Blacks, poor want EPA to address environmental racism

HEATHER KATHRYN ROSS | 11/16/2015, 8:28 a.m.
They roost everywhere in his hometown – on neighbors’ houses, in the trees, in front yards – lured by the ...
Pastor Ron Smith with his mother Ann Smith, retired teacher and community leader, in Ann's office at her home near Tallassee, Alabama. Jeronimo Nisa

TALLASSEE, Ala. (George Curry Media) – The first thing you notice is the vultures, said Ronald Smith.

They roost everywhere in his hometown – on neighbors’ houses, in the trees, in front yards – lured by the putrid smell of 65 acres of rotting garbage.

It’s getting unbearable, he said.

“You walk out of the house and you’re hit with that odor, you come home and you’re hit with that odor again.”

Smith, 63, is a pastor and one of a new generation of activists in Tallassee, Alabama (population 4,800). In the 1990s, his parents, Ann and Thomas, protested the state’s decision to open and later expand a massive landfill in the heart of their historically African American neighborhood. Smith got involved in 1999 and has reinvigorated the movement.

Huge trucks speed down tiny rural roads. Residents worry about air and water pollution from decaying waste. Smith says the landfill has gobbled up acreage from Black homeowners who have died or moved away, further eroding community wealth and security. A decade ago, the landfill’s then-owner tried to buy the Smith family’s land. His father refused.

“The last comment the man made was, ‘You’re not going to live forever,’” Smith said. “That’s the limit most of these small communities face and these companies know it.”

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, agencies that get federal money can’t discriminate on the basis of race. Discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional; it includes any decision that has an unjustified, unequal impact or disparate on a particular racial group. One state agency that draws from federal coffers is the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which gave a permit to the owners of Stone’s Throw to operate the landfill.

Communities saddled with undue pollution have just one option: File a complaint with the EPA, which the Smiths and their neighbors did. Should the EPA find discrimination, it could withhold money from ADEM until the department forces Stone’s Throw to clean up its act.

Agency rules say the EPA must determine whether there’s discrimination within 180 days of receiving a complaint. Residents of Tallassee have been waiting 12 years.

Earthjustice recently sued the EPA for failing to investigate whether the landfill in Tallassee violates residents’ civil rights. As part of the same lawsuit, Earthjustice is also fighting on behalf of communities in Flint, Michigan; Pittsburg, California; Beaumont, Texas; and Chaves County, New Mexico, where EPA discrimination complaints have languished for as long as two decades.

A scathing report from NBC and the Center for Public Integrity shows that these delays are far from exceptional. The report found the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights takes one year on average to address complaints and that in the office’s 22-year history of reviewing nearly 300 complaints, the agency has never made a single finding of a civil rights violation. Nine in every 10 complaints are rejected or dismissed.

“Every day permits are given that only reinforce the isolation and degradation of low-income communities of color, and that the EPA has never found any to be discriminatory is really troubling,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, the Earthjustice attorney spearheading the five-case lawsuit. Velveta Golightly-Howell, head of the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, told NBC that “there have been some problems in the past” resolving Title VI complaints.