Sunday, April 3, 2011

Doomed to Perpetuate Environmental Injustice?

As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Are we doomed to perpetuate environmental injustices of the past? In Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline1, authors Roberts and Toffolon-Weiss documented the struggles of two low-income, ethnic minority Louisiana communities plagued by toxic contamination. The residents of Grand Bois couldn’t stop oilfield wastes from being dumped in open pits outside their town. Gordon Plaza residents were unable to gain relocation compensation or a proper cleanup of toxic landfill contaminants. Local and state governments were unwilling or unable to change laws or regulations to protect communities affected by existing contamination. These communities also didn’t have enough outside help from national organizations or media attention to pressure governments to change. Class-action law suits didn’t get them what they wanted either. They are still trapped.

The fact that residents of Grand Bois and Gordon Plaza were allowed to be exposed to toxic contaminants is a testament to corporate greed and ineffectual government oversight. The Environmental Protection Agency passed responsibility for regulating oilfield waste down to the states. Louisiana determined these toxic wastes to be non-hazardous (p.146). Oil firms found rural Louisiana was a cheap place to dump their drilling fluids without having to pay for disposal of hazardous waste. In the former Agricultural Street landfill case, local government officials had ties with those who benefitted financially from the public housing construction deal. Developers of the Gordon Plaza neighborhood failed to adequately cover the site with sand prior to construction, which cut costs and increased short-term profits (p.171). Government officials never ordered testing of the soil for contaminants prior to construction. Corporations and governments colluded in allowing these contaminations to occur.

Class-action legal approaches didn’t work in contamination cases partly because communities let the lawyers handle the cases alone. “Lawyers need protests and activism to keep the lawsuits moving” (p.207). Support from national organizations allowed other communities fighting environmental injustices cited in Chronicles to put pressure on government agencies to make regulatory changes. Sustained media coverage helped expose cases of injustice and pressure politicians for solutions. Of course, class-action legal settlement outcomes were sealed by request of the defendants, frustrating further organizing and future cases (p.163, 207).

Legal backlashes occurred due to the contamination fights in Louisiana, making it even more difficult for victims of existing contamination to gain relief. Business and government leaders conspired to limit low-income client access to Tulane University environmental law clinic (p.201). Governor Foster worked with the Louisiana legislature to pass an oil industry-sponsored bill that stopped the ability of plaintiffs to sue for medical monitoring expenses (p.162). Then Louisiana Senate Bill 709 passed, preventing researchers from withholding data from public health officials (p.153). This backlash was a reaction to Louisiana State University researcher Dr. Patricia Williams' decision not to share medical information collected during her independent study of heavy metal poisoning in the residents of Grand Bois.

Communities that gained outside help from national organizations and substantial national press coverage were successful in stopping proposed siting of polluting facilities. However, where contamination had already occurred, residents were unsuccessful in changing existing regulations to get relief and encountered serious legal setbacks as a result (p.210). It seems once the pollution occurs, the economic and political interests of the business and government elite is too strong to overcome. For the residents of Grand Bois and Gordon Plaza, environmental injustice still lingers.

~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor


[1] Roberts, J. Timmons, & Melissa Toffolon-Weiss. 2001. Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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