06/02/2010 09:23 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Environmental Justice

Do undesirable neighbors -- factories, incinerators, waste treatment plants -- go where poor people live? Or do poor people end up living in residential areas clustered around these places because they're poor? These are the core questions when you try to understand whether "environmental racism" exists. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a former county officeholder in Pima county in the southern part of his fast growing state said on a recent edition of Destination Casa Blanca that it's both. He said in his experience these uses end up in an around neighborhoods of poverty, and of color.

Sometimes debates around these issues end up tense and noisy affairs, as one side simple digs in its heels. In this program, there was general agreement that the lack of political clout, lack of organization, relatively lower rates of voter participation, and cheap land all conspire to push undesirable and noxious neighbors toward places where people will give relatively less resistance, and where such businesses find it cheaper to locate.

Makes sense, right?

However, for the rest of the program our debaters sparred over where to go from here. Javier Sierra, of the national environmental organization the Sierra Club, said throughout the hour the key problem was one of lack of accountability:

Someone came into the neighborhood, polluted it. And moved on. Then someone else comes in to set up shop and finds it already polluted, pollutes more, and then moves on. There was no accountability, the polluter was not paying for the consequences.

Nicholas Loris of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which monitors the cost of regulation and environmental laws, said government interference often kept companies from doing the right thing. One example he cited was the way depreciation schedules in the tax laws forced companies to hold on to antiquated technology than they might do otherwise, stalling the flow of newer and less polluting developments to the marketplace. Loris also said the Environmental Protection Agency would be better off studying the effects of industrial chemicals and by-products in the soil, water, and air than wasting its time targeting and seeking to regulate carbon dioxide.

It was all in all, a useful primer on industry, pollution, responsibility and accountability. Sierra and Loris agreed more than I would have ever expected a Sierra Club and Heritage rep to agree. But in the next second they were back on opposite ends of a broad continuum of opinion concerning the proper role of government, the cost of regulation, and how to hold polluters responsible for the damage they do to the public's health.

Loris' representation of Heritage's views was also a far cry from the arguments put forth by free-market conservatives 20 and 30 years ago, when they insisted there was no targeting of politically and economically weaker communities of color for locating smelly, dangerous, or noisy plants, factories, or garbage dumps. All you had to do was look at a map... Where were the vast, stinking lots where garbage was transferred from trucks to railcars or barges? Where were the lead smelters, landfills, smelters, sewage treatment, incinerators, factories? And where were the poor people?

Obviously, those places were often cheaper places to live because of the location of nearby polluters. But now when something new was going in, it was understood that the place able to put up the least resistance was going to be a good candidate, since holding up projects often sent their costs skyward.

But it's also true that communities of color, and poor places across the American landscape were learning how to say no as well. Community organizations, and organizers were helping often lightly educated citizens push the levers of government in order to fight back.

Altgeld Gardens on the far South Side of the city of Chicago was ringed by industry and other polluting neighbors. One was the sanitary district's solid waste treatment plant, which basically took the solids captured from the toilets of hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans, spread it, turned it, dried and, and prepared it for disposal. In response to persistent complaints about the smell, the facility mixed a bubble gum smell into the mix, sending an overpowering and bizarre odor cocktail of human waste and bubble gum drifting into the neighborhood. This was where a young community organizer named Barack Obama cut his teeth.

To a depressing degree, the filth-spewing functions of today force themselves on the next generation. Unless people can move away from them, or the plants can be made much cleaner, people are going to continue to suffer from these places. Both the Heritage Foundation and the Sierra Club agree, for this week at least, that the polluter should pay, and that such accountability will save communities from the worst effects of their toxic neighbors.

The site will guide you to a series of exchanges from an interesting edition of Destination Casa Blanca, devoted to a very important topic.

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