Oakland (California) Tribune, February 17, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: The environmental justice movement emerged during the 1970s (some date it even earlier), an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the late 1990s, California passed laws making it clear that environmental injustices are unacceptable. But some patterns of exploitation are as American as apple pie and they persist tenaciously.]

By Douglas Fischer

Poor and minority residents in the [San Francisco] Bay Area breathe and live with far more than their share of industrial and traffic pollution, according to a first-ever analysis [5 Mbytes PDF] of the region's environmental disparities.

The stakes are high: Residents in neighborhoods closest to the pollution have higher lifetime cancer risks, greater rates of asthma and other breathing ailments and, typically, less access to health care.

"The patterns are clear and indisputable," said Manuel Pastor, professor and director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He co-authored the report.

"Communities of color face greater exposure to air pollution and toxics. They bear a disproportionate burden and face greater hazards and risks than others in the Bay Area."

The report, "Still Toxic After All These Years," [5 Mbytes PDF] was released Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in San Francisco.

It documents environmental disparity in the nine-county Bay Area by examining several key pollution databases and comparing that data with neighborhood demographics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Key findings

Among its findings:

** Two-thirds of residents living within one mile of a pollution source regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- refineries, power plants, factories and other large industrial polluters -- are minorities. But of those living 21/2 miles away or farther, two-thirds are white.

** Recent immigrants are nearly twice as likely to live within one mile of such a facility than they are to live 2 1/2 miles away.

** Given equal incomes, minorities are still more likely to live closer to pollution sources than whites.

"The report really confirms what many (minority) community residents have experienced for years," said Amy Cohen, campaign director for the Bay Area Environmental Health Collaborative, which helped sponsor the analysis.

"They know the pollution sources are closest to them. They know they live near the highways and the large (pollution) facilities."

And they bear the brunt of the grave consequences of living near such pollution.

Last month in the British medical journal The Lancet, UCLA researchers who had studied children over time reported that living near a freeway saddles children with a lifetime's worth of decreased lung capacity and function.

Rubye Sherrod sees the reality every day. The North Richmond community activist works with children afflicted with respiratory ailments, trying, as she says, "to keep the kids in school and not in the emergency room."

Some 60 percent of the children in her community carry an inhaler, she said.

"There are so many issues I don't know where to start," she said. "We're in the midst of all these refineries.... There are too many big rigs in these communities. There's just a lot of undesirable activity going on.

"There's been too much suffering for too many years," Sherrod added. "The people who can help haven't paid any attention to what's going on or simply don't care. I'm not sure."

Contact Douglas Fischer online at dfischer@angnewspapers.com or call (510) 208-6425.