SACRIFICE ZONES: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States. Steve Lerner. xvi + 346 pp. The MIT Press, 2010. $29.95.
Steve Lerner, the research director of Commonweal’s Fair Growth Project, always has an important environmental story to tell in his books. His latest, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States, is a compelling and unnerving account of 12 communities fighting for their right to a clean and healthy environment. The book shows that in towns from Florida to Alaska, residents are discovering that the air they breathe, the water they drink and the homes they live in have been invaded by one or another of a host of dangerous toxins that are associated with a plague of environmentally induced diseases. The industries and U.S. military bases responsible for the pollution appear to be following a clear strategy of sacrificing entire communities as a matter of expediency or to protect bottom lines. To avoid the expense of installing highly effective pollution control systems or disposing of toxic substances safely, they are dumping billions of pounds of pollutants in communities where residents have little political or economic power. It follows that those suffering the most are African Americans, Hispanics, working-class whites and indigenous peoples such as the Yupik Eskimos.
The “fenceline” communities that Lerner has chosen to investigate are adjacent to some of the most environmentally hazardous sites and facilities in the country. He believes that mixing residential and industrial zones is a dangerous practice and should be avoided. The book demonstrates that companies freely displace, or “externalize,” costs of production onto the public by polluting neighborhoods just outside the factory gates. Yet time after time these companies escape accountability for the damage they cause. The costs may then be absorbed by the state and the larger economy, through government-funded cleanup operations, emergency-response programs, increased medical and disability costs, and lower commercial and residential property values. But sometimes the government doesn’t want to pay for the cleanup either. Lerner says that agencies and state officials often duck their regulatory responsibilities, sometimes because they find it politically expedient to protect the profits of the polluters.
The environmental regulatory system in the United States is proving to be grossly ineffective at addressing such “pollution hot spots” once they are created. Residents of these environmental “sacrifice zones” (a term originally used during the Cold War to designate areas that had been contaminated with radioactive materials from nuclear weapons production) are expected to forgo their fundamental right to a safe and healthy environment. But instead, as Lerner vividly describes, the ecological crises and social injustices they confront have led at least some of them to mobilize into a powerful new movement for environmental justice.
Part of what makes Sacrifice Zones such an interesting read is that Lerner gives names and faces to these local heroes. The book is based on hundreds of interviews with the people who are living, working and sometimes dying in these communities, and Lerner lets them tell their stories in their own words. Each chapter highlights the perspective of grassroots leaders. Their discussion of their experiences in organizing and mobilizing their communities reminds us that even those in difficult circumstances have the ability to create positive change. Each story offers unique insights into the history of a particular community, the hardships of chemical exposure, or the personal sacrifices that must be made by those fighting corporate polluters and the state.
Consistent patterns are found in all of these sacrifice zones: the pollution of less fortunate communities with little means to resist, the failure of industry and government agencies to inform residents of known contamination, the reluctance of regulatory agencies and officials to ensure thorough and quick cleanup of contamination, and the insistence that no action be taken until absolute proof of serious human health effects is available. On reading the first case study in the book, one is likely to think, “What an extraordinary situation!” But then the same political roadblocks show up in one case study after another. Fortunately, Lerner has some major victories to report. He outlines the forces required for bringing about social change, including effective community leaders and grassroots organizing, critical support from dedicated people in the scientific community, legal assistance, organized evidence and a long-term commitment to building the movement.
The first two sacrifice zones described are African-American communities in Florida. One is in Ocala, where black soot from the Royal Oak charcoal factory rains down on residents and their homes, and the other is in Pensacola, where excavated sludge containing chemicals such as dioxin, pentachlorophenol, benzene, toluene, dieldrin and asbestos has been piled up into a mound 60 feet high, aptly named “Mount Dioxin.” Both communities consider themselves to be victims of environmental racism, and the evidence suggests that they are right. Early racial segregation in Ocala forced blacks onto unwanted land, and afterward the city invariably found black neighborhoods to be the ideal site for highly polluting facilities. Black Pensacola residents demanded and eventually won relocation to escape environmental health threats, but most were paid very little for their homes or were given inferior replacement housing; white homeowners in a polluted community in Pennsylvania were given much better treatment.
One sad truth that emerges from the book’s case studies is that government and industry often fail to adequately inform residents of contamination risks. Lerner explores the devastation that residents feel when they are informed of serious chemical exposure only after health problems and diseases are already rampant in the community. In the tiny African-American town of Tallevast, also in Florida, townspeople didn’t learn of a severe pollution problem until a resident asked members of a drilling crew why they were boring a hole in her lawn and discovered that they had been hired by the high-tech weapons plant down the street to test the groundwater for toxins. The company that owned the plant, Lockheed Martin, had long known about spills of cancer-causing chemicals into the soil and groundwater and had informed county environmental officials but had decided against informing the townspeople, even though they depended on wells for their drinking water. Kept in the dark for three years, residents were denied their right to make informed choices to protect their health.
Similarly, residents of Greenpoint, a Polish-American community in Brooklyn, New York, where 17 to 30 million gallons of oil have leaked into the ground over the past 100 years, were not made aware of a deal between state regulatory officials and oil companies: The companies would gradually remove the oil themselves, and in return the state would not impose fines or a timetable for the cleanup. Residents have been living with contaminated groundwater during what has proved to be a slow and inferior cleanup process. The officials who made the secret deal, Lerner argues, denied citizens important information, thereby failing to protect them from harm.
One of the most disturbing patterns Lerner finds in the sacrifice zones is that government agencies (including the Environmental Protection Agency) and local and state officials have often blocked efforts to bring about environmental reform. Citizens rightfully expecting regulatory agencies to be proponents of clean air, water and soil have sometimes been shocked at their unresponsiveness. In Corpus Christi, Texas, state regulatory officials claimed that there were no health concerns when their own air monitoring stations indicated that levels of benzene (a carcinogen) were seven times higher than the acceptable standard. In Pensacola, residents were actually harmed by the grossly inadequate and dangerous EPA “cleanup” that created Mount Dioxin. The agency dug up more than 300,000 tons of contaminated soil and placed it in a giant pile in the community under a plastic cover that is now 10 years older than its intended lifespan. Although he recognizes that the EPA had limited funds at its disposal, Lerner argues that their failure to remove the contaminated soils from Pensacola warrants a fuller evaluation of how the agency is handling toxic exposures nationwide.
Lerner shows that despite the barriers to enforcing better pollution control, change can occur in these communities when dedicated individuals fight for a cleaner environment. In Corpus Christi, spurred by illnesses in family members and “fed up with what she saw as the do-nothing approach of state regulators,” Suzie Canales founded a group called Citizens for Environmental Justice. She researched the health effects of environmental pollution in the city for years, pushing for health studies and data on air quality. Unsatisfied with the information provided by regulators, she conducted health surveys and carried out surveillance of refineries. She was questioned by the FBI for “suspicious activity” when she filmed heavy particulate pollution coming off a Citgo facility. Monitoring the air for toxins became much easier for her when an activist working for cleaner air in Port Arthur, Texas, supplied her with an expensive monitor. With the help of environmental organizations, she has begun successfully contesting the air permit applications of refineries.
Why does this grandmother have to do the work that regulators should be doing?, Lerner asks. That individuals must invest so much time and effort to protect their right to clean air and water reveals a serious problem within our regulatory system.
Lerner’s in-depth exploration of the often-ignored stories of those living and dying in America’s most polluted and neglected communities forces us to contemplate the wide disparity between the privileged and the less fortunate. The cost of pollution-control technology is hardly comparable to the toll that contaminants take on residents, some of whom pay with their lives.
The thoroughness of Lerner’s research into effective strategies for fighting pollution should prove invaluable for those who struggle for environmental justice. This book offers an inside view of a new form of activism, one that promises to fuse struggles for ecological protection, economic and social justice, and human health into a more transformative environmental politics.
Lauren Byrnes and Sara Mele are research assistants with the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative in Boston. Daniel Faber is director of the Collaborative and a professor of sociology at Northeastern University. He is the author of several books, including Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: The Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).