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Sacrifice Zones

Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States

Steve Lerner
foreword by Phil Brown
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Sacrifice Zones
    Book Description:

    Across the United States, thousands of people, most of them in low-income or minority communities, live next to heavily polluting industrial sites. Many of them reach a point at which they say "Enough is enough." After living for years with poisoned air and water, contaminated soil, and pollution-related health problems, they start to take action--organizing, speaking up, documenting the effects of pollution on their neighborhoods. In Sacrifice Zones, Steve Lerner tells the stories of twelve communities, from Brooklyn to Pensacola, that rose up to fight the industries and military bases causing disproportionately high levels of chemical pollution. He calls these low-income neighborhoods "sacrifice zones." And he argues that residents of these sacrifice zones, tainted with chemical pollutants, need additional regulatory protections. Sacrifice Zones goes beyond the disheartening statistics and gives us the voices of the residents themselves, offering compelling portraits of accidental activists who have become grassroots leaders in the struggle for environmental justice and details the successful tactics they have used on the fenceline with heavy industry.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28958-0
    Subjects: Political Science, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Phil Brown

    In a stratified society where race and class separate individuals, neighborhoods, and whole communities, people of color always know that their homes, roads, schools, utilities, parks and ball fields, sanitation services, and police protection are inferior to whiter and wealthier places. So it has not been a big leap for them to see that similar inequality exists in environmental contamination. For about as long as there has been a toxic activist movement—dating largely from Love Canal in the late 1970s—an environmental justice movement has existed as well, even if all the participants do not yet use and grasp...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    “I just got mad. I couldn’t breathe in my own house. The fumes smelled like the gas stove was on but not lit. I’d run downstairs to check the stove to see if I had left a burner on. It smelled like lighter fluid,” recalls Ruth Reed, a retired elementary school teacher and resident of Ocala, Florida, who lives next door to a charcoal plant.

    The reason Reed’s home smelled like an unlit gas stove was not hard to detect. Looking out her window, she could see a plume of smoke rising from the Royal Oak charcoal factory’s chimney that...

  7. I Partial Victories

    • 1 Ocala, Florida: Community Blanketed by “Black Snow” from Neighboring Charcoal Factory
      (pp. 19-40)

      “You pray for it to rain,” Ruth Reed told a reporter as she sat in her home in northwest Ocala, Florida, just a block from the Royal Oak furnace that baked scrap wood into charcoal briquettes used in backyard barbecues.¹ Reed and her neighbors prayed for rain not because of any drought but in hopes that a good downpour would clear the air of the fine soot and ash that fell like a black snow over their homes.

      The soot covered everything in Bunche Heights, the largely African American, working-class neighborhood where Reed and her husband, Dr. Leroy Reed, had...

    • 2 Pensacola, Florida: Health Problems near “Mount Dioxin” Require Mass Relocation
      (pp. 41-70)

      Margaret L. Williams was raised at 27 East Pearl Street in a house wedged between two heavily polluting factories next to the railroad tracks in Pensacola, Florida. On one side was the Agrico Chemical Company, a chemical fertilizer plant where her father worked. On the other side stood the twenty-six-acre Escambia Treating Company (ETC), where wooden utility poles, railroad ties, and foundation pilings were soaked and pressuretreated with creosote or pentachlorophenol (PCP) to prevent them from rotting. Both facilities have since been declared federal hazardous waste Superfund sites.

      Pollution from the plants coated everything, Williams recalls. The screens on the...

  8. II Contaminated Air

    • 3 Port Arthur, Texas: Public Housing Residents Breathe Contaminated Air from Nearby Refineries and Chemical Plants
      (pp. 73-98)

      Hilton Kelley is a big man, forty-five years old, with a shaved head and a brown belt in tae kwon do. He grew up on the front lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States in the West Side neighborhood of Port Arthur, Texas, where he lived in the Carver Terrace subsidized housing apartment complex just across the fence line from a giant re-finery. The Motiva Enterprises refinery, covering thirty-eight thousand acres, remains the eight-hundred-pound gorilla on his block producing 285,000 barrels of oil a day. Refinery officials plan to expand capacity 125 percent and produce 625,000 barrels a...

    • 4 Corpus Christi, Texas: Hillcrest Residents Exposed to Benzene in Neighborhood Next to Refinery
      (pp. 99-118)

      Suzie Canales grew up on Karen Drive in a race-zoned neighborhood in Corpus Christi, Texas, a city whose Latin name means “body of Christ.” When her sister died of cancer, Canales became convinced that something was wrong in her neighborhood and began to do some research. After wading through a swamp of city records, Canales discovered that the Cunningham area in which she and her sister were raised was located adjacent to two oil waste dumps later used as municipal garbage landfills. In the 1940s, the area was designated by city officials as “reserved for Mexicans.” This follows a documented...

    • 5 Addyston, Ohio: The Plastics Plant Next Door
      (pp. 119-136)

      Bernard “Buzz” Bowman Jr. is proud of his antiques collection. He has three thousand antique toy cars and trucks on shelves in his basement in Addyston, Ohio. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. His yard is full of dozens of old-fashioned gasoline pumps, and displayed in his basement is a lovingly restored one-horse sleigh, upholstered in crushed red velvet and sporting a black convertible canopy that snaps into place with welloiled precision.

      “We’re on the map,” says seventy-three-year-old Bowman, pointing out a designation of his museum on a local tourist handout. He also has a write-up in...

    • 6 Marietta, Ohio: Steel-Hardening Plant Spews Tons of Manganese into River Valley Town’s Air
      (pp. 137-154)

      Caroline Beidler did not suddenly decide to organize a local antipollution campaign. Her leadership role, which she was to assume later, crept up on her. Beidler, who works at an advertising agency, and her husband, Keith Bailey, a carpenter, built their “dream home,” one board at a time, at the end of a dirt road in the wooded hills outside Marietta, Ohio. With a view from their windows of uninterrupted forest, they were convinced they had found their own private paradise.

      What they did not realize at the time was that their edenic homestead was located just four miles (as...

  9. III Contaminated Water

    • 7 Tallevast, Florida: Rural Residents Live Atop Groundwater Contaminated by High-Tech Weapons Company
      (pp. 157-176)

      On a September morning in 2003, a drilling crew pulled up onto Laura Ward’s lawn and started boring a hole. “Why are they driving on my lawn?” Ward wondered as she sat looking out the window of her home in Tallevast, Florida, a community of eighty-seven households located thirty-eight miles south of Tampa. Within minutes, Ward was out her front door and across the lawn asking the crew chief what he was doing. What she learned was that Lockheed Martin, the most recent owner of the high-tech weapons plant located just down the street, had hired the drilling crew to...

    • 8 San Antonio, Texas: Contamination from Kelly Air Force Base Suspected of Causing Sickness and Death in Adjacent Latino Community
      (pp. 177-192)

      A purple wooden cross stands outside the white clapboard home of Guadalupe and Robert Alvarado Sr. For the past thirty-seven years the Alvarado family has lived across the Union Pacific railroad tracks from Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The cross on their lawn, one of many in this working-class, largely Latino community, signifies that someone inside is either living with cancer or has died from it. Residents who erect these crosses suspect that the numerous cancers, kidney and liver problems, neurological diseases, and reproductive disorders found in their community were caused by pollution from the base.


  10. IV Contaminated Soil

    • 9 Daly City, California: Midway Village: Public Housing Built on Contaminated Soil
      (pp. 195-218)

      Lula Bishop moved into Midway Village Complex in Daly City, California, in 1978 and counted herself lucky at the time. The subsidized housing unit she occupied was located in a relatively desirable neighborhood one mile from San Francisco Bay, and Bishop was initially surprised at how attractive the housing was. True, her apartment was located across the fenceline from a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility company maintenance yard, but the rest of the neighborhood was residential. There were also convenient facilities for her three children—Kevin, Kenneth, and Tonya—including a day care center, Head Start program, playground, park,...

    • 10 St. Lawrence Island, Alaska: Yupik Eskimos Face Contaminated Water and Traditional Food Supplies near Former U.S. Military Bases
      (pp. 219-246)

      The lesson to be drawn from the experience of the Alaskan Yupik Eskimos who live on St. Lawrence Island in the remote and ice-laden Bering Sea is simple: no one is beyond the reach of pollution’s long arm. This is particularly true in communities that played host to U.S. military bases.

      Were she alive today, Annie Alowa could testify to this sad fact. Before her death from liver cancer, Alowa lived in one of the most remote and once-pristine areas in the United States. A Yupik Eskimo and resident of Savoonga and Northeast Cape, Alowa’s home was on a biologically...

    • 11 Greenpoint, New York: Giant Oil Spill Spreads beneath Brooklyn Neighborhood
      (pp. 247-264)

      The ground in Greenpoint, a Polish American neighborhood on the waterfront in north Brooklyn, feels solid enough. But lurking beneath the surface—like an alien substance in a bad science-fiction movie—is a giant viscous blob of oil that soaked into the ground over the course of a century. The oil has been described by one observer as having the consistency of a giant tub of black mayonnaise.¹

      The size of the oil spill, estimated at 17 to 30 million gallons, is thought to be the greatest environmental disaster ever to strike New York City.

      It measures some twenty-fi ve...

  11. V An Ongoing Puzzle:: Disease Clusters Possibly Caused by Multiple Sources of Pollution

    • 12 Fallon, Nevada: Largest U.S. Pediatric Leukemia Cluster near Naval Air Station and Tungsten Smelter
      (pp. 267-296)

      Vonda Norcutt’s family is deep into the rodeo. They rope calves from the saddle, jump off horses to wrestle livestock to the ground, and ride bucking broncos. Norcutt is secretary of the Nevada High School Rodeo Tournament; her husband, Wayne, is a former high school rodeo champion; and both of her children compete.

      In the 1980s the Norcutt family lived in Fallon, a small town located sixty miles east of Reno along Highway 50—called “the loneliest road in America.” Fallon is a frontier town of seventy-five hundred residents formed during the California Gold Rush when families left Missouri heading...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 297-314)

    Sacrifice zones are a blight on the land. They bear witness to an ongoing and pernicious form of racial and class discrimination that this nation has yet to address.

    The dozen sacrifice zones you have just read about provide evidence of a pattern of environmental injustices in which low-income and minority populations are at greater risk of being exposed to health-destroying toxic chemicals than are wealthier and better-protected Americans. This collection of personal testimony from hundreds of residents in fenceline communities is backed up by numerous academic studies that have quantified the disproportionate toxic burden that residents in these hot...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 315-338)
  14. Index
    (pp. 339-346)