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Chemical & Oil Giants Built Plants in Poor Neighborhoods; In Sacrifice Zones, the Poor Fight Back

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In late August, there was a screening in East Hampton -- the Wall Street sequel, of all things -- followed by a party at David Koch's house.

I happened to be in the Hamptons that weekend. A friend invited me to the party. I declined.

I declined because I knew who David Koch is: co-owner of Koch Industries, one of the ten most egregious air polluters in the United States. He and his family are also major donors to right-wing Republicans -- including groups close allied with the Tea Party -- and by "major," I mean more than $100 million.

But it wasn't because of his politics that I kept away.

I knew that if I went to Koch's party, I'd have to make some statement of disesteem to my host. Why not just drink his champagne and eat his shrimp? Because silence equals consent. Maybe it's easy for the New York swells whose charities benefit from Koch's contributions to pretend he's just a great tycoon -- his political contributions are hard to trace, and there's no evidence of his direct involvement in his company's environmental crimes. But hey -- there's a pattern. People know, even if they don't quite have the facts.

The day after the party, everybody knew -- The New Yorker published Jane Mayer's landmark piece about David Koch and his brother. A sample:

In 1999, a jury found Koch Industries guilty of negligence and malice in the deaths of two Texas teen-agers in an explosion that resulted from a leaky underground butane pipeline. (In 2001, the company paid an undisclosed settlement.) And in the final months of the Clinton Presidency the Justice Department leveled a ninety-seven-count indictment against the company, for covering up the discharge of ninety-one tons of benzene, a carcinogen, from its refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. The company was liable for three hundred and fifty million dollars in fines, and four Koch employees faced up to thirty-five years in prison. The Koch Petroleum Group eventually pleaded guilty to one criminal charge of covering up environmental violations, including the falsification of documents, and paid a twenty-million-dollar fine. David Uhlmann, a career prosecutor who, at the time, headed the environmental-crimes section at the Justice Department, described the suit as "one of the most significant cases ever brought under the Clean Air Act." He added, "Environmental crimes are almost always motivated by economics and arrogance, and in the Koch case there was a healthy dose of both."

The Kochs' enterprises, not surprisingly, appear in Sacrifice Zones, Steve Lerner's exhaustive chronicle of toxic chemical exposure in our country. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.) For those unfamiliar with the concept, "sacrifice zones" is a Russian term -- it refers to populated areas polluted forever by nuclear fallout. In the United States, we have fewer reactors and build them better; here the term refers to neighborhoods where industrial pollution poses a health risk.

Bet you won't be shocked to read that African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in these neighborhoods.

Disclosure: Steve Lerner was my college roommate and is one of my closest friends. Back in our flaming youth, we were the kind of journalists that powerful people don't particularly welcome: aggressive, incorruptible, not entirely untalented. Along the way, I fell into the dish of cream that was Vanity Fair and misplaced some of my edge. Steve never did.

In Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental; Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor, Steve chronicled life in a segregated town where the poor lived cheek-to-jowl with two nasty industrial plants. It's a story of abuse, struggle and triumph --- in the end, a grassroots campaign led by a local schoolteacher forced Shell Oil to buy up many afflicted homes. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)

Sacrifice Zones brings stories like that back home -- to a dozen communities that were knowingly polluted by American businesses. It's a repetitive book: suffering, more suffering, government indifference, then the residents fight back. It's hardly an even fight. The companies have squads of lawyers on staff. Because they often provide the only jobs for miles, they have local governments in their pockets. It's oh-so-hard to prove that the filth on the once-white sheets hanging from the clotheslines of the poor came from a polluter's smokestack. And the victories are bittersweet -- activists don't always see the fruits of their work, having used precious days from their surely shortened lives to organize their communities.

Ocala, Florida: "black snow" from a charcoal factory. A city run by five white people. Activists who presented filthy bed sheets to the city council. A plant without afterburners in its smockstacks. The company closed the plant and tore down the smokestacks before they could be tested for pollutants.

Port Arthur, Texas: 15.5 million pounds of pollutants released in a single year by a refinery owned by Shell Oil and Saudi Aramco. (Once the plant released nine tons while children were waiting for school buses.)

On and on the dishonor roll goes -- Addyston, Ohio and Daly City, California and San Antonio and Greenpoint, New York. You get the idea fast.

And, if you're me, you ask yourself: Who really needs to read this book?

Well, how about the villains? That is, the corporations that target and then pollute minorities and the poor. Steve Lerner isn't shy about naming them. Often, he identifies their spokespeople.

But no way are the bad guys going to spring for this book. The record is voluminous -- they don't care.

I have a thought: Buy the book. Read as much as you can stand, then send it on to the CEO of the biggest polluter you know. Maybe with a cheery note: "Looking forward to reading about your company in the next edition."

For example, I note with interest that there are six major refineries in Corpus Christi, Texas -- "the densest concentration in the nation." One, as Jane Mayer reports in her New Yorker profile, is owned by Koch Industries, which released tons of benzene from that plant. Benzene, so you know, causes leukemia and can be toxic to the liver, skin and cardiovascular system.

I'm very tempted to send Sacrifice Zones to David Koch, with that chapter noted and a "way to go" card attached. It's not much, and maybe it violates the social convention of the snooty part of town where we both live. But it's a least a way of breaking the silence. And it's not what I'd really like to send -- a Mason jar of benzene.