VOICES: Investigate EPA's treatment of black communities in the South

warren_county_pcb_landfill_foto.jpgBy Robert D. Bullard, Dissident Voice

President Barack Obama made a bold move this year by selecting Lisa P. Jackson, the first African American to head the EPA. Now he is set to select EPA regional administrators -- ten important and powerful posts that can reshape the agency to provide equal protection for all. Historically, regional administrators have served as a bridge between EPA headquarters and the state and local governments. While on the surface this traditional role may be appealing to state and local government officials who would move the center of power and authority away from Washington, D.C. to regional offices, it has been a disaster for African Americans in Region 4, eight states in the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee).

Fundamental change is needed in Region 4, a region which has a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and resistance to civil rights and equal environmental protection. It is not an accident that the modern civil rights movement and environmental justice movement were born in the South. Nearly four decades of Region 4 harmful and discriminatory decisions have turned too many black communities into the dumping grounds, lowering nearby residents' property values, stealing their wealth, and exposing them to unnecessary environmental health risks.

There is a clear need for an EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation of Region 4 enforcement, waste facility permitting, hazardous waste cleanup and disposal, and property assessments and relocation pre- and post-Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, with specific emphasis on the treatment of African Americans in the region. Unequal protection threatens the health and safety of millions of African Americans in the region.

A 1992 National Law Journal special report uncovered glaring inequities in the way the EPA enforces its Superfund laws placing communities of color at special risk -- with white communities seeing faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other people of color live and with unequal protection often occurring whether the community is wealthy or poor.

The 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report found people of color make up about one third of the nation's population and more than 56 percent of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of commercial hazardous waste facilities and 69 percent of the residents in neighborhoods with clustered facilities. Although African Americans and other people of color comprise 28.5 percent of EPA Region 4 population, they are overrepresented among residents living within two miles of commercial hazardous waste facilities in EPA Region 4 states: Alabama (66.3%), Florida (52.7%), Georgia (55.6%), Kentucky (51.5%), Mississippi (50.6%), North Carolina (55.9%), South Carolina (43.9), and Tennessee (53.8%).

African Americans make up 21 percent of the population in Region 4. Except for Florida, African Americans comprise the largest ethnic minority in the region. Hispanics make up 20.1 percent of Florida's population compared to 15.3 percent African Americans. African Americans comprise 26.3 percent in Alabama, 29.6 percent in Georgia, 7.6 percent in Kentucky, 37.1 percent in Mississippi, 21.3 percent in North Carolina, 28.6 percent in South Carolina, and 16.6 percent in Tennessee.

Many of the bad Region 4 EPA waste facility permitting and disposal decisions flow directly from backroom deals and compromises made with state and local government officials, often at the expense of African Americans and other people of color communities. Communities on the fenceline with polluting facilities have suffered the brunt of these bad decisions.

Sumter County, Alabama (1974)

In 1974, EPA nominated Sumter County, Alabama as a possible hazardous waste landfill site. The county, located in the heart of Alabama's Black Belt, is 71.8 percent is black. Over 35.9 percent of the county's population is below poverty. In 1977, Resource Industries Inc. purchased a 300-acre tract of land just outside of Emelle, Ala. where over 90 percent of the residents are black. The permit for the facility was approved by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and EPA Region 4 over opposition of local residents who thought they were getting a brick factory. In 1978, Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. bought the permit from Resource Industries Inc. and opened the nation's largest hazardous was landfill, often tagged the Cadillac of Dumps.

Sumter County has a legacy of farming and cotton production dating back to the plantation system of slavery and the sharecropper tenant farming system that followed. The hazardous waste facility was lured to the predominately black county during a period when the residuals of Jim Crow segregation still ruled the day. No blacks had held public office or sat on governing bodies from the predominately county, including the state legislature, county commission, or industrial development board from the county.

Warren County, North Carolina (1979)

Between June 1978 and August 1978, over 30,000 gallons of waste transformer oil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were illegally discharged on roadsides in fourteen North Carolina counties. The PCBs resulted in the U.S. EPA designating the roadsides as a superfund site to protect public health. North Carolina needed a place to dispose of the PCB-contaminated soil that was scraped up from 210 miles of roadside shoulders. In 1979, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) along with EPA Region 4 selected rural, poor, and mostly black Warren County as the site for the PCB landfill.

In 1982, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit in district court to block the landfill. The residents lost their case in court despite the fact that the Warren County PCB Landfill site was not scientifically the most suitable because the water table at the landfill is very shallow, only 5-10 feet below the surface and where the residents of the community get all of their drinking water from local wells. William Sanjour, head of the EPA's hazardous waste implementation branch, questioned the Warren County landfill siting decision. The first truckload of contaminated soil that arrived at the landfill in September 1982 was met protesters. More than 500 demonstrators were jailed protesting landfill, sparking the national Environmental Justice Movement.

Warren County which was 54.5 percent black in 1980 is one of six counties in North Carolina's "Black Belt." The other North Carolina counties where African Americans comprise a majority of the population include Bertie County (62.3%), Hertford (59.6%), Northhampton (59.4%), Edgecombe (57.5%), Warren (54.5%), and Halifax (52.6%). Eastern North Carolina is also significantly poorer than the rest of the state.

Region 4 and North Carolina officials insisted the PCB landfill was safe and would not leak. They were dead wrong. Warren County resident Dolly Burwell and her fellow protesters were right. The landfill was suspected of leaking as early as 1993. It took more than two decades for Warren County residents to get the leaky landfill site detoxified by the state and federal government. In all, a private contractor was paid $18 million to dig up and burn more than 81,500 tons of contaminated soil in a kiln on site.

Dickson County, Tennessee (1988)

The collaborations between EPA Region 4, the State of Tennessee, and the City and County of Dickson failed to protect the health and the environment of a black family who lives in Dickson's Eno Road community. EPA Region 4 records indicate that trichloroethylene or TCE, "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," was found in the Harry Holt family's wells as early as 1988, the same year the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) issued a permit to Dickson County for operation of a sanitary landfill in Dickson's mostly black Eno Road community.

A 1991 EPA Site Inspection Report completed by Halliburton documents several state and federal approved contamination cleanups (i.e., wastes from on-site industrial dumps, plant contamination, soil containing TCE, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes and petroleum hydrocarbons from underground storage tank cleanups, and wastes from a train derailment) from mostly white areas in Dickson County were trucked to the landfill on Eno Road.

A Region 4 chronology shows that in December 1988, TDEC sent letters to the Harry Holt family informing them of the test results and the finding of contaminants in their wells. The letter states: "Your water is of good quality for the parameters tested. It is felt that the low levels of methylene or trichloroethene may be due to either lab or sampling error." On December 3, 1991, EPA Region 4 sent the Harry Holt family a letter informing him of three tests performed on his well and deemed it safe. The letter states: "Use of your well water should not result in any adverse health effects."

A December 17, 1991 TDEC internal memorandum expressed some concern about the level of TCE contamination found in the Holt's well and recommended the well continue to be sampled. However, no government tests were performed on the Holt's wells between January 1, 1992 and October 8, 2000, an eight year and nine-month gap in testing, even though government tests were conducted nearly each year on private wells and springs located within a one- and two-mile radius of the leaky landfill. In 1995, government tests were performed on nearby private wells and springs, duck ponds, and even a well at the Humane Society of Dickson County (410 Eno Road), located across the street from the Holt's homestead (340 Eno Road). In April 1997, TCE was detected in water from a production well (DK-21) operated by the City of Dickson and located northeast of the landfill. The city well was later closed. The Holt family's well lies between the landfill and the DK-21 well.

Tests were finally conducted on the Harry Holt well on October 9, 2000 -- where results registered 120 ppb TCE and a second test on October 25, 2000 registered 145 ppb -- 24 times and 29 times, respectively, higher than the maximum contaminant level (MCL). The Holts were placed on the city water system on October 20, 2000 -- twelve years after the first government test found TCE in their well in 1988.

Escambia County, Florida (1991)

Margaret Williams, a 73 year old retired Pensacola, Florida school teacher, led a five-year campaign against EPA Region 4 to get her entire community relocated from environmental and health hazards posed by the 26-acre Escambia Treating Company (ETC) contamination, the nation's third largest Superfund site. In 1991, EPA inspectors found leaking drums had contaminated the site with dioxin, one of the most dangerous compounds ever made, nine years after it was abandoned by the owner.

The ETC site was dubbed "Mount Dioxin" because of the 60-feet high, 1,000-feet long, and 40-feet wide mound of contaminated soil an EPA contractor dug up from the neighborhood and covered with plastic tarp. Some residents described EPA's plastic cover as a "Band-Aid on a cancer." By January 1993, the L-shaped mound held more than 255,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. In December 1994, the ETC site was placed on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL).

Because of the reckless digging, bulldozing, and faulty containment of the dust and runoff from the site, Margaret Williams help start Citizens Against Toxic Exposure or CATE. During excavation in 1992, residents living in nearby Rosewood Terrace, Oak Park, Goulding, and Clarinda Triangle communities constantly complained to Region 4 officials about acute respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, skin rashes, and other ailments.

CATE also questioned the fairness of EPA's site plan. Region 4 officials first proposed to move only 66 households most affected by the Superfund site. After prodding from CATE, EPA then added 35 more households for a total cost of $7.54 million. The original Region 4 plan left behind 257 households or nearly three-quarter of the households in the impacted area, including an apartment complex.

CATE refused to accept any relocation plan unless everyone was moved. The partial relocation was tantamount to partial justice. CATE took its campaign on the road to EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council or NEJAC. In May 1996, the group was successful in getting EPA's NEJAC Waste Subcommittee to hold a Superfund Relocation Roundtable in Pensacola. At this meeting, CATE's total neighborhood relocation plan won the backing of more than 100 grassroots organizations. EPA nominated the Escambia Wood Treating Superfund site as the country's first pilot program to help the agency develop a nationally consistent relocation policy that would consider not only toxic levels but welfare issues such as property values, quality of life, health and safety.

On October 3, 1996, EPA officials agreed to move all 358 households from the site at an estimated cost of $18 million. EPA officials deemed the mass relocation as "cost efficient" after city planners decided to redevelop the area for light industry rather than clean the site to residential standards. After more than a dozen neighborhood relocations across the nation, the Escambia County decision marked the first time that an African American community had been relocated under EPA's Superfund program and was hailed as a landmark victory for environmental justice.

On July 8, 2009, the last shovel of soil from the ETC stockpile was excavated and permanently interred along with approximately 500,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil in an 18-acre on-site containment cell. The formerly cleaned up site will provide nearly 100-acres of real estate for redevelopment into the Palafox Midtown Commerce Park.

Relocation was only a partial victory for the residents since they still faced discrimination in their property assessments. Many residents received artificially "low" assessment and were not "made whole" as promised by the government. The first wave of property appraisals ranged from $20,000 to $27,000 -- far less than comparable homes sold in the area valued at $134,900 to $135,000. The racism did not stop with the property appraisals. It also extended to the Region 4 buyout plan -- with Pensacola residents paying a "hidden cost" of being black.

A March 1998, EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report indicates that white homeowners in Pennsylvania, Region 3, were given a better deal for their loss than the black residents in Florida, Region 4. Forty homeowners from an all-white neighborhood were relocated from the contaminated Austin Avenue Radiation Site in Delaware County, Pa. Region 3 took extra steps and expense to make the white homeowners whole. For example, 18 of the 40 homes were decontaminated at a cost of $24 million while the residents were placed in temporary housing. The Pensacola residents had to suffer through and endure the cleanup while still in their homes. The other 22 Delaware County homeowners were given the option either to relocate or have new homes built under a program that an additional $31 million.

In Pensacola, Region 4 offered to buy African American homeowners' existing homes in their price range. On the contrary, Region 3 offered the Delaware County, Pa. white homeowners brand new homes that cost an average of $651,700 each. These types of glaring inequities should not exist if there is one EPA and one set of rules that apply equally to all Americans, regardless of region or race.

Perry County, Alabama (2009)

In December 2008, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant broke, spilling more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash over a dozen homes and up to 400 acres of the surrounding landscape, endangering aquatic life and the water supply for more than 25,000 residents. Six months after this tragedy in July 2009, a major environmental injustice was perpetrated by EPA Region 4 approval of TVA's decision to ship 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash by railcar from the mostly white east Tennessee Roane County to a landfill located in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt, Perry County (69% African-American with more than 32% of its residents living in poverty) and to rural Taylor County, Georgia (41% of the population is African-American and more than 24% of residents live in poverty).

Region 4 justifies the Perry County decision in its "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQs) by declaring the Arrowhead Landfill to be located in "an isolated area, surrounded by large tracts of property, farms and ranches." However, "isolated" is not defined. There are black home owners and black cattle farmers who live across from the landfill. The agency goes on to state that the "nearest residence is approximately 250 to 300 feet away from the site." It failed to report how many homes and households line Cahaba Road (County Road 1) and Whitehill Road -- two major roads that buttress the landfill property.

An established black community exists on two sides of the landfill, with a population large enough to support at least three churches (Star Bethel Church, Living Hope Baptist Church, and Shady Grove Church). An old cemetery is found near the entrance of the landfill on County Road 1 and another cemetery was found during the construction of the landfill, which provides further support for the historic nature of the community that borders the landfill.

The FAQs also failed to report how many families in the adjacent community are on well water. Nowhere in FAQs does the term "environmental justice" appear. No report has been made public to date indicating that Region 4 conducted an environmental justice analysis on its Perry County decision as called for under the 1994 Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which seeks "to ensure that no segment of the population, regardless of race, color, national origin, income, or net worth bears disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental impacts as a result of EPA's policies, programs and activities." Under this Order, each Federal agency must make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minorities and low-income populations.

EPA Region 4 had enough time to conduct a comprehensive environmental justice analysis between December 22, 2008 and July 2, 2009, a full five months, to answer these and other related equity questions about the potential adverse and disproportionate impact of its decision on low-income and minority populations.

Perry County is not the only Alabama Black Belt county targeted for waste dumping. In 2000, national civil right and environmental justice groups successfully blocked landfills from being built in Macon County (86.4% black) near Tuskegee University and in Lowndes County (75.7% black) off U.S. 80 Highway, designated in 1996 the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Some waste companies and government agencies see nothing wrong with "trashing" black history or black communities. Six years later, in 2006, Perry County's Uniontown residents fought the Arrowhead Landfill. However, without national support, Perry County residents were not able to stop the landfill from being built and permitted.

It is time for this toxic Dumping in Dixie madness in Region 4 to end. It is time for bold leadership and real change in the region.

Robert D. Bullard is director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and author of Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (Westview 2009). He can be reached at: rbullard4ej@worldnet.att.net. Read other Dissident Voice articles by Robert here.

(Photo of PCB landfill in Warren County, N.C. by the Environmental Justice Resource Center from Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty.)