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"Environmental Racism Sparks Community Activism"

January 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

by Daniel Levitas

Located 55 miles northeast of At-lanta, the community of Gainesville, Georgia (pop. 18,000), is typical of many towns throughout the South where issues of poverty and race painfully intersect to affect everything from hous-ing to school bond referendums to the annual Christmas parade.

This is especially true for the oldest residents of Gainesville's African Amer-ican community who live in the all-Black neighborhood of Newtown. The area consists of nine streets and 143 occupied houses, most of them single-family frame or brick homes that were constructed after a severe tornado leveled the area in 1939. Another distinguishing feature of the community, according to local residents, is the unusually high rates of cancer and respiratory illness found there.

Industries located within or adjacent to Newtown include a soybean mill and oil refinery, a manufacturer of auto-mobile starters, a chemical tank equip-ment company, a feed mill, a pressure wood treatment plant, a pulpwood yard, and a railroad terminal, not to mention the local junkyard. Two of the above facilities are potential Superfund sites. In fact, according to a 1992 analysis pre-pared by the Atlanta-based environ-mental group ECO-Action, fully 80 per-cent of all toxic chemical releases in the city are located in or adjacent to New-town. Gainesville has a racial dividing line: the African American community lives south of it; the white community north of it. Not surprisingly, eight of the city's ten principal polluters are located south of the line.

In 1990, leaders of the Newtown Florist Club, a 40-year old all-volunteer advocacy and service organization of Black women, surveyed 20 of their friends, family members and neighbors who were victims of throat, lung and colon cancers, lupus and various forms of respiratory illnesses. After compiling the results, Florist Club leaders wrote to then Governor Joe Frank Harris to re-quest help.

A study conducted by the Office of Epidemiology of the Georgia Depart-ment of Human Resources (DHR) affirmed residents' suspicions that there was an unusually high rate of two forms of cancer. However, while all of the victims lived in close proximity to one another, DHR attributed the cancers to "lifestyle," stating that, "such cancers are not known to be associated with ex-posure to chemicals in the workplace or to industrial pollution."

Despite this assertion, the study did not include any interviews with the cancer victims or their surviving family members to assess whether or not they smoked or engaged in other activities likely to increase their chances of illness; their relatives say they did not. The DHR also failed to offer any explana-tion for the cluster of other cancer cases, saying they were consistent with the number of cancers found in other cities of the same size. One epidemiologist specializing in toxic substances and re-lated diseases affiliated with the Center for Disease Control observed that this reasoning disregarded the critical fact that all of the cancer victims lived on a single street less than nine blocks long.

Leaders of the Florist Club became more concerned as cancer deaths con-tinued to mount, local industries con-tinued to pollute, and city leaders granted a zoning variance to the oper-ator of the local junkyard, allowing him to expand his facility adjacent to New-town.

As the sponsor of civil rights rallies, voter registration activities and numer-ous youth-oriented events, the Florist Club knew it would take more than just letters to the governor to elicit an appro-priate response. One of their first steps has been to initiate their, own study that would not only substantively document the problem of cancer clusters and re-lated illnesses, but could also be used as a catalyst for community organizing, education and public policy reform around issues of public health, zoning and what they describe as "environ-mental racism, pure and simple." Partial funding for this effort has been provided by PRRAC.

Working in cooperation with the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR)-a non-profit civil rights organization founded in 1979 as the National Anti-Klan Network-and ECO-Action, Newtown residents have also established the Southside Com-munities Committee to Stop Toxic Pol-lution and the Southside Comprehensive Planning Committee. Both groups have played crucial roles in the development and implementation of the cancer study and related advocacy work.

Through the CDR's Georgia Project, Gainesville residents have also effectively challenged city officials on a variety of other issues, including passage of an unconstitutional parade ordinance, the city's alleged violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the city man-ager's unsuccessful attempt to grant the Ku Klux Klan the right to march along a three-mile route through the Black com-munity. Racial violence and Klan-spon-sored harassment of Blacks and Latinos have also been effectively challenged by local leaders with help from CDR, which specializes in promoting responses to hate group activity and bigoted violence.

Created in June 1992, the Committee to Stop Toxic Pollution held several community meetings to hear evidence and receive testimony from residents about environmental issues. The Plan-ning Committee has met regularly to discuss strategies and develop com-munity revitalization plans for Newtown and other Southside communities most impacted by toxic pollution.

One of the principal goals of local leaders is to help city officials overcome their repeated denial that a problem even exists in Newtown. To the extent the PRRAC-sponsored study can further substantiate the claim that there are cancer clusters in the community, it will be of major importance.

Furthermore, if the study can conclu-sively rule out lifestyle as a causative factor in the cancers, it will provide residents with an even firmer scientific basis for alleging that their immediate surroundings are unhealthy. This will be achieved by conducting detailed health history interviews with current cancer victims and the surviving family members of others. This and other data will be analyzed by an epidemiologist specializ-ing in toxic substances and related diseases to confirm the existence of cancer clusters and challenge the argu-ment that environmental pollution is not a causative factor in the illness of Newtown residents.

Additional PRRAC-sponsored research carried out by ECO-Action has identified a wide range of pollutants released into Newtown and surrounding areas and pin-pointed their source of discharge. Soil and water samples have been taken and will be analyzed to determine whether these substances are present at hazardous levels.

Moving to improve that environment through zoning restrictions, community revitalization, cleanup and the removal of pollution-generating industries are other key items on the Florist Club's agenda. The group is also interested in exploring possible legal action against the companies and industries responsible for the negative health effects of the pollution they have generated.
The joint research and organizing efforts of the Florist Club, CDR and ECO-Action are designed to generate significant data which can be used in conjunction with a wider range of advocacy strategies to improve the quality of life for Gainesville's low-to--moderate income African American residents.

To the current residents of Newtown, their neighbors who have died of cancer are not nameless, faceless statistics; they have been friends, neighbors, mentors and grandparents.

Responding to the public health crisis in Gainesville created by racism, low income, political disenfranchisement and pollution requires both long- and short--term strategies involving public educa-tion, grassroots organizing, political enfranchisement, direct action and public policy advocacy.

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