Greening the Ghetto: A Theory of Environmental Race Discrimination

    Evidence from specific minority communities rills out the broad picture of disproportionate environmental impact delineated by the socioeconomic surveys. In Richmond, California, a suburb of San Francisco with fifty percent black and ten percent Latino residents, more than 350 industrial facilities, including oil refineries and pesticide manufacturers, release 210 different toxic chemicals locaLly.1  The fourteen Richmond neighborhoods closest to the heavy industrial zone are seventy-two percent to ninety-four percent African-American, according to United States Census data.2 Williamsburg, a mainly Puerto Rican area of Brooklyn, New York, is the site of twenty-eight facilities storing hazardous materials, including Radiac Corporation, which handles and transports radioactive waste one block from a public elementary school.3 The mostly black and Latino residents of Altgeld Gardens, a Southeast Chicago housing project, are surrounded by a "toxic doughnut" of waste disposal sites, chemical plants, an incinerator, and a paint factory, which concentration results in a high rate of cancer and birth deformities.4  A similar area of Los Angeles County, zip code 90058, receives more hazardous chemical releases than any other zip code in California; consistent with the above pattern, it has a fifty-nine percent African-American and thirty-eight percent Latino population.5

    In addition to the disproportionate environmental harms suffered by people of color, they also lack access to key planning decisions such as permitting and zoning because of language problems, lack of technical or financial resources, and absence from lobbying organizations. First, many minorities, such as recent Latino immigrants, are completely marginalized from the decisionmaking process because they do not yet understand English.6  A spectacular example of such exclusion is the Kings County, California incinerator permitting procedure discussed in Part I.8 Kings County authorities failed to provide Spanish translations of any of the crucial public documents, notices, or hearings for the forty percent non-EngHsh speakers.7  As one Spanish speaker wrote to the Kings County Planning Commission requesting translation of the EIR, "[to] not do this is to keep the community ignorant of what is going to happen, and to keep the community without any political power, and to suppose that we do not have the mental ability to deal with our own problems."9  Similarly, local officials in Williamsburg, New York and East Los Angeles, California have often neglected to issue Spanish-language notices of environmental hazards, forcing community activists to translate warnings for the benefit of Puerto Rican and Mexican-origin residents, respectively.10 Even for people of color with language skills sufficient to participate in agency proceedings, the technical knowledge necessary to digest complex scientific documents and the financial resources required for sustained attendance at hearings are often
 
 
 

1. CITIZENS FOR A BETTER ENVIRONMENT, RICHMOND AT RISK: COMMUNITY DEMOGRAPHICS AND Toxic HAZARDS FROM INDUSTRIAL POLLUTERS 1, 7 tbl. 3, 26 tbl. 4 (1989).  In addition to releases, 45 chemicals classified as "extremely hazardous" by the EPA are in storage tanks or other containers located in 38 facilities. Id. at 119.

2. Id. at 2, 121.

3. Luis G. Acosta, Testimony at New York State Legislative Hearings on Minorities and the Environment (Sept. 19, 1991), in MINORITIES AND THE ENVIRONMENT: AN EXPLORATION INTO THE EFFECTS OF ENVIRONMENTAL POLICIES, PRACTICES AND CONDITIONS ON MINORITY AND LOW-INCOME COMMUNITIES: PROCEINGS FROM THE 1991 PUBLIC HEARINGS SERIES (1991) [hereinafter MINOITMES AND THE ENVIRONMENT); COMMUNITY ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH CENTER AT HUNTER COLLEGE, HAZARDOUS NEIGHBORS? LIVING NEXT DOOR TO INDUSTRY IN GREENPOINT-WILLIAMSBURG (1989). At least one accident involving the transportation of radioactive waste from Radiac was reported in March 1986. Id. at 95. Community organizing efforts opposed the presence of hazardous waste in Williamsburg. See infra text accompanying note 28.

4. Grossman, sugars note 2, at 31-32; Hazel Johnson, Address at the University of Michigan Law School Symposium on Race, Poverty, and the Environment (Jan. 23, 1991).

5. Jane Kay, Minorities Bear Brunt of Pollution, S.F. EXAMINER, Apr. 7, 1991, at Al, A12. In the late 1980s, community groups successfully opposed two attempts to build incinerators in this area; the first was a Los Angeles city garbage-buming facility that would have emitted dioxin, and the second was a state-licensed commercial toxic waste furnace. Maura Dolan, Toxic Waste incinerator Bid Abandoned, L.A. TIMES, May 24, 1991, at Al, A36; Dick Russell, Environmental Racism: Minority Communities and Their Battle Against Toxics, Ahocus J., Spring 1989, at 22, 25-31.

6. A major reason for U.S. Census undercounts of Latinos and their consequent lack of political representation is the inability of many recent arrivals to speak or read English. Arturo Vargas, This Time, Latinos Are Up for the Count, L.A. Tnm, Mar. 28, 1990, at B7; see also WAYNE A. CORNELIUS ET AL., MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS AND SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: A SUMMARY OF CURRENT KNOWLEDGE 73-78 (1982) (empirical research and analysis on the language barrier to political participation among Mexican immigrants).

7. See supra text accompanying note 9.

8. Second Amended Petition for Writ of Mandate at 3, 4, El Pueblo Para El Aire y Agua Limpio v. County of Kings, No. 366045 (Cal. Super. Ct. Dec. 30, 1991).

9. Petitioners' Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Petition for Peremptory Writ of Mandate at 30, El Pueblo (No. 366045) (quoting Auscencio Avila).

10. In Williamsburg, activists known as the "Toxic Avengers" print literature on hazardous releases in Spanish. Linda R. Prout, The Toxic Avengers, EPA J., Mar./Apr. 1992, at 48-49. In East Los Angeles, the "Mothers of East L.A.," a community group, issues bilingual notices of environmental hearings. Russell, supra note 23, at 31.