African-American communities from coast to coast have for decades borne greater environmental and health risks than others because their neighborhoods are located near polluting power plants, landfills, brownfields and other hazardous sites. In addition, homes frequently have higher levels of lead in the water and on painted walls and window ledges.
Since the 1980s, neighbors and other stakeholders in a St. Louis community have fought to get the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the clean-up of a former Carter Carburetor plant that is located across the street from the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club. It is listed on the federal Superfund list and is highly contaminated with toxic chemicals and solvents. According to Rep. William Lacy Clay, who represents the district in which the site is located, the plant is emblematic of similar problems in African-American communities across the nation.
“Irresponsible corporations turning urban neighborhoods with mostly minority populations into their toxic dumping grounds has been going on for decades across this country, and we’re not going to tolerate that kind of environmental racism anymore,” he said.
After numerous lawsuits, public hearings and other actions related to the site for the past several years, EPA regional administrator signed an enforcement action memorandum to remove the contaminants and buildings on the site later this year. The agency also will begin taking soil, sediment and water samples in May to determine whether the contaminants have moved to neighboring properties.
“We’ve had more positive activity around this issue in the last 12 months than we’ve had in the last 12 years,” said Boys & Girls Club director Flint Fowler. There wouldn’t have been any progress without the extreme pressure that elected officials, residents and community groups placed on the EPA, he added.
According to Fowler, the hazards posed by such sites are not just environmental, but also psychological and economic.
“It’s depressing and the kind of thing that I think can sap any degree of hope you might have. When a child gets up and looks out at manicured lawns and trees and peaceful settings, it helps set the tone for the day for them,” he said. “It puts them in a better mood to be more receptive to their school lessons and to interact with their neighbors and peers, versus waking up in a neighborhood with an abandoned, four-story factory with busted windows, rusting doors, plywood and weeds.” He believes that over time, such an environment feeds into young people’s psyches and sends a message, directly or indirectly, that nobody cares about their well-being.
According to Fowler, the Carter Carburetor cleanup could lead to greater enforcement of clean-up efforts at other sites, which could in turn improve property values and attract businesses.
“We’ve spent, over the past couple of years, several million dollars expanding the club and improving our physical plant, but we aren’t getting the full value out of it because of the drain that site puts on the community at large,” Fowler said. “I think that if somebody wants to set up a business or operation in this neighborhood, they have to consider what’s around them.”