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Environmental contamination: June 2015 Archives

Environmental Discrimination in Richmond, California

Last week, in a blog called "Environmental Justice is a Civil Right", I wrote about how polluting industries and the governments that enable them often choose to locate health-damaging factories among communities of poor minority citizens who don't have the resources to resist. A sad and compelling case in point is made by Javier Sierra in Huffington Post Green, in his article, "Richmond California: Exhibit A of Polluters' Cruelty". Javier explains how Richmond--a mostly low income Latino and African-American community--has been targeted by industry for a particularly cruel campaign of pollution.  Coal trains, which are parked in the town and then transported through the town, leave a blanket of highly toxic coal dust in their wake, including on school playgrounds. The chemicals in this dust--arsenic, lead, chromium, etc.--can cause cancer.  Mile-long trains carrying crude oil in rail cars with dangerously thin shells which are easily punctured, rumble through the town.  As Javier notes, and as we have also written about in our "CITIZENS AT RISK: Transporting Dangerous Chemicals By Train is A Massive Tragedy Waiting to Happen" blog, these trains are called "rolling bombs" for their history of causing death, injury and property destruction in the communities they pass through. And, as if all of that were not enough, the families of Richmond are surrounded by petro-chemical refineries, notorious for provoking high rates of cancer and other auto-immune diseases among those who live and work nearby. Why is Richmond being treated like this?  The answer is as simple as it is disgraceful: these poor families don't fight back. Because they can't. Unlike industry, they don't have the resources to hire lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists to help them influence the location of polluting factories. And their government has abandoned them. The worst kept secret is how dangerous places like Richmond can be, especially to young children. And yet the government charged with protecting them will not do its job. Until we recognize a clean environment as a civil right, and every citizen's claim on that right to be equal, the families of Richmond, California--and families in many communities just like it throughout the country--will continue to suffer this discrimination, and the destruction, danger and disease that goes with it.

Environmental Justice is a Civil Right

Co-authored by Gregory Zimmer of The Collins Law Firm, P.C. Shouldn't it be that living in a pollution-free community is a basic right of American citizenship? Shouldn't it be that having clean air to breathe and safe water to drink does not depend on whether you are wealthy, or well-educated? It should be, of course, but it's not. Here is something I've learned in 15 years as an environmental lawyer: Rich people don't have environmental problems; or, if they do, the problems get powerful attention, very quickly.  For rich people--with big salaries and houses; graduate degrees; money enough to fund political campaigns; and kids going to private schools--lawyers, elected officials and government regulators almost reflexively align to come to their aid. But what happens to everyone else?  In many of the cases that I and my partners have handled, and in nearly every contaminated community that we have visited, the victims of the contamination are the poor and middle class.  Often they are racial minorities. Many bought modest homes near an industrial plant, years ago, believing the proximity was an advantage.  Jobs were available.  They could walk to work. Maybe even go home for lunch. The plant would sponsor their sons' and daughters' little league's teams.  A factory humming with activity and fat with profit would shoulder a big chunk of the community's property tax burden, keeping the burden reasonable for the family-homeowners. But, these seeming advantages came at a secret price:  the company's reckless dumping of toxic chemicals out the back door, or belching of chemicals out of a smokestack, put directly in harm's way the very folks who had made the company work, and, indeed, made the community work.  The chemicals wound up in the community's groundwater--its drinking water supply--and in the air that the families were breathing in their yards and sometimes even inside their homes.  Years after the reckless chemical disposal occurred, and the company closed its doors, maybe even going bankrupt, the families were trapped in their contaminated and badly-depreciated homes, left to fend for themselves. The Midwest--once the home to busy factories that made things for the entire world--is now pock-marked with communities wracked by decades-old contamination. But sometimes, it works the other way.  Sometimes, rather than the families buying homes near (what turned out to be) a polluting factory, the toxic hazards actually followed the families.  In and around Los Angeles, for example, studies show that toxic hazards followed minorities, rather than the other way around.1 The politics of this is as obvious as it is harsh:  it's easier to get a permit to locate an environmentally-dangerous facility near poor minorities than it is to locate it among the upper class.  What would be an intolerable threat in a community of the fortunate is, in a neighborhood of the disadvantaged, routine, and something the residents will just have to learn to put up with. They have no power to stop the intrusion into their peace and safety, and the violence to their health. Sometimes, they don't even mount a protest. They have learned that it will do them no good. Racial minorities truly bear the brunt of this.  Disproportionately, they live in aged, dilapidated buildings, or near industrial sites and roadways. They can't afford to live anywhere safer.  So, they are exposed to pollutants like soot, smog and lead.  The US EPA says that African Americans are 79% more likely than white Americans to live in areas where air pollution threatens their health.2 One particularly grim statistic: lead poisoning rates among Hispanic and African American children are roughly double those for white American children.  Double.  And there are 7 states where Asians Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to live in the most polluted areas.2 We should be ashamed of statistics like this, stories like this.  Clean air and safe water should not be the exclusive privileges of the wealthy, or non-minorities. What can we do to move forcefully in the direction of environmental justice for all?   Here are some ideas:

Contamination in America's Drinking Water, and The Harm It Causes

Co-authored by Gregory Zimmer of The Collins Law Firm, P.C. What are the most common harmful chemicals in water that many Americans drink every day? What harm can these chemicals cause to people? The EPA regulates the nation's drinking water supply through National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs or primary standards), which are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems. These standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water.1 However, drinking water sources can and do regularly fail to meet those standards--also known as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). Five of the most harmful chemicals that are often found in levels that violate those standards include:

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