While the United States is fond of accusing developing countries of human rights violations, African-Americans are charging their own government with 'environmental racism' - by which ethnic minority and low-income communities are allowed to be disproportionate targets for toxic waste dumps or polluting factories.

By Danielle Knight

April 1999

Washington: African-Americans from the southern part of the United States are heading for Geneva in mid-April to appear before the UN Commission on Human Rights and seek international support in their struggle against 'environmental racism'.

The group, representing community and environmental organisations, are charging the United States with complicity in human rights abuses. They allege the government allows ethnic minority and low-income communities to be disproportionate targets for toxic waste dumps or polluting factories.

Delegates plan to testify before the Commission on the health problems and environmental damage their communities have suffered as a result of living near numerous toxic chemical facilities.

Despite an executive order by President Bill Clinton to address environmental racism, US state and federal officials have enforced existing environmental laws in these communities only under tremendous pressure from organisations, say delegates.

'We are going to put the world spotlight on the pattern of environmental racism that exists throughout the United States,' says Damu Smith, coordinator of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign in the United States. 'With this precedent-setting delega-tion, we hope to force the United States to comply with existing laws and achieve environmental justice.'

Monique Harden, a lawyer with the Earthjustice Defence Fund, who has represented several communities in lawsuits against corporations accused of pollution, is also part of the delegation. 'The focus on human rights is usually on developing countries, but we want to shine a mirror on the United States,' she says.

Most of the delegates are from communities that live along the Mississippi River in the state of Louisiana known infamously as 'Cancer Alley'. The industrial corridor stretching from North Baton Rouge south to New Orleans along the river hosts more than 140 oil refineries and chemical plants.

In 1993, the Louisiana State advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights concluded that 'many black communities located along the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are disproportionately impacted by the present State and local government system for permitting and expansion of hazardous waste and chemical facilities'.

State health and environmental agencies have cited a number of estuaries and water- ways in the area as being contaminated with highly toxic industrial chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. These chemicals include aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dioxins, furans, and PCBs. Some of these chemicals are pesticides and industrial products. Others are the chemical by-products of manufacturing processes or incineration.

Recently there have been a number of heated legal battles against polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or vinyl facilities in black communities in Louisiana. The production of PVC results in the release of toxic chemicals, including dioxins, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says may cause cancer in humans.

The Japan-based Shintech Inc. sparked a national controversy on environmental racism with its plan to build a $700 million PVC facility in the poor, mainly black community of Convent, Louisiana. The company argued that the factory would bring many jobs to the poor community but last year activists with some help from the US EPA, successfully stopped the project from going through.

Yet, as soon as environmental justice activists claimed victory in Convent, the battle against Shintech shifted to a different community in Louisiana, where the corporation now plans to build a smaller PVC facility in the town of Plaquemine. 'This is an obvious face-saving move by a player in a dirty industry that is becoming more dead-end and obsolete by the day,' says Smith. 'We are now prepared to struggle along-side the citizens of Plaquemine to stop Shintech.'

In the south-western part of the state, rural African-American communities have also suffered from environmental racism, according to Haki Vincent, a delegate from the African- American town of Mossville. 'The ability of Mossville residents to sustain themselves and their families by gardening, fishing and hunting is steadily declining with the growth of petrochemical facilities that have continued to expand,' he says.

Surrounded by storage tanks, smoke stacks and underground pipelines, Mossville is also home to a number of PVC facilities which he says have polluted the air and water. About one-fourth of the town of 800 people was forced to relocate after chemical contamination, says Vincent.

Outside of the city of New Orleans, a community of low-income black residents living in Press Park and Gordon Plaza, neighbourhoods which included government- subsidised housing, noticed an increase in health problems and the mysterious deterioration of the foundation of their homes.

In the 1990s residents discovered that their houses were built on a toxic landfill closed in 1965. This dump, which contained substances including the toxic pesticide DDT and dioxins, had been used by the city and various industries for more than 50 years.

Most residents of the neighbourhood, now known as the Agriculture Street Landfill Community, demanded financial assistance to be relocated. But the EPA instead began to clean up the first few feet of top soil. Residents will have to live near the area as the clean-up proceeds. - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Danielle Knight is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article is reprinted.