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An American Tragedy: The Victims of Environmental Contamination are Mostly the Poor and Minorities

A recent article titled "Righting Civil Wrongs" sadly describes how the poor, minority residents of communities throughout the United States have been left with no choice but to sue their government (the US EPA, specifically). Years ago, these residents formally claimed that they were the victims of environmental racism-for example, because government had permitted a local landfill to continue to expand into their neighborhood. By law, the US EPA is required to respond to these serious claims (they are claims of Civil Rights violations, after all) within 180 days, to say whether it agrees that environmental racism is at work. However, some of these residents have been waiting up to 20 years for an answer, and still do not have one.

So they are suing their government just to get an answer. Represented by an extraordinarily dedicated lawyer named Marianne Engelman Lado, they are asking that their government not only obey the law, but, more fundamentally, acknowledge their basic humanity.

Of course, to make someone wait decades for the answer to their question is in itself an answer. It says: "We don't believe you". Or worse: "We don't think you're important enough to get you an answer.....even though the law says that we have to." The EPA would rather ignore the law than get them an answer. What does this say? Worse, the EPA's statistics reveal how it is, literally, impossible to get the EPA to take you seriously if you claim to be the victim of environmental racism. In the 22 year history of the EPA's Office of Civil Rights, while nearly 300 complaints of environmental racism have been filed, not a single one-not a single one-has resulted in a finding of a civil rights violation.

So, that must mean that we don't have an environmental racism problem in America, right? Hardly.

In 17+ years representing thousands of families against the companies that contaminated their air and water, I've learned this truth: wealthy, white people don't have contaminated air and water.....or, if the ever do, they don't have it for long.

Many of my cases are about a company that, years ago, dumped toxic chemicals out the back door, and a generation or two later, those chemicals have infiltrated the water supply of the neighborhood across the street, or down the road. Some of my cases are about corporate and government officials who illegally allowed the dumping of industrial waste into an un-lined landfill, with the result that area groundwater was ruined for decades, and yet the landfill was granted more permits to expand its operations ever closer to where people live.

The victims of these reckless practices have a striking similarity. They are mostly poor. Often they are African American or Latino. They were young families raising children many years ago when, unbeknownst to them, the illegal chemical dumping started. And now, as they find out about just how badly they have been treated, they are retirees (if they are even still alive). Some may have even worked for the very company that was so callously poisoning their environment. They didn't ask for any of this. They didn't know about any of this. They just wanted to work hard and raise their children, like everyone else. And they trusted that the powerful companies and government in their communities would watch out for them.

The explanations as to why it is so often the poor, and minorities, who are mistreated in environmental decision making reveal the worst of the American heritage:

  • Not only do these families not have the resources to fight back, they don't know that there is anything going on that they need to fight about. Unlike the companies that dump toxic chemicals into their water supplies, they don't have lawyers on retainer, or consultants on call, to advocate for them and protect them. These companies view such lawyers and consultants as a cost of doing business, the price of being a polluter. They dump their chemicals, and allow them to migrate throughout the environment, creating ever greater danger for nearby residents. But they don't test to see if the people are actually in danger, and they don't warn them that they might be. If and when the time comes that they have to justify this reckless behavior, or to argue that its consequences are not so bad after all, the polluters have their army ready to make the case. The polluters have learned that it is cheaper to hire lawyers and consultants to explain problems away than to clean up the chemicals they have dumped. And the people have already lost a game that they did not even know was being played.
  • Government is on the polluter's side. One of the most shocking revelations of my experience as an environmental lawyer is learning that government has often known for years that the people in a certain community are in danger from toxic contamination, but has not warned them, let alone done anything to protect them. Sometimes this is because the polluter is an important taxpayer, or employer, in the community, and government thinks its job it to protect the polluter, so that taxes will still be paid, and jobs still provided. Sometimes government foolishly concludes that keeping the problem quiet is the best way to avoid the de-valuing of property that results when a serious contamination problem is discovered. But little thought (maybe none at all) is given to the protection residents need against damage to their health that the contamination will cause.
  • Polluters, government, and, often, our society, have concluded that the poor and minorities aren't worthy of better treatment. In other words, environmental decisions-such as whether to allow a stinking landfill oozing contamination to expand closer to a neighborhood, or to compel an industrial polluter to spend millions to clean up the community water supply it ruined-are often made on the assumption that the poor and minorities are not worthy of the same protection-or clean air and water-- as others. In this respect, the decision to expose residents of poor and minority communities to ever more contamination in their air and water is made in the same way as other kinds of societal decision making that tolerates behavior and consequences in poor and minority neighborhoods that would never be tolerated elsewhere. Crime, malnourishment, child homelessness, sub-standard schooling and grossly inadequate health care are just some examples of what is routinely accepted in poor and minority communities, but deemed horrifyingly intolerable in affluent, white communities.

The cruel logic seems to be that their status as poor or minority has rendered them somehow deserving of less protection on all fronts-ranging from violent crime, to the violence done by contaminated air and water.

This is grossly unacceptable. We must do better.


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