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Environmental Racism: How Minority Communities Are Exposed to “Toxic Soup”

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We speak with Damu Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace and executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network about environmental racism. Smith says, “People, black and white and Latino, who live in these [heavy industrial] areas are exposed to toxic soup of chemicals regularly released into the air, into the soil, into the water.” [includes rush transcript]

  • Damu Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace and executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. For more than three decades, Damu has worked tirelessly on the frontlines of the anti-war and environmental justice movements.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu Smith, I want to bring you back into the conversation. I met you some, I don’t know, 15 years ago, I think it was, in Baton Rouge at an Environmental Justice conference. Now it may be that people, a lot of people don’t even know that term, “environmental justice,” or “environmental racism.” Can you talk about it and then apply it to what we’re seeing today?

DAMU SMITH: Well, between Baton Rouge, which is north of Louisiana — north of New Orleans, and New Orleans itself, there are scores of polluting facilities lining the Mississippi River on both sides of the river. You’re talking about numerous petrochemical plants, plastic production facilities and other heavy industries that are contributing to the pollution flowing into the Mississippi River. Now, near these facilities, in the shadow of these plants, are scores of African American communities, mostly African American impoverished communities. People, black and white and Latino, who live in these areas, are exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals regularly released into the air, into the soil, into the water.

Now, one of the things I want to add to this discussion, Amy, is that within New Orleans itself, there are a number of superfund toxic sites in neighborhoods. The Agricultural Street Landfill superfund site has been one of the most controversial sites in the city of New Orleans. We have been working with Elodia Blanco and her group, Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street. I spoke to Ms. Blanco as she was hurriedly trying to get her invalid father and her daughter out of the house on Sunday in preparation for the hit by the storm. It’s impossible to reach any of them now because the phone services are down. But I’m just imagining the water, if the water is flooding her neighborhood, and I’m imagining that it is, all of those toxic chemicals below their homes have come up. And the water that we see in the footage coming through the television footage contains all of these toxic chemicals. So we’re not just talking about fireflies and ants that we’re hearing in the major media. We’re talking about serious chemicals that are a threat to human health. And now all of this is in the water and being washed into people’s homes and is contaminating the water.

St. Charles parish, just north of New Orleans, has the Shell Norco chemical plant and numerous other polluting facilities. It’s not clear what’s happening in that parish but I would imagine that St. Charles parish has also been hit. East New Orleans has been hard hit. I’ve been to East New Orleans, there are a number of toxic sites in that area right near poor and African American communities. So this is a disaster, not only in terms of the flooding that’s going on, the long-term economic consequences, but it is also an environmental disaster.

One more thing I would like to add, Amy, is that this issue of climate change is very, very serious, as our other guest has stated. The Gulf waters have been very warm, and the warming of the waters contributes to the power and the force of these hurricanes. So while we know hurricanes are indeed a natural disaster, manmade industrial processes are contributing to the enhancement of the power and destruction of hurricanes because of global warming. So this is a critical issue that we have to face as we move into this century. But we also have to face the fact that the infrastructure deficit in New Orleans has also contributed to this disaster. I believe that had — we’re not just talking about poor planning. We’re not just talking about the issues of planning, but we’re talking about issues of investment in the infrastructure necessity that are needed to protect the people of New Orleans from this kind of disaster. And that obviously did not occur.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu, the last time we had you on, we were talking about your own battle right now, your battle against fourth stage colon cancer. And I’m wondering how you’re doing. We also talked about the issue of health and racism within the medical system.

DAMU SMITH: Well, Amy, I’m feeling fine. I’m still battling stage four colon cancer and liver cancer. And thanks to all of the prayers and support of many, many people, my tumors have reduced significantly. I’m still battling. I’m fighting the good fight. And I’m just happy to be here, alive this morning to be on this program. And thanks for keeping me in mind when you have these topics to discuss.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you very much for joining us. I want to thank Damu Smith for being there and today on the show, founder of Black Voices for Peace. Look forward to having you on again soon on these and other issues. David Helvarg, thank you for joining us. Final comments as you watch this storm from your vantage point in Hawaii?

DAVID HELVARG: Well, flying back here, it was interesting from a distance. The coverage as the storm swamped Louisiana was obviously less intense here. People are isolated. And yet, so many of the same issues, wherever you go. I mean, people are at war here over coastal development and loss of traditional peoples’ access to the shoreline. And there’s concerns over energy and how to move off their dependence on fossil fuels and the sense of being an island, which is dependent and at risk.

We’re all on an island. And it’s a planetary island, and we’re putting it at tremendous risk. We aren’t, actually; very specific and identifiable special interests are. And I think, you know, we the people have to organize to be able to live with the natural world and deal with its consequences in more sensible and productive ways. And in the next months it’s just a question of paying attention, I think after, pay attention to what the E.P.A. tells us in what’s really happening in those waters, and with the kind of support that the victims of this receive and the relative support of well-to-do beach homeowners versus poorer communities that are impacted. It’s an ongoing struggle. And hopefully we learn some lessons from disasters like this and just don’t let them keep repeating themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: David Helvarg, President of the Blue Frontier Campaign, his book, Blue Frontier; and Robert Shimek, thanks so much for being with us, Special Projects Coordinator of the Indigenous Environmental Network, the other end of the Mississippi at the Headwaters.

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