In a rare test of Federal civil rights law, a group of residents in Chester, Pa., sued the State of Pennsylvania today, accusing its environmental agency of discrimination for concentrating the city's waste-processing sites in their black-majority neighborhood.
The complaint, filed in Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, argues that in granting permits for five waste treatment centers and transfer stations in their community since 1987, the state has violated the equal-protection laws of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In the same period, the state has granted permits for two other plants in two predominantly white areas outside Chester, in Delaware County.
In Delaware County, neighborhoods with black majorities have eight commercial-waste sites, and predominantly white neighborhoods have three.
"This is environmental racism," said Jerome Balter, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia who represents the plaintiffs. "In granting permits, the state never inquired into the nature of the community or the number of other facilities in the area."
While a growing number of community groups around the country have claimed discrimination in recent environmental lawsuits against states and corporations, experts in environmental law say this is one of perhaps only three instances in which a state has been sued under Federal civil rights law by plaintiffs who accuse the state of violations in the permit-granting process.
Neither of the other two cases has gone to trial. One of the cases, in Michigan, involves a wood-burning plant; a partial settlement was reached in February that resulted in reduced operations at the plant and more monitoring of the plant for compliance with emission standards. The other case, in North Carolina, involves a waste-water plant; that lawsuit was dismissed in 1993 and was refiled two months ago.
"Our case only involved one facility," said Kary L. Moss, director of the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Detroit involved in the case against the wood-burning plant. "But the Chester case may be the first one involving a group of facilities." The center represented residents of Genessee County, Mich., against the state and the Genessee Power Company, the plant's owner.
The Chester lawsuit makes no claims of adverse health effects suffered by residents living near the plants, even though the plaintiffs cite statistics showing higher mortality rates in Chester, compared with all of Delaware County.
It says Chester residents make more complaints to the state about air pollution, compared with residents of other Delaware County communities.
Instead, the lawsuit argues a narrower issue, that when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection granted an operating permit to a fifth waste-treatment plant in one Chester black-majority neighborhood, the residents suffered discrimination.
Under Federal guidelines, each state establishes its own emission standards, which become the Federal regulations for that state; those rules are enforced by a state agency. But because state environmental agencies get financial assistance from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, citizens have the right to sue under a 1984 regulation that says any jurisdiction receiving Federal E.P.A. money "shall not use criteria or methods of administering its program which have the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination because of their race, color, national origin or sex."
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Chris Novak, said that officials there would not comment until they had seen the lawsuit.
The Federal E.P.A. was not named as a defendant in the case.
Chester residents have been fighting with the State of Pennsylvania ever since Delaware County landfills began approaching capacity in the 1980's. Before 1987, only one treatment plant, Delcora Sewage, operated in a Census Bureau tract along the Delaware River that includes a neighborhood of small but neat row houses where some residents have lived for decades. That tract, less than half a square mile, has a population of 566, and almost three-quarters of the residents are black.
But by last year, state officials had granted permits to one transfer station and four disposal companies. The permit for the transfer station was later revoked. Thermal Pure Systems, which sterilized contaminated medical waste, recently ceased operations. And Soil Remediation Systems, the last to gain a permit, in 1995, has not yet begun construction.
But neighborhood residents say the combined effects of the four companies that still have the right to operate and the emissions that they generate when they are operating have made living in the area intolerable. They complain of constant sore throats, headaches, itchy skin and asthma.
"We have become acceptable risks," said Zulene Mayfield, one of 18 individual plaintiffs in the case and chairwoman of a group that is another plaintiff, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. "We do not have the comfort of our homes, and residents are tired of the noise, the smoke, the dirt and the trucks."
Even with only two plants currently operating, one a huge plant that burns trash six days a week, awalk through the neighborhood results in a nearly constant assault on the senses. The air is thick with acrid smells and, often, smoke. Dump trucks rumble through throughout the day, which residents say has caused structural damage to houses. Noisy locomotives that serve refineries a mile away run along a rail spur between the plants and the facing houses on Front Street. Conditions often force residents to flee inside from their front porches and seal their windows. Property values have plummeted.
to be a really nice place to live, but now it's like living next to a nuclear
plant," said King McDonald, a 65-year-old retired truck driver who has
lived in the area for 30 years and is a plaintiff in the case.