Environmental Racism: Myth or Reality (1995)
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Environmental Racism: Myth or Reality (1995)

In response to the difficulties caused by grassroots opposition, most companies have followed the path of least resistance. They have chosen to build new plants in those neigh­borhoods that are less inclined or less well equipped to fight their presence.

Paul Holmes

by Paul A. Holmes 
During the 1930s, hundreds of African-American workers from the deep south were brought in by the New Kanawha Power Company, a sub­sidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation, to construct a tunnel in West Virginia. Over a two year period, 500 workers died and 1,500 were disabled by silicosis, a lung disease. Men literally dropped dead on their feet breathing air so thick with silica that they could not see more than a yard in front of their faces. Those who came out for air were beaten back into the tunnel with ax handles. A spokesman for the company told congressional hearings: "I knew I was going to kill those niggers, but I didn't know it was going to be so soon." A local undertaker testi­fied that he had agreed to an unusually low rate for his services, because the company assured him before the project started that there would be a large number of burials to perform.
The unequal distribution of environmental risk in this country is not a recent phe­nomenon. But it is one that corporate America is becoming increasingly concerned about, as minority communities become organized and empowered in a way that they were not in the past.
"A silent war is being waged against Black neighborhoods," says Charles Streadit, president of Houston's Northeast Community Action Group and one of the pioneers of the environmental justice movement. "Slowly we are being picked off by industries that don't give a damn about polluting our neighborhood, contaminating our water, fouling our air, clogging our streets with big garbage trucks and lowering our property values."
Any company that has tried to build a new plant anywhere in the United States over the past decade is likely familiar with the NIMBY syndrome, the not-in-my-back-yard attitude that prevails in almost every community in the country. Everyone acknowl­edges that we need an industrial base; no one wants to live next door to it.
In response to the difficulties caused by grassroots opposition to new plant construction, most companies have followed the path of least resistance. They have chosen to build new plants largely in those neigh­borhoods that are less inclined—or, if inclined, less well equipped—to fight their presence. For the most part, this has meant poorer neighbor­hoods, and all too often neighborhoods with a high Black or Hispanic population.
On those rare occasions that waste management or disposal facilities are built in predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods, they tend to have a detrimental impact on property prices. The middle-class flees, and poorer, often minority, families move in, often enthusiastically, since the presence of the facility implies the presence of work.
Almost everyone—representatives of industry and community activists—agrees that this is an accurate summary of the way the process works. The raging debate is over the degree of corporate cynicism involved, and the solution to the problem.
A rare and revealing glimpse into the siting process was provided in North Carolina in June 1991, as Chem-Nuclear Inc. was reviewing a number of options for siting a new low level nuclear waste dump. A report prepared by the company's public relations agency, Epley & Associates, and leaked to the media, suggested exaggerating the number of sites under consideration so as to diffuse protests, and recommended not siting the plant in high-income, largely Republican neighborhoods because of the political heat such a decision might generate for the Governor. At the time Chem-Nuclear was insisting, as most companies do, that the site was being selected based only on scientific concerns and matters of public safe­ty. The Epley report indicated the extent to which politics clearly plays a part in such decisions.
"Polluters know that communities of low-income and working-class people with no more than a high school education are not as effective at marshaling opposition as communities of middle- or upper­income people," says Regina Austin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "People of color in the United States have traditionally had less clout with which to check legislative and execu­tive abuse or to challenge regulatory laxity."
On the other hand, the issue is open to distortion by activists. International Paper was recently criticized by the Council on Economic Priorities and picketed by environmental activists over an incident of sup­posed environmental racism at one of its facilities in Mississippi. The facility, according to reports released by CEP and oth­ers, was sited within a few hundred yards of a local school, and children were at risk in the event of an accident. "The fact was, we had some land we were not using, and the local council was looking for somewhere to build a school, and in an effort to be a good neighbor we donated the land," says Thomas Jorling, vp of environmental affairs at the company. "Now we are being portrayed as the villains."
The statistics too appear to be in question. A report cosponsored by a number of civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and released late last year indicated that people of color were 47% more likely than whites to live near com­mercial waste storage, treatment or disposal facilities (TSDFs).
On the other hand, a study on "environmental equity" conducted by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, released at almost the same time, found no "significant and consistent national evidence of commer­cial hazardous waste facilities being disproportionately located in minor­ity communities." The UMA survey looked at census tracts, while the NAACP focused on larger zip code areas. UMA characterized the typical TSDF neighborhood as "more industrial, predominantly white, work­ing-class communities."
The two sides of the debate cannot even agree on a term that describes the phenomenon. Activists prefer the blunt, emotionally­ charged epithet "environmental racism," while industry groups favor "environmental justice," arguing that the problem is the unequal distrib­ution of environmental risk, and not the term "racism" suggests a moti­vation for this distribution that simply does not exist.
The first lawsuit charging environmental discrimination was filed by the people of Houston's Northwood Manor subdivision in 1979, charging Browning-Ferris Industries with singling out their neighborhood for placement of a municipal solid waste landfill. From the early 1920s through the late-'70s, all five city-owned landfills and six of eight incinerators had been placed in mostly Black neighborhoods, although African-Americans made up only 28% of the city's population. The lawsuit was defeated, but it marked the beginning of a new era for the growing environmental justice movement.
The next momentous step forward for the movement came in 1982, when several mainstream civil rights organizations were involved in protests in Warren County, North Carolina, a mostly African-American community that had been selected as the burial site for soil contaminated with PCBs. Demonstrators were led by representatives of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congressional Black Caucus, the first time civil rights groups had lent their might to the environ­mental struggle.
In 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice issued its landmark report Toxic Wastes and Racen the United States, and the Commission chair, Benjamin Chavis, coined the term "environmentalracism" to describe the report's findings.
It was not until October 1991, however, that the movement for environmental justice began to show up on corporate issues managers' radar screens. That was the date of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., and the start of the effort to build a national movement around what had previously been a commu­nity issue, and to coalesce the different ethnic groups that had become involved. The summit was attended by 650 grassroots leaders represent­ing more than 300 community groups.
"This is already a very big issue in some parts of the country, espe­cially here in California, and it has the potential to become a major national issue over the next couple of years," says Jeff Raleigh, head of the environmental practice at public relations powerhouse Hill & Knowlton, who is headquartered in San Francisco. "Corporations need to start addressing this issue now, or they are going to be in a lot of trouble down the line."
The National Association of Manufacturers and the Chemical Manufacturers Association take the issue so seriously that they made it the focus of a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., last September. One interesting aspect of the environmental racism issue is the extent to which most of the community organizations involved attempt to distance themselves from the mainstream environmental movement, which is regarded by many at the community level as a middle-class, white liberal movement with romantic rather than pragmatic ideals, more interested in the plight of spotted owls and small fishes than in the conditions of real people.
The Southwest Organizing Project of Albuquerque, one of the largest grassroots groups, is typical: "SWOP does not consider itself an environmental organization," it says, "but rather a community-based organization which addresses toxic issues as part of a broader agenda of action to realize social, racial and eco­nomic justice. We do not single out the environment as necessarily having a special place above all other issues."
Other groups see the environmental movement as part of the problem. Farm labor organizers, representing a largely Hispanic workforce, say that the green move­ment's success in protecting wildlife by banning pesti­cides of great persistence has led to their replacement by pesticides that degrade rapidly but are more acutely toxic. These substitutes, they say, pose a greater risk to farm workers. The impression is that the welfare of wildlife is being placed ahead of the welfare of poor peo­ple.
Therein lies the great latent power of the environmen­tal justice movement, and the reason many industry representatives believe it has the potential to become a major force. It is more pragmatic than the mainstream green movement, less Luddite, pre­pared to acknowledge the economic benefits of industry while searching for ways in which industry can function less harmfully. And it is about the concrete, human implications of poor environmental stewardship rather than the abstract impact of industry on wildlife and wetlands.
A Bill of Rights published by SWOP sums up these beliefs: "We have the right to clean industry; industry that will contribute to the economic development of our communities and that will enhance the environment and the beauty of our landscape," but "we have the right to say no to industries that we feel will be polluters and disrupt our lifestyles and traditions."
It is difficult to imagine a statement of environmental concern with more universal appeal.
"This is a movement much more akin to the civil rights movement of the '60s than to the environmental movements of the '80s," says John Kyte, director of environmental affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers. "It is a grass roots movement. The people leading the movement are much more personally involved in the issues. It is also dif­ferent in terms of its aims. We have people in this movement talking about survival issues, about very tangible quality of life issues."
The movement has been most successful in targeting government, and the way in which environmental regulations are enforced. A 1992 study by staff writers from the National Law journal uncovered iniquities in the way the federal EPA enforced its laws. "White communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where Blacks, Hispanics or other minorities live," the authors concluded. "This unequal protection occurs whether the com­munity is wealthy or poor."
Penalties under hazardous waste laws were 500% higher in commu­nities with the greatest white population than in communities with the greatest minority population, the report claimed. Superfund sites in minority areas also took 20% longer to be placed on the national priori­ty list.
In February 1994, the Clinton administration responded by issuing an executive order that requires federal agencies who policies affect health or the environment to identify and address "disproportionate ly high and adverse human health or environmental effects of programs, policies and activities" on minority and low income populations. An interagency working group will monitor progress.
Meetings between activists and government agencies at the same time were remarkable, as a rainbow of environmental groups pummeled gov­ernment officials with verbal bashings some observers compared to those administered by AIDS activists a few years ago. Like AIDS activists, the environmental justice movement was demanding full par­ticipation in research, even helping to design the studies. Carol Browner, EPA administrator and one of the activists' targets, said after the meet­ing she was "not proud" of the way the EPA had handled the issue.
"You can't be an agency of the people and for the people if people don't participate in your decision-making," says Browner. "There is no doubt in my mind that an informed, involved community will make for better environmental decisions than any distant bureaucracy.
The media, on the other hand, has been somewhat skeptical. In the wake of the 1991 Summit, a Houston Post editorial suggested that the environmental justice movement was "crying wolf." The newspaper pointed out that "white people also have been the victims of toxic waste dumps.... Just look at Brio, Love Canal and Times Beach.... Pretty soon, legitimate charges of racism may be at risk of going unheeded, simply because so many people claim racism is around every corner."
In 1992, Extra!, the publication of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, carried a story called "Media White-Out of Environmental Racism" which suggested a media cover-up, caused by the mass media's hesitance in criticizing corporate interests, a lack of interest in stories about people of color that do not present them in a negative light, and a strategy of diverting attention from the issue by the E.P.A.
Having said that, the media is clearly taken a greater interest in the issue over the past couple of years, with major feature stories appearing in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Time and Christian Science Monitor.
"The first thing companies need to do is make it clear that racism is not behind this issue," says Jeff Raleigh. "There are a number of fac­tors involved. There's zoning, which restricts the number of locations companies can consider. There are infrastructure concerns: industry can only realistically locate in areas where there are road and rail links and other industries that supply the resources it needs. And the fact is that if you build in white, middle-class neighborhoods, people will move out and property values will fall and poorer people will move in. There's an element of chicken and egg. The most important point is that companies are not locating plants in these communities out of deliberate racism."
Another important communications message must be that many African-American communities have actively courted hazardous waste facilities, seeing economic benefits that outweigh what are often infinitely small risks. The benefits that business can bring to the community must be explained, Raleigh says.
The University of Pennsylvania's Regina Austin, however, points out that promised economic benefits often fail to materialize. The new jobs created are filled by skilled labor from outside the community, she says, while increased taxes go not to social services or education, but towards expanding the infrastructure to better serve and attract industry.
"Sure, Browning-Ferris pays taxes, but so do we," says Houston's Charles Streadit. "We need all the money we can get to upgrade our school system. But we shouldn't have to be poisoned to get improve­ments for our children."
A radical shift in the way company's select sites for new facilities is not likely, however.
"Realistically," says John Kyte, "companies are not going to turn around and start siting hazardous waste facilities in affluent white com­munities. Companies do not have those choices, because of the rise of zoning. But I think we will see changes in the ways companies make sit­ing decisions."
He cites two recent decisions, one in Louisiana's Cancer Alley and another in Northern Louisiana, in which environmental justice cam­paigns succeeded in denying companies the right to construct new facili­ties, and says companies are learning from such incidents.
"The most common complaint that I hear is that people do not like either business or government to come into their communities and tell them that decisions have already been made, so the first thing we need to do is make the whole process more collaborative, to bring local residents in early in the process and make sure they understand all the risks and all the benefits, so they can make their own deci­sions. Companies need to be able to listen to these concerns and acknowledge them."
The CMA has applied its Responsible Care principles to such situa­tions. John Holtzman, the CMA's senior public relations executive, says that first and foremost, CMA supports full compliance with all environ­mental laws, regardless of the racial or socio-economic composition of the communities in which its members operate. Responsible Care also commits members to communicating with the public and responding to community concerns.
ail Walker, president of the environmental consulting firm EnviroCom, based in suburban Chicago, says companies need to remember that the need to communicate with local communities
It is just as great in low income, minority areas, where education levels are not as high, as it is in any other community.
It may also be necessary to come up with new ways of communicat­ing, beyond glossy brochures and items in the local newspaper, to bring people into the plant and meet with them face-to-face.
"Sometimes these communities, because they have not had access to education, are not as articulate in expressing their concerns, but that doesn't mean the concerns are not there," Walker says. "Management cannot overlook those concerns. In fact, it must find a way of addressing them at a level that the community understands and relates to."
Dow Chemical, meanwhile, has decided that the best way to deal with the problem in Louisiana's so-called Cancer Alley—an 85-mile corridor of chemical plants in an area which a large African-American population—is to buy out residents of the entire town of Morrisonville, near one of its plants. The com­pany built a subdivision four miles downriver, where some residents were able to move into new homes and establish a new community, spending some $10 million on the project.
Clearly, this has the potential to be an expen­sive issue.
"Some people believe this issue will die when Bill Clinton leaves office," says NAM's John Kyte. "I think that's a short-sighted view­point. This movement has a lot of people around and behind it, and many of those peo­ple believe it is a survival issue. They are very, very committed. I think this is an issue that will be around for a very long time."
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