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The Deadliest Discrimination: Environmental Racism

Recent tests have shown that PG&E has contaminated Midway Village
Recent tests have shown that PG&E has contaminated Midway Village
Lula Bishop thought she'd found the perfect place to raise her three children: a subsidized housing project tucked beneath the rolling hills of southern San Francisco. Here in Midway Village, her kids would have plenty of wide, open space to play.

They would be exposed to incredible diversity, as their neighbors were a great mix of African Americans, Latinos, Filipinos and Chinese. As far as Lula could tell, the only downside to her new home was the view: a sprawling Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) project site stood right next door.


French vanilla cappuccinos, how I love thee….

They'd been there about two years when Lula started suspecting something else was wrong with her new community. Her kids were always getting sick. It started with unexplained rashes and moved on to bloody noses, upper-respiratory problems, upset stomachs, and chronic diarrhea. Lula was particularly worried about her son, who got wicked headaches.

Then came the day that changed Lula's life forever. Her son awoke with his left eye crossed. Panicked, Lula rushed him to the hospital. To her horror, doctors discovered a cyst sitting on his optic nerve. Two weeks later, he underwent major brain surgery. Thankfully, he made a full recovery, but the doctors swore they'd never seen anything like it.

It was as big a mystery as the rashes.

"Not long after, I went to a neighborhood meeting and told them about my son," Lula said. "One of the neighbors turned to me and said 'The same thing happened to my daughter, only by the time we got her to the hospital, she was gone.'"

The more Lula talked with her neighbors, the more she realized something was terribly wrong. Everybody had the same strange symptoms - dry mouth, burning eyes, upper respiratory infections, nosebleeds - but what was the cause? Lula started researching matters and made a chilling discovery: her housing project had been built on contaminated soil.

Toxins can lead to breast cancer, among other illnesses
Toxins can lead to breast cancer, among other illnesses
In the years that followed, Lula and her neighbors launched three lawsuits. Their demands were threefold: permanent relocation, lifetime medical care and adequate compensation. But while state and federal soil tests confirmed that high levels of toxins still lurked in the soil, government agencies denied the link between the toxins and their illnesses.

"We've been in this struggle for ten long years with almost no results," Lula said. "If any contamination at all is found in white communities, PG&E goes right in and does what it can to remedy the situation. With us, it's like, 'Oh, you live in the projects, you should be thankful just to have a place to live.' And it really is a beautiful place. The problem is, it's deadly."

In the past, when I thought of environmentalism, whales and rainforests popped into my mind. But I've discovered that people of color are equally endangered - especially those with lower incomes, like Lula. It's called "Environmental Racism" and it runs rampant in our society.

People of color have always known that their neighborhoods are prime targets for prisons, highways, and nuclear dumps. However, the rest of America didn't pay much attention until a black community in North Carolina started protesting the hazardous waste landfill being constructed in their midst in the early 1980s. Residents linked arms and blocked the trucks' path for days. Dozens were arrested. Although they ultimately failed to keep the toxins out of their neighborhood, they showed the nation that people of color weren't afraid to put their lives on the line for environmental justice.

Greenaction's Ward Valley protests brought support from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and singer Bonnie Raitt
Greenaction's Ward Valley protests brought support from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and singer Bonnie Raitt
Then, in 1987, an organization called the Commission for Racial Justice issued a report confirming that the single most determining factor in the placement of hazardous waste facilities was race. People of color were shown to be far more likely to live near polluting facilities, eat contaminated fish, and be employed in risky occupations than whites. But while this study put a spotlight on environmental racism, few national organizations rose to its challenge.

A Native American shows her support for Greenaction during a Ward Valley protest
A Native American shows her support for Greenaction during a Ward Valley protest
That is, until the infamous PG&E tried to dump radioactive waste on a sacred piece of Native American land in Ward Valley in the Mojave Desert in 1997. The proposed nuclear waste dump could have easily trickled into the nearby Colorado River, which provides drinking water for more than twenty million people. It seemed a task cut out for Greenpeace, one of the biggest environmental organizations in the world. But, at the last second, Greenpeace cut environmental justice campaigns out of their budget. Bradley Angel, who had coordinated Greenpeace's toxics campaigns in the Southwest for more than a decade, couldn't bear to let the community down. So, he quit his job and formed an organization specializing in environmental justice, called Greenaction. Together with Native Nations and other supporters, Greenaction set up roadblocks so that no waste-carrying trucks could pass through to the valley. Hundreds of people participated in the protests, and after a 113-day occupation, they were victorious.

Greenaction hasn't stopped fighting since.

"We wanted to build a movement that could really effect fundamental changes in corporate and government policies," Bradley said. "And we believed the best way to do that was to empower the community."

Greenaction unites communities
Greenaction unites communities
And that's just what they've done. Over the past three and a half years, Greenaction has taught dozens of communities how to fend off harmful projects throughout the West Coast, Southwest, and Alaska. They persuaded Integrated Environmental Systems (IES) to forego their plans to burn medical waste at a garbage incinerator in Crow's Landing, California. They stopped PG&E from bringing in a floating jet-fueled power plant to the San Francisco Bay. I was especially psyched to hear they'd helped the Timbisha Shoshone tribe get a federal land base. Remember when Daphne and I visited them in Death Valley back in September?

Greenaction has also helped Lula and her neighbors take on the PG&E site in Midway Village. At present, they are working hard at obtaining medical evidence for the lawsuit. Their findings have been frightening, including high rates of breast cancer and infertility.

Kids can help stamp out environmental racism!
Kids can help stamp out environmental racism!
By this point in our research, Nick and I were pretty overwhelmed. We were inspired by Greenaction, sickened by PG&E and IES, saddened by Lula's stories, and angered by the injustice. As we prepared to leave Lula's home, she had a few words of advice for us: "Don't be surprised if you come down with some of the symptoms in an hour or two. If you get a headache, take an Advil. If your eyes get to burning, use Visine. If you have any questions, give me a call. I know what to do."

Lula laughed, but she wasn't joking. These ailments are a part of her daily reality. When I hugged her goodbye, I felt like I was somehow abandoning her, like I was leaving her on a deserted island with no way to call for help.

As Nick and I drove past the massive PG&E site belching pollution into the sky, I realized - in a way, I was.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - “I survived a nuclear meltdown...I think”
Nick - Two years in a tree can make you a believer, and change the world
Making A Difference - Save the world, Superhero! It's going down faster than a speeding bullet
Stephen - Chainsaws and bulldozers are no match for crusaders for “living museums”
Stephen - How many Styrofoam cups does it take to kill off all the animals in the world?