The antitoxics movement grew out of public attention to the pollution of Love Canal, a community near Niagara Falls, New York, in 1978. The main spokesperson was Lois Gibbs, whose son and daughter had both experienced major health problems as a result of living in an area formerly used as a waste site by Hooker Chemical Company. The company had sold the site to the city of Niagara Falls for one dollar, and a school was built on it in 1954. As the mothers of the school children in the late 1970s talked to each other, they found that many were having miscarriages, giving birth to babies with birth defects, and discovering that their children were dying or contracting cancer at higher rates than would normally be expected. Gibbs and others put pressure on the state of New York, and it eventually agreed to buy out the Love Canal homes. Gibbs went on to found a magazine called Everyone's Backyard, and to organize a major coalition, the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes. Operating out of Washington, D.C., the organization assisted local groups in moving beyond the Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) phenomenon, to Not in Anyone's Backyard, in a major effort to reduce the health effects of pollution and toxic waste dumping.
The numerous local antitoxics groups merged together in a loose organization in the mid-1980s under the directorship of John O'Connor, to form the National Toxics Campaign. They worked closely with spokespersons, such as actress Meryl Streep of Mothers and Others, to reduce pesticides and toxics in the environment. Much of the focus of the antitoxics movement was on the differential health effects of hazardous wastes experienced by minority communities. A 1987 report by the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice, entitled, "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States," spearheaded a nationwide environmental justice movement. The report, released under the sponsorship of director Ben Chavis, argued that communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of residences occupied by racial and ethnic minorities. Fifty-eight percent of the country's blacks and 53 percent of its Hispanics lived in communities where hazardous waste dumping was uncontrolled, communities such as Emelle, Alabama, Houston, Texas, and Chicago's South Side.
The report also pinpointed the fifty metropolitan areas in the country with the greatest number of blacks living in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites. New York showed three cities — Buffalo, Rochester, and
New York City. In Indiana, both Gary and Indianapolis were listed. In Ohio, the cities included Cincinnati, Toledo, Columbus, and Cleveland. In California, locations included Oakland, Richmond, and Los Angeles. In Louisiana, the report listed Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Virtually every major city in the country had hazardous waste sites located in areas defined by zip codes as being the addresses of people who were members of minority communities.
In 1993, for example, Audubon magazine published an article on the role that Dow Chemical Company played in polluting the African-American community of Morrisonville, Louisiana, near New Orleans, where Dow had a 1,400-acre plant on the edge of the Mississippi River. The plant opened in 1958 and employed some 2,000 people. By 1970, there were 100 chemical companies and refineries in the stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The region, called Chemical Corridor, experienced very high employment growth. By 1993, it was producing 16 billion pounds of chemicals and generating 3.3 million pounds of toxic wastes a year. Employees routinely complained of nausea, headaches, and vomiting, as they worked in plants where high incidences of cancer were reported, including lung, stomach, gall bladder, pancreas, liver, and colon cancer. The region was soon dubbed Cancer Alley, and in 1992, Louisiana ranked forty-ninth on the list of states with respect to its poor environmental health.
The federal "Community Right to Know" law of 1986 asserted that any community could obtain access to the types of chemicals used in local industries and the quantities of pollutants the industries released. The law gave community groups a basis for local action. According to studies done by Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, the movement for environmental justice has been dominated by women, working in coalitions at the grassroots level. Women comprised 80 to 85 percent of all local activists. Women of color, especially Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, Pacific islanders, Asian Americans, and whites have worked together on problems of toxic wastes and their effects on human health.
An example of a women-organized protest occurred when, in the 1980s, the City of Los Angeles attempted to build a waste recovery plant, called the Los Angeles City Energy Recovery Project, known as LANCER. A network of three facilities, LANCER would incinerate 1,600 tons a day of garbage. The plant spawned an enormous protest. In 1988, the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA), a coalition of Latino women who had originally come together to oppose the construction of a prison, began to protest the plan. One thousand women and men demonstrated together to put pressure on the lo cal air quality management district of the California Department of Health Services and on the Environmental Protection Agency to halt the project. In 1991, after lawsuits threatened to drive up the costs, the City of Los Angeles withdrew the project.
In 1990, West Harlem Environmental Action organized a protest over emissions from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, which was causing Harlem residents numerous health problems. NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Research Group, founded by Ralph Nader, helped to organize the action and worked with protesters in a campaign called "The Thousand Points of Blight," a phrase derived from President George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" campaign slogan. In another example, in 1993, a group of New York City Hispanics staged a major protest over a proposed incinerator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Originally known as Toxics Avengers, they changed their name to El Puente Ojo Cafe, or Brown Eyed Bridge. The group was heavily dominated by high school students.
Native Americans were another minority adversely affected by hazardous waste problems. Much of the uranium mining for the nuclear power industry needed for atomic bombs and nuclear power plants was done on Indian reservations. The workers, especially Native American mine workers, experienced high rates of lung and other kinds of cancers. Children, some of whom played in the mine tailings, succumbed to leukemia. In 1977, Women of All Red Nations was formed, with the acronym WARN, to protest the declining quality of life on Indian reservations and problems of reproductive health. They said, "We call for the recognition of our responsibility to be stewards of the land and to treat with respect and love our Mother Earth who is the source of our physical nourishment and our spiritual strength." The White Earth Recovery Project in Minnesota exemplified another long-standing disagreement between native peoples and the United States government over access to land and its natural resources. Women on the reservation sought public support in a brochure that began: "Since our lands were stolen, we've been to the state, we've been to Congress, we've been to the Senate, we've been to the Supreme Court, and now we're coming to you."
The antitoxics movement and the 1986 federal Community Right to Know law began to have a positive effect by the late 1990s. In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency released its Toxic Release Inventory of 644 chemicals put into the air and water by 21,000 companies for the year 1997. In just a decade the released chemicals had declined by 43 percent, but nevertheless totaled a staggering 2.58 billion pounds.
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