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Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Published: 11 January 2006

Environmentalists hit the roof in 2002 when President George Bush announced his Clean Sky Initiative. The initiative — currently stalled in Congress — would not clean the skies, but dirty them further.

It would allow corporations to dump tons more toxic pollutants in the air, delay or exempt enforcement of smog and soot pollution standards and gut Environmental Protection Agency pollution enforcement powers. Even though the initiative has not yet become law, Bush did an end-run and used an administrative order to weaken existing environmental enforcement.

That virtually assures that Blacks, especially poor Blacks, will breathe dirtier air. This has had dire health consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly warned that Blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods with higher air pollution levels, experience higher rates of respiratory and blood ailments than Whites and suffer more deaths as a result.

The Bush administration defends its contempt for the lungs of the poor by saying that race should not be an issue in the battle against toxic pollution and that it will protect all groups against environmental damage. The administration's record shows that it has done just the opposite.

A recent Associated Press survey of government data found that in 19 states Blacks were more than twice as likely as Whites to live in neighborhoods where pollution posed a severe health hazard.
The fight against environmental racism is a civil rights battle to save Black lives. That battle should fully engage civil rights and environmental groups.

In 1979, Houston city officials tried to dump yet another toxic waste site in a Black neighborhood. This time the homeowners and residents fought back. They filed and won the first major lawsuit against the establishment of a waste facility in an urban neighborhood. Their action transformed the fight for environmental justice into a health and a civil rights issue.

Since then, Blacks have marched, demonstrated, filed lawsuits, been jailed and held conferences to denounce environmental degradation of their neighborhoods. In a milestone report on race and toxic wastes in 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice, a church-based civil rights advocacy group, revealed that Blacks are far more likely than Whites to live near abandoned toxic waste sites, waste landfills and sewer treatment plants. They prodded former President Bill Clinton in 1994 to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to intensify efforts to determine the harm toxic waste plants and sites wreak on urban communities.

Meanwhile, Bush has done everything he could to scrap the Clinton rules, and corporations and public officials have dutifully taken their cue and tossed more pollutants into the air and water. The courts haven't helped. Residents in poor, highly toxic neighborhoods can sue polluters under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but they must prove intentional discrimination — something that is virtually impossible to prove. The Supreme Court has ruled that private citizens can't sue to enforce federal environmental regulations that ban discrimination.

The EPA has moved with glacial speed to investigate complaints of environmental pollution and has been even more reluctant to take strong action against polluters. In the two-year stretch from 2001 to 2003, the agency settled only two cases against corporate polluters.

Corporate and industrial polluters get away with their toxic assault on low-income, Black neighborhoods by skillfully twisting the jobs-versus-environment issue. They claim that the choice is between creating more jobs and business growth and economic stagnation. Their economic blackmail works, since few politicians will risk being tagged as anti-business.

Many officials will eagerly waive requirements for environmental reports, provide special tax breaks and even alter zoning and land use requirements to allow them to set up shop in these underserved neighborhoods. They'll get the full blessing of the Bush administration, but let's hope not that of Congress.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for BlackNews.com.

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