't have the power to fight it.

But critics of the EPA's decision to delay this project argue the environmentalists are cynically playing the race card to halt an industry that would help the local economy.

White focus

Damu Smith, a former associate director of Greenpeace, said the growth of minority environmental groups nationally was necessary because most green organizations have historically been white in both membership and focus.

But Jerome Ringo, a board member of the National Wildlife Federation, said forming separate black and white environmental groups might end up fracturing the environmental movement.

"Yes, people of color are disproportionately hurt by pollution," said Ringo. "Nobody builds landfills in rich communities. But I think this is more an economic issue than a racial issue."

'It's a sellout'

In the District of Columbia, critics of Norris McDonald say his stand in favor of the Children's Island project has nothing to do with environmental justice. Some claim he has sold out to a developer.

McDonald has drawn harsh criticism from some largely white environmental groups for making a deal with the district-based Island Development Corp.

McDonald once opposed the $150 million theme park, but he switched sides during a meeting in 1995 when the developers verbally agreed to give him use of about five acres beside the park to demonstrate organic farming to inner-city children, according to one of the developers and McDonald.

"It's a conflict of interest," said Jim Dougherty, a leader of the Sierra Club. "It's not that different than politicians taking money under the table."

"It's a sellout," said Robert Nixon, executive director of the Washington-based Earth Conservation Corps.

The Children's Island project, approved in concept by Congress in 1996 on what was then federal parkland, comes before the district council for a vote Tuesday.

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