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The Righteous Shall Pay for Sins of Others

  En español

By Javier Sierra

For the thousands of Latino residents of Eastern Omaha, Nebraska, the future looms as heavily as lead.

And a great deal of the responsibility lies with the Bush administration and its irresponsible policy of looking the other way when it comes to polluters' abuses. Eastern Omaha is just one of hundreds of toxic sites that threaten the health of Latino families throughout the United States.

Irene Pérez, her six children, and the other families in this community on banks of the Missouri River, have the misfortune of living in the midst of one of the nation's largest residential lead-contamination clean-up sites. Today, they are all paying for 120 years of poisonous emissions from a lead-refining plant that covered the land with a toxic layer extending throughout seven zip codes.

The stacks of the ASARCO plant stopped poisoning the environment in 1997, when it was shut down, leaving behind a toxic legacy of thousands of tons of lead, a heavy metal that causes severe learning and developing disabilities in children.

Some 9,700 children live in the contaminated areas, 300 of which have already tested high for lead in their blood. Pollution is so widespread and dangerous that much of Eastern Omaha has been declared a Superfund site, one of the most toxic places in the United States, making it eligible to receive federal cleanup funds.

Despite the severity of the situation, residents have only just learned of the problem.

"We were told there was lead poisoning about a year ago," says Irene, who has been living there for five years. "But there are many Latino families who have no idea what's going on because they don't speak English, and the authorities don't give any information in Spanish."

Out of the 16,000 properties with likely lead contamination, only 600 have been cleaned up, and though Omaha receives $7 million in federal cleanup funds, the total cost could reach $214 million.

But maybe Omaha should consider itself lucky. In the last four years, the number of Superfund sites that have been cleaned up across the country has been cut by half, and the number of sites receiving insufficient funds has been rising steadily.

Why? September 30 marks the first anniversary of the bankruptcy of the Superfund Trust Fund - the account used to hold money gained from taxes on polluters that are used to pay for the cleanup of America's toxic waste sites. Since then, all of money used to cleanup toxic waste sites has come from taxpayer's pockets, which has meant tax payer funding of this program has increased by 300% since 1995.

The Bush administration has refused to support a fundamental principle of environmental and human health protection: that polluters must pay for their toxic messes.

"Those who cause pollution must clean it up," says Irene, who arrived in this country from Mexico City ten years ago. "The government should force them to solve this problem. I came to the United States looking for my American dream. But what we are leaving for our children is not gold, it's lead."

Again, we Latinos pay an especially high price for the Bush administration's irresponsible policies. Close to 25% of Superfund sites -industrial sites which were abandoned by their owners after they poisoned the land- are found in the four states with the nation's largest Latino populations: California, Florida, New York and Texas. If we also include Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -states with large Latino communities- the percentage shoots up to almost 45%. And, of course, when it comes to Hispanics, the chances of living close to these sites grow exponentially.

Ironically, the EPA, a government agency, openly contradicts the Administration by saying, "When funding is not sufficient (...) actions need to fully address the human health and environment risks posed by the contaminants are delayed."

The Bush administration has made clear it will continue to make the taxpayer, and not the polluters, pay for toxic cleanups. Now the Superfund can't afford to do its job. This year 46 Superfund sites in 27 states will receive less than they need to clean up. Some sites won't receive a single penny.

So now the righteous are paying for the polluters' sins, but this time around we don't need to turn the other cheek.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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