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Toxic Racism: Disaster in the Works : The fight moves from saving wilderness to saving low-income, minority communities.

September 05, 1993|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, writes regularly on political culture

On July 26, while the rest of the nation watched the rising waters of the Mississippi drown people's homes and dreams, a ruptured railroad car at General Chemical Corp.'s plant in North Richmond, Calif., spewed a 15-mile-long toxic plume of sulfuric acid through surrounding residential communities. People wheezed and coughed, their eyes and lungs scorched by the toxic cloud. Three hours passed before the explosion could be capped. More than 20,000 people sought medical treatment.

Disaster and trauma are nothing new to the residents of North Richmond, one of the poorest and most devastated African-American neighborhoods in America. Many residents are descendants of southern sharecroppers lured to Richmond during World War II by the skilled and high-paying jobs in the defense industry. On recent weekends, drive-by shootings have routinely injured as many as 20 people. The community has the highest rate of HIV-infected African-American drug users in the state. It is a community injured every day by the effects of poverty. "Unemployment, in fact, is the greatest public health problem," says Dr. Wendel Brunner, county director of public health. People hold their families and lives together with faith and prayers.

After the accident, community and environmental activists asked the sort of questions that never seem to get answered. Why did General Chemical's accident-prevention plan--required by law but barred from public scrutiny--fail to identify such a potential incident? The "worst case" scenario predicted that a toxic plume could not extend beyond the company's property line--a preposterous supposition. Why hadn't safety technology been employed so that toxic emissions would be vented into alternative containment systems, rather than into the atmosphere? And why, asked residents, had neither industry nor county government established a siren warning system?

Several weeks after the explosion, North Richmond residents gathered in a cavernous church to hear a lame apology from a General Chemical representative, as well as to testify about the trauma they suffered. Much of the local media trivialized their complaints. If the wind had driven the plume south into Berkeley's white middle-class gourmet ghetto, where activists can be found sitting in cafes sipping cafe latte and discussing environmental racism, would the media have minimized the terror of a toxic cloud engulfing an entire community?

As residents testified, I heard little grandstanding, just the voices of people who felt hurt and frightened. Still hoarse and coughing, mothers described the terror they felt as they watched their families and homes gassed. They asked public-health officials when their children's asthma would improve. After speaking, one woman sat down beside me, still gasping for breath. "I'm afraid to go home," she said, crying softly. "When I look outside the window, how will I know if it's another toxic cloud or just summer fog?"

North Richmond is the product of environmental racism--the fact that corporations build their worst toxic sites and store their most hazardous chemicals in and around low-income minority neighborhoods. Some companies, like Chevron, defensively respond that they built their plants long before the growth of a residential community. True enough. But Chevron's plants are the exception, not the rule. It is no accident that the nation's most toxic sites are surrounded by black and Latino communities. The poor just can't afford to live wherever they prefer.

But they can fight back. North Richmond has developed an intricate infrastructure of organizations that is challenging industry's ability to threaten their community. The environmental movement used to mean white middle-class people concerned with preserving pristine wilderness. No more. In the last decade, minority-led groups like the West County Toxics Coalition have redefined environmentalism to emphasize the protection of urban residents from toxic pollution.

It could have been worse. North Richmond is a disaster waiting to happen. Fifteen serious industrial accidents at Contra Costa County's chemical plants and refineries in the past five years have endangered this area. At least 38 industrial sites store as much as 94 million pounds of 45 different chemicals, including some of the most dangerous--ammonia, chlorine, hydrogen fluoride and nitric acid. About 500,000 pounds of ammonia is stored at Chevron's fertilizer plant in Richmond, for example, just two miles from schools and homes. Had a toxic cloud of ammonia erupted, it could have left thousands dead.

As the journalists who briefly parachuted into North Richmond all reported, the residents were lucky this time.

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