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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Environmental Justice for All | Three Little Words | Ecoregion Roundup

Environmental Justice for All

by Tracy Baxter

It could have been a galvanizing moment in the movements for environmental and social justice. The year was 1982, and Afton, North Carolina, was fighting for its ecological survival. The state had decided to bury more than 32,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated by highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls in a landfill a scant ten feet above the water table. With PCB seepage into the wells a certainty, residents, community activists, and national civil-rights leaders mounted an all-out protest. Soon, more than 400 demonstrators were arrested. But the ideological fusion never took place.

Afton was predominantly African-American and poor,rendering it invisible to traditional environmental organizations. The dump opened.

Polluters have long interpreted environmentalists' silence as a license to dump industrial wastes on marginalized peoples. Recent studies from the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, Greenpeace, and the National Law Journal show that African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and the poor disproportionately bear the toxic burden of industrialized society, and are far more likely to live near befouled sites like lead smelters or refineries than middle- and upper-class whites. This research also shows bias in the enforcement of environmental regulations. Minority neighborhoods in particular are given short shrift in cleanup and relocation programs.

Over time, marginalized groups realized that to guard the health of their communities, they needed to shake up their absentee allies. One strike came in 1990 in the form of a widely publicized letter in which the Southwest Organizing Project bluntly demanded that environmentalists look at how the cultural biases of an all-white green movement shaped many traditional environmental policies and goals.

Five years after this alarm, how much progress has the Club made in securing environmental justice for all? John McCown, a Club organizer hired to work for environmental justice in the Gulf Coast, is frank. "The beginning is still beginning. We can do better."

McCown says the bulk of the South's worst blight has been heaped on African-Americans. That trend was obvious in 98-percent-white Ft. Payne, Alabama, which planned to build a 325-acre landfill in its lone black community, Lebanon. In their investigation of the siting process, southeast activists and Ft. Payne's Lebanon Citizens for a Clean Environment uncovered evidence of racial targeting, including a planning report that had already rejected the site as environmentally unsuitable. After a five-year struggle, the landfill was stopped, showing, as McCown says, that "people of color are directly impacted by core environmental issues like clean air and water. There's a vast opportunity right now to make environmentalism relevant in their lives."

As McCown deploys Club expertise in the war against environmental racism he's also reaching inward, chipping away social divisions by introducing Club activists to suffering communities. "When people meet and talk, they see right away that they all want a healthy environment for their kids. And they begin to understand that the real enemies are the entities that diminish the quality of all our lives."

Like McCown and other EJ advocates, Leslie Fields of the Lone Star Chapter works on different levels simultaneously. "I help fight bad guys like polluters who shirk their fines or want to build deep injection wells," she says. "And then I have to raise awareness about how important environmental justice is. For affected areas, environmentalism is in a very real sense a way of life."

Fields feels frustrated with the tendency to segregate EJ work, with its focus on human health, from mainstream environmentalism."If we aren't concerned about relieving the misery of people routinely exposed to toxins, then we can't stop pollution at the source," she says. But she doesn't see it as a matter of rescuing hapless victims.

"These folks fight for their environments in ways that go unrecognized. They've fought for decent public transportation and housing. And we need them and their experience on our side." Fields wants to see an ethos shift so that "stewardship is a collaborative effort. And it's not just about the pristine places you drive to visit. It's where you work and live and play."

But environmental organizations like the Club have been subject to the same biases found in larger society. Organizing at a time when discrimination was the norm, the forebears of modern environmentalism did not link social inequity to the conservation cause. Nor did they reflect on how their own social privileges enabled their stewardship of the wild places they loved.

Even decades later, efforts to diversify the Club and its mission sometimes met with resistance, notably in 1959 when the board nixed an explicit anti-discrimination policy (saying membership was already open to everyone) and, in a 1971 survey, when members voted against addressing conservation issues relating to minorities and the poor. Today some traditional environmentalists still disdain alliances with disenfranchised people as being "too political." But growing legions see the wisdom of inclusion, both as a winning strategy and on principle.

The Angeles Chapter recently produced an educational video on lead poisoning in English and Spanish for distribution in urban communities. The Oklahoma Chapter has adopted principles of environmental justice. The Virginia Chapter is now working with the Mattaponi Indians to stop the damming of the Mattaponi River. And all of the Club's EJ activists point with immense satisfaction to the relocation of 358 African-American families who lived sandwiched between two Superfund sites in Pensacola, Florida.

"Though the local group, Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, took the lead, we played a significant role in making things happen," says McCown. "And we're with them as they work on getting the soils cleaned up for new businesses."

Nationally, the Club has long been instrumental in passing legislation that benefits everyone‹such as the Clean Air and Right-to-Know statutes. A formal environmental-justice policy is now in the works, as well as a new program to better incorporate EJ goals into the Club's agenda, starting with the Mississippi Chapter and the El Paso Group. To EJ advocates, valuing human diversity maximizes the Club's clout. "Just imagine millions of people of all colors and backgrounds feeling that they have a real stake in protecting an all-encompassing environment, from our public lands to our urban centers," says McCown. And with continued outreach to new green constituencies, solutions to the most daunting environmental problems may well be developed on a reservation, in a barrio, or in the inner city.


Three Little Words:
Relearning to Sing, Dance, and Draw

by Adam Werbach

My grandmother used to complain that environmentalists were rotten dinner conversationalists. "You're so busy warning that the sky is falling," she'd say, "that you forget the beauty of the earth you're talking about."

Grandma had a point. John Muir founded the Sierra Club to "enjoy" and "protect" the natural and human environment. The two go together like Bert and Ernie‹or, if you prefer, Fred and Ginger. Without one, the other just doesn't work.

Here's a cautionary tale for our times. Researchers asked a preschool class, "Who knows how to sing?" Every hand shot up. "Who knows how to dance?" the researchers asked. Again, every hand. "Who knows how to draw?" All the kids could draw.

Fast-forward to the following week. Now the researchers are facing students at an elite university. "Who knows how to sing?" they begin. A few hands go up. "Dance?" Two timid souls. "Draw?" Nobody. The lesson? Somehow, between preschool and higher education, we lose touch with our most vital and effective means of expressing ourselves.

As the environmental movement has grown, matured, and developed highly specialized skills, it too may be in danger of losing something important‹the ability to reach average Americans' hearts as well as their minds. Like it or not, most of us don't get our opinions from The New York Times, or from fireside chats with the President. We're molded by a combination of art, television, fashion, film, and music. If the Club hopes to communicate its conservation message to those who haven't yet heard it‹as we must, for the sake of the earth‹we need to go where people live.

David Brower proved in 1960 the wisdom of spreading the conservation word in new and innovative ways. Brower, then the Club's executive director, launched the exhibit picture-book format, bringing the threats to wilderness into our living rooms‹and into our hearts as well. The series was a natural extension of the Club's work, just like Ansel Adams' documentation of the Yosemite Valley before it.

We were founded as a hiking club, and continue to lead thousands of outings each year. But millions of Americans never have the opportunity to experience wilderness. By finding new ways of showing them what's at risk, we've been able to preserve this country's unique, irreplaceable beauty in parks and protected areas from Yosemite to the Great Northern Forest.

We've also succeeded in bringing the safety of our food and the health of our children to the forefront of the political process. Politicians, from the President of the United States to my local member of Congress, have told me how the Sierra Club has strengthened their resolve to do the right thing when it comes to environmental issues. In the recent elections, the Club endorsed over 200 candidates in congressional races, and helped elect more than 70 percent of those we endorsed. But politics is not enough. The battle will ultimately be won and lost not in Washington, D.C., but in communities and neighborhoods, on playgrounds and beaches.

It's time for environmentalists to remember how to sing, how to dance, and how to draw‹to reach out to people where they really live, to speak to their hearts as well as their minds, to show them why the environment transcends the political arena. We are now concluding negotiations with a major record label to produce a compact disc of tracks from phat musicians to benefit the Club financially and to raise environmental awareness in new audiences. And that's just the beginning. We're looking for professionals willing to volunteer their expertise to create new projects, from TV specials to fashion benefits. We're looking for artists and others willing to give pro bono help with graphic design and public-service-announcement campaigns. We're looking for celebrities willing to lend their support to visit and protect the most endangered places in North America.

As the Sierra Club heads toward the 21st century, we need to bridge the communication gap between active environmentalists and everyday citizens. The future depends on it. And if I can't dance, I don't want any part of this revolution.

Adam Werbach is the Sierra Club's 46th president, and founder of the Sierra Student Coalition.


Ecoregion Roundup

In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting the environment‹for our families, for our future.

by Tracy Baxter

American Southeast: Natural Allies
Judging by the speed with which activists distributed promotional copies of Sierra, a good number of the 450,000 revelers attending the Arkansas State Fair stopped to visit the Arkansas Chapter's Hunter and Anglers booth. A stark three-by-five-foot photograph of a clearcut in the Buffalo National River Headwaters drew curious onlookers to the display. And despite heckling from anti-enviros, booth staffers impressed many outdoors folks with well-informed strategies to protect mutually cherished wildlands.

Great North American Prairie: Tour de Sprawl
In the wake of a regional planning commission proposal to open 200,000 acres of land to development, the North Star Chapter and other anti-sprawl activists gave the public a freewheeling look at examples of good, bad, and ugly development trends in Minnesota's Twin Cities metropolitan area. The 20-mile-long Tour de Sprawl bicycle-and-bus caravan wended past many asphalted eyesores as well as models of innovation and restoration, including the sites of a 95-unit cluster home/cooperative farm project and a polluted site that could be cleaned up for light industrial use. The tour was part of the chapter's continuing educational campaign to halt destructive land use in east-central Minnesota.

Great Lakes: Pass the PCB Peas, Please!
The Michigan Chapter took bird-dogging to new heights in the 1996 elections when it helped defeat a pro-industry congressional candidate by turning his own publicity stunt against him. In campaigning against green incumbent Congressman Dale E. Kildee (D), Pat Nowak (R) derided environmentalists as zealots who wanted to "make the dirt so clean, a baby can eat it." The challenger then sent baby-food jars full of dirt to the media. Later, outside a key debate, activists set up a stand with free samples of "The Best Baby Food Deregulation Can Buy," featuring Nowak's Toxic Tomatoes, Arsenic Apricots, and PCB Peas. Passing by, Nowak sneered, "Don't you have anything better to do?" Winning a second term by a sizable margin, Kildee praised the chapter for its support.

Atlantic Coast: Airing Hot Laundry
Not once since the industrial laundry opened on South Edisto Court next to an African-American community in Columbia, South Carolina, had the plant been publicly scrutinized. But when locals learned that Interstate Nuclear Services had laundered radioactive clothing in their midst for years‹and had recently begun to accept items contaminated with uranium 235 and plutonium‹they, with the South Carolina Chapter and John Bachman group of the Sierra Club, revved up. The standing-room-only crowd they drew last summer to the facility's first relicensing hearing in 25 years helped persuade regulators to restrict radioactive waste storage at INS. Given the plant's uneven safety record, the groups are now suing INS to clean up its act.

Pacific Coast: Road to Ruin
In a 1950s freeway-building frenzy that left much of California encased in concrete, the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) decided that a new 2.8-mile Hatton Canyon Freeway near scenic Carmel, California, would help motorists speed their way down the state's spectacular coastline. After decades of tug-of-war with the agency, a coalition of transportation activists, including the Ventana Chapter, and apprehensive residents sued in 1992 to stop the project. They demanded modification of an existing highway to prevent destruction of 160 acres of wildlife habitat, 14,000 Monterey pines, and wetlands‹including those formed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In late 1996, the plaintiffs rejoiced in an appeals court ruling that CalTrans' environmental report did not justify the construction of the $40 million highway.

Rocky Mountains: Tainted process
When the Wyoming office of the Bureau of Land Management released its draft plan in September 1994, the agency proposed bold protections for the rock art, deserts, and lush mountain forests that grace the southwestern quarter of Wyoming's Bighorn Basin. But wise-use advocates cozied up to the BLM in 14 meetings after the official public comment period. The final version of the plan watered down grazing standards and permitted virtually uncontrolled oil-and-gas development. The Wyoming Chapter, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, and others formally protested the harmful changes in late 1996 and are urging the BLM to nix the new accommodations to extractive interests.


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