What color is toxic waste?
Written by Sandy Sorensen
October - November 2007
October 1, 2007

For 20 years, the UCC has been asking, What color is toxic waste?

Like millions of others, Sheila Holt-Orsted's family dreamed of owning their own home. But that dream became a nightmare.

An African-American resident of Dickson, Tenn. - a small town about 35 miles west of Nashville — Sheila, like many of her relatives, was born and raised in Dickson's 'Eno Road' community, a place where the Holts and other descendants of slaves had called home for generations.

Eno Road first became Dickson's preferred site for city dumping in the 1940s. Subsequently, over several decades, the now 74-acre Dickson County Landfill - an open, unlined site - has been used as the principal dumping ground for multiple sanitation, construction and demolition projects.

Despite the fact that over 1,400 residents obtain their drinking water from private wells or springs within a four-mile radius of the landfill, industrial solvents - generated as waste from nearby automotive plants and other industries - were buried within a mere 54 feet of the Holt family's front door.

Sheila's father died of prostate and bone cancer in January 2007. And during his illness, Sheila, a personal fitness trainer, was shocked to learn that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Several other family members also had endured significant illness, including cervical and colon polyps, rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders and immune disorders.

Sheila discovered that her family had been drinking water — for four decades - from a well contaminated by trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen.

Muddying the toxic waters

Even after government testing had revealed that the area's water supply was contaminated, Tennessee's Department of Health and Environment continued to allow the operation of the Eno Road landfills.

White families who lived near the landfill, however, were quickly notified about the results of the testing. They were provided with bottled water until they could be placed on the city water system.

Yet the Holt family was provided misinformation about the quality of their well water.

"Your water is of good quality for the parameters tested," read a 1998 letter sent to the Holt family from the Department of Health and Environment. "It is felt that the low levels of methylene or trichloroethylence may be due to either lab or sampling error."

But, soon, the lie would be exposed.

"For four decades, [my family] drank well water poisoned by the Dickson County Landfill," Sheila says. "We are all sick, and the government seems to be waiting for us to die."

What happened to Sheila Holt-Orsted's family is not an oversight. It is not an accident or unfortunate twist of fate.

Although Dickson County covers over 490 square miles, the only cluster of solid waste facilities in the county is located in the predominantly African-American Eno Road community.

All permitted landfills in Dickson County are concentrated in Eno Road, which is certainly no coincidence. It is yet another concrete sign of environmental racism.

UCC jumpstarts a movement

Twenty years ago, the UCC began its hard-fought campaign to bring environmentally racist practices to the forefront of the public consciousness. Yet, despite the church's insistence that such practices be ended, evidence of the ongoing struggle is clear.

In 1987, a groundbreaking study on the connection between race and the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities was released by the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice.

"Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States" found race to be the leading variable in predicting the location of hazardous waste sites, a stronger indicator than household income, home values, and estimated amount of hazardous waste generated by industry.

To this day, the 1987 UCC study is widely credited by community leaders, environmental activists and leaders from all levels of government as the pivotal element in the environmental justice movement.

U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) dubs the study as "keystone."

"As the first comprehensive national report to truly document the link between race and the location of hazardous waste sites, Toxic Wastes and Race catapulted the concern of environmental racism to national prominence," Hastings says. "This keystone document established the foundation for the development of the environmental justice movement."

Eileen McGurty, associate chair of the environmental sciences and policy department at Johns Hopkins University, says, "The scope and scale of the study pioneered and entirely new area of investigation. All subsequent research about equity in the distribution of environmental risk was a response to the UCC's methodology and conclusion."

The UCC study influenced generations of advocates. And many of those touched had no knowledge of or connection with the UCC. Monique Harden, an attorney, is the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans, La.

"At the age of 19 when the UCC published Toxic Wastes and Race, I was completely unaware of this study and the signifi cant role it would have in my advocacy work 10 years later," Harden says. "Without the report, the voices of each polluted community of color where I provide legal advocacy assistance would be muted."

Injustice 'not an accident'

The Rev. Carlos Correa Bernier serves as minister for environmental justice with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.

Correa first became aware of the study during his work as a psychologist with the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his counseling work with Spanish-speaking families, Correa says he observed a high frequency of cognitive development problems in children.

He learned that 80 percent of the Spanish-speaking families he was seeing were from the Tijuana region of Mexico, an area heavily concentrated with maquiladoras, U.S. factories that relocated to Mexico and other countries where companies could take advantage of lax labor environmental practices.

One of the primary industries that located in the Tijuana region was television manufacturing, where workers on the assembly line - many of them women carrying pregnancies - were exposed to high levels of mercury, a heavy metal contaminant associated with cognitive development problems.

In his work, Correa was able to connect the dots between exposure to heavy metals in the Tijuana maquiladoras and the cases of cognitive development problems in the children he saw in Chicago. The UCC's 1987 study gave Correa a larger conceptual framework which to understand his work with Latino children in Chicago.

"What we see today," Correa says, "is what we saw in 1987. The greater exposure to toxic wastes experienced by communities of color is not an accident. It is by design."

Companies intentionally locate their waste sites in communities of color, Correa says, because they know such communities frequently lack the resources to fight the placement of such sites in their communities.

Origins of landmark study

In late 1970s to early 1980s, the then-governor of North Carolina promised industries that they could have a landfill to dispose of wastes in impoverished Warren County. Placing a landfill in the area, which is predominantly African American, was seen by the state as an attractive solution to the problem of illegally-dumped PCPs along roadways in 14 North Carolina counties.

But the state of North Carolina underestimated the power of county residents — and the possibilities that come with zealous community organizing.

Dollie Burwell, a long-time UCC lay leader who is now a staff member for U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfi eld (D-N.C.), was on the front lines of the struggle to block the landfill in Warren County.

In 1978, Dollie was among a group of residents who formed Concerned Citizens Against PCPs. From the beginning, the group understood its efforts to be part of a larger and more long-term movement. Burwell and others saw their activism around the landfill as yet another extension of the Civil Rights Movement.

From 1978 to 1980, state hearings were held on the landfill proposal. Burwell recalls that it was a time when residents joined together across racial lines in a common effort to protect the health of their families.

Despite turnouts of hundreds of residents at the state hearings expressing opposition to the landfill proposal, construction of the landfill began in 1982.

In August 1982, Burwell joined more than 500 protesters who stood in front of the construction trucks in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Early that morning, Burwell recalls preparing her nine-yearold daughter, Kim, for school. But Kim had other plans. "I'm not going to school," Kim told her mother. "I'm going with you."

When Burwell was arrested for impeding traffic and led to the police wagon, she could see her daughter watching and crying. The young child's sobbing was captured by numerous media stories and helped to galvanize college students and activists from outside the state to join the fight against the landfill.

Although the landfill was ultimately constructed, community activists succeeded in their call for a General Accounting Office investigation of toxic waste dumping in the Southeast U.S.

And the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ), which had supported the nonviolent protest of Warren County residents, was moved to take another step.

CRJ commissioned a study to examine patterns in the placement of hazardous waste sites. The now-famous UCC study was a breakthrough for the environmental justice movement.

In releasing the report, then UCC staffer Charles Lee coined the term "environmental racism," now a commonly recognized phrase used in the environmental movement.

Not surprisingly, Lee now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of environmental justice.

The role of churches and people of faith is not something new to justice movements, but it can be said that the UCC arrived early when it comes to environmental justice.

"For such a time as this" is how Burwell describes how her faith led to her involvement. And she's proud that local churches, including UCC congregations, were key centers of organizing in the environmental justice movement.

Correa says those communities facing the greatest impact of toxic dumping and exposure recognized the power of the church as a prophetic voice. They recognize that faith communities have helped to bring the issue of environmental racism to greater prominence in public consciousness.

"They didn't just call the lawyers right away," Correa says. "They called the churches."

Churches provided much-needed information and became sources of moral and theological empowerment, he says.

In Warren County, those who once may have considered themselves too poor or too uneducated to get anything accomplished found encouragement in church basements. More and more African Americans became involved in local elections, as people made the personal connection between politics and their own well-being.

Ultimately, residents' organizing efforts led to a government-mandated clean-up of the Warren County landfill in 2003, a process that included community planning and monitoring.

The landfill site is now a recreational park.

What's changed?

There have been precious victories over the past 20 years. What, if anything, has truly changed?

This persistent question led the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries to commission a 20th anniversary follow-up report, which was released earlier this year and celebrated at General Synod in June.

The newest study, "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007," applied new methodology to better determine where people live in relation to toxic sites, revealing that racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste sites are, in fact, greater than previously reported.

"Twenty years after the release of Toxic Wastes and Race, significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities," reads the report's executive summary. "Although the current assessment uses newer methods that better match where people and hazardous waste facilities are located, the conclusions are very much the same as they were in 1987."

The 2007 study was authored by Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University; Paul Mohai, professor at University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment; Robin Saha, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana; and Beverly Wright, sociologist and founding director of UCC-related Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

According to the study, people of color comprise the majority of the population living near the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities.

Researchers found that for Latino/as, African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders, major disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities exist in the majority of the Environmental Protection Agency's regions.

The findings are particularly troubling, because they indicate that those environmental protections that do exist on the books are not equally enforced.

The still-fresh images of the painful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 paint the story of the UCC's newest report.

Several weeks after the storm, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality gave the okay to the city of New Orleans to open the 200-acre Old Gentilly Landfill in east New Orleans for dumping demolition waste from the storm. In the 1980s, federal regulators had ordered the landfill closed.

Yet, four months after the hurricane, debris trucked to the Old Gentilly Landfill stood 100 feet high. Objections from residents, environmentalists and even some high-ranking officials went unheeded. In November 2005, the landfill caught fire.

Correa, Burwell and other activists agree that it is time for the eco-justice and environmental justice movements to join together.

Remembering her experiences in Warren County, N.C., Burwell recalls, "We [once] thought the environmental movement was about whales, not about us."

But there is growing understanding among advocates that environmental justice must have a more-comprehensive vision.

"We need to start thinking more theologically about environmental justice," Correa says. "We need to offer a vision that is rooted in our biblical and theological understanding of all of creation." The preface of the UCC's 2007 report echoes this call for a larger vision.

"There is only one environment," it reads. "The environmental justice movement is concerned about wetlands, birds, and wilderness areas; it is also concerned, however, about urban habitats, about reservations, about the things that are happening on the U.S-Mexico border, about children poisoned by lead in their own homes and about children playing in contaminated parks and playgrounds."

The stories of Sheila Holt-Orsted, the residents of New Orleans and countless others show that addressing the racial inequalities in exposure to environmental risk requires not only better environmental protection laws, but the vigilant monitoring of government agencies tasked with enforcing current laws.

Shelia can only wonder what her family's life would be like had the government's testing of well water in Dickson County, Tenn., had been equitably reported.

Justice demands something more than "what if."

Sandy Sorensen, a veteran public policy advocate in the UCC's Washington, D.C., offi ce, is acting communications minister for Justice and Witness Ministries.

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