Alonzo Spencer describes himself as a man who always had a social conscience. He was active in the civil rights movement. He joined the PTA when his kids were in school. He wrote his congressman from time to time on issues that concerned him. But he didn’t begin to think of himself as an environmentalist until about 13 years ago, when he first heard of a plan to build a huge toxic-waste incinerator in a residential section of his hometown, East Liverpool, Ohio.

Spencer was then a steelworker who was just about to retire, so he had some time to devote to the matter. He went to a few hearings; he read all the stories printed in the press; he began to notice some inconsistencies. Now, he says, “I spend a portion of each day doing something to stop this monster from becoming a reality.”

Charlotte Keyes was a clerk for the county board in Marion County, Mississippi, when she decided to find out all she could about the Reichold Chemical factory in Columbia, her hometown; it had exploded one day in 1977. What she learned horrified her. The plant had left the land contaminated with at least 179 toxic chemicals. (The exact number is uncertain because some of the substances found at the site have never been identified.) Keyes heard of fish kills in the Pearl River and of cattle deaths caused by contamination. She wanted to go public with her knowledge, but the county board told her “I could either work for them or the community. I decided to work for the community.” So she founded an organization called Jesus People Against Pollution and began seeking emergency relocation and medical benefits for those already affected as well as a permanent cleanup of what was still on the site.

Dolores Herrera lives in a neighborhood called San Jose in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is an old community, mostly Catholic, mostly Mexican, a place where people own their homes and pass them along to the next generation. It is also a community with one Superfund site already designated and another possible site under investigation, a community where the backyard wells have all been capped due to chlorinated solvents found in the drinking water.

Concerned about the presence of the wastes, and upset by the slow pace of the cleanup, Herrera and several of her neighbors founded the San Jose Community Awareness Council to help move things along.

Florence Robinson lives in a small, rural, mostly black hamlet called Alsen, Louisiana, at the north end of “Cancer Alley,” the stretch of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where small, rural communities once nestled in a mosaic of cane fields and swamps are now surrounded by no fewer than 67 oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Industries in the Alsen area include a commercial hazardous waste facility, a lead smelting plant, and numerous chemical plants. There are two Superfund sites and numerous waste pits of unknown contents.

“Everybody here has sinus problems,” Robinson says, “even the children. And pounding headaches. The children miss school because of them. They are associated with certain odors. Your head feels like it is about to explode.”

The couple across the street–“They lived out of their garden,” Robinson says. “They did not eat the diet that gives you colon cancer, but they died of it.” Next door, a man who had recovered from prostate cancer developed a melanoma and died from it. Two doors farther down, a mother, daughter, and son all have cancer and another child has seizures brought on by neurological damage.

The people of Alsen began to work with the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization, a housing rights group that now devotes much of its attention to environmental issues.

In northwest Indiana, it was steelworkers who decided to act. In the late 70s the steel companies were declaring that the water they discharged was cleaner than the water they took in, but the people who worked in the water processing operations knew that wasn’t true. And they could see objects floating in the Grand Calumet River, objects that are politely referred to as raw sewage.

The steelworkers’ concerns led to the formation of the Grand Cal Task Force, which has become one of the largest and most effective grass-roots environmental organizations in the country.

None of these people or groups fit the familiar image of environmentalists. In the political and media shorthand that passes for thinking in the U.S., environmentalists are all upper-middle-class whites. These people don’t live in upscale neighborhoods. They don’t drive Volvos. I doubt if many of them own backpacks. But their activism, and the activism of thousands of others like them, is changing the face of the environmental movement in America.

The new movement grows out of the day-to-day experience of working-class people and people of color in communities across the country. These isolated local actions are now coalescing into a national force that is evoking a response both from politicians and from the established conservation groups. President Clinton has just directed all federal agencies to pay particular attention to the effects of their actions on poor communities. Greenpeace assigns organizers to help with battles over toxics in working-class areas and communities of color. The Sierra Club is now training its volunteer activists to work with community groups. Even the usually conservative National Wildlife Federation is issuing demands for environmental justice.

That last phrase–environmental justice–is one you are going to be hearing a lot in the next few years. It represents our belated recognition that behind every environmental problem lurks a social problem.

The issues that drive the new environmentalists almost always revolve around toxic wastes. They may be wastes spewing from vents, outfalls, or smokestacks in active chemical plants. They may be drums of wastes shipped in for landfill storage, or truckloads of poison set for thermal destruction in an incinerator. They may be leaking barrels of unknown toxins long buried in shallow graves on an abandoned plant site or midnight dumping ground.

There is no market for this stuff, so it does not register in the minds of those who operate in the world of the market. And the people who end up breathing it or drinking it tend to be almost equally invisible to market forces. In the south, many toxic sites date from the time when black people were systematically denied the vote.

Those who were getting the dirty end of the outfall had known for a long time that the people with bigger houses and newer cars tended to live upwind of the local stink, but it wasn’t until the past decade that the full extent of the distinction began to emerge. In 1983, the General Accounting Office surveyed the communities around the four biggest hazardous waste sites in the country and found them to be largely occupied by people of color. In 1987, the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ followed up that study by examining Superfund sites and permitted waste dumps all over the country. (A note for your lexicon: PER-mitt-ed, adj., said of a factory, dump, incinerator, or other installation that has been issued a permit by federal and/or state environmental agencies allowing it to store, treat, or emit potentially harmful substances.) Race, the commission discovered, was a better predictor of proximity to toxic wastes than income or any other factor. Three out of five nonwhites in the U.S. lived in the same community as a hazardous waste site.

Since then, further evidence has come to light. Robert Bullard, a professor at UCLA, studied the eight permitted hazardous waste sites in Houston, Texas. All eight were in communities of color and some were in prosperous middle-class communities of color.

Another Church of Christ study compared the locations of illegal waste dumps or waste dumps created prior to the passage of environmental laws with the locations of legally permitted dumps. The results showed that legally permitted dumps were even more likely to be located in communities of color; in other words, the involvement of government had made the bias worse.

A study published in the National Law Journal in 1991 concluded that Superfund enforcement by the EPA had been heavily biased. In communities of color, cleanups were slower, fines charged to dumpers were lower, and the remedies were less permanent.

Of course, a common remedy for a Superfund site is to collect the hazardous materials and move them into a permitted landfill. Given the location of these landfills, the remedy amounts to–as Charlotte Keyes says–“moving the waste from one low-income neighborhood to another.”

There had long been a tacit acceptance of this sort of discrimination, even by those who suffered from it. Bad smells and gray air were often thought of as part of the cost of a job. Longtime residents of Gary talk of the time when the Mills would cut back on their dirtiest operations one day a week so women could hang out their laundry.

In many communities it was the Superfund program that first awakened people to the dangers they faced. If you hear that the federal government has declared the defunct paint factory down the road to be an imminent hazard to public health, you may start to ask why nearly every house on your block contains at least one cancer patient. And why your kids seem to get so many colds.

Of course recognizing there’s a problem is only the beginning: then you have to do something about it. And that is not easy, because the machinery of environmental regulation has little to do with the health concerns of ordinary people. The Superfund law, for example, offers little opportunity for public involvement. Other environmental laws do require that interested citizens be given the chance to comment on any actions that fall within the laws’ jurisdiction, but that requirement is usually treated as narrowly as possible.

Dorreen Carey of the Grand Cal Task Force describes the problem this way: “The fact that you don’t like having a hazardous waste incinerator 20 feet from your house just doesn’t have anything to do with it. You have to be able to read a document–a permit application or an environmental impact statement–that takes up an entire table and come in and point out where they went wrong. Where did they make a mistake in giving this permit? Unless you can see where they gave them too much of this or that or they didn’t do an aspect of the permit and they overlooked it, you just don’t fit into their procedures.

“The agencies don’t listen to people talking about what it is like to live in the community. That has not really been something that fit into their procedures. It has been, ‘I’m sorry to hear that, but it really doesn’t apply to my laws.’ The only people who can speak to industry and the agencies are the professional environmentalists, who also become quite separated from the community. There really isn’t a role for people to come and speak as citizens.”

Sometimes even bringing your own experts isn’t enough. Alonzo Spencer, talking of the fight against the incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, says “they’ll match you expert for expert. We can produce experts that support us. They’ll come up with their own.”

When the argument is about whether or not to issue a permit for a landfill or incinerator, there is strong institutional pressure to issue the permit unless there is overwhelming evidence that the installation cannot meet the standards set by law. And sometimes even then the Environmental Protection Agency approves the project. The East Liverpool incinerator is 400 yards from a school, sits on a floodplain, would emit vaporized lead and mercury even when it is running perfectly, and would accept 5,000 truckloads of toxins a year. All the trucks making deliveries to it would have to travel through the streets of East Liverpool. At the moment, it is operating on a temporary permit despite the fact that all its test runs have been failures–and despite a specific campaign promise by Al Gore to shut it down.

Alonzo Spencer believes the problem is EPA’s total commitment to incineration as a method of disposing of toxics. “They are so wedded to it, they don’t allow alternatives to be used.”

According to Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental activist from New Orleans who has worked with a variety of community groups, “The system is biased toward issuing permits.” He cites as a typical example a company in Carville, Louisiana, that corresponded with the EPA for a year before the community was brought into the process. That year gave the company a chance to work out a deal that could then be presented to the community as a fait accompli.

Some of this bias toward granting permission to pollute is the legacy of J. Danforth Quayle, who served as head of the President’s Council on Competitiveness when he was vice president. Following policies developed during the Reagan years, the council sought ways to lighten the burden of bureaucracy on American business. This usually involved urging the bureaucrats to stop worrying about small children with seizures. After 12 years of Reagan, Bush, and Quayle, any bureaucrat concerned about his own job security would think twice about saying no to a permit application.

If the government doesn’t present enough obstacles to the new environmentalists, there are also barriers created by class and race. The mostly white, college-educated bureaucrats from the EPA speak a different language than the often black, working-class citizens organizing to fight pollution in their communities. For many citizens it takes a major effort to come forward in a hearing and testify. In Alsen, Louisiana, Florence Robinson recalls that “there was no school until 1952, and no transportation was provided to get children to school. The older people have a limited education.”

It is intimidating to enter a hearing where PhDs are talking in the language of parts per million and congeners of PCBs and cancer risks of ten to the minus five. And you get up and start talking about how your kids get splitting headaches and have to stay home from school every time the wind blows from the south and carries smells from the chemical plant. Your story will be considered an anecdote. Almost certainly, there will be no epidemiological evidence to back you up. Behind your back, there will be discreet eye-rolling.

The bureaucrats are usually uncomfortable in these situations too: nobody likes to get shouted at. But working people are not even in the game. They don’t always come in with a carefully prepared presentation that stays within their allotted time. Since they have so much at stake, they often get emotional. Professional environmentalists can register very strong objections to a plan or an existing situation, but they do so in measured tones, and they stick with the kinds of arguments that fit within the narrow, technical interpretation of the law favored by the EPA and other agencies. When they invoke their concern for “future generations,” the words have an almost ritualistic quality. They are speaking in generalities, not talking about the kid sitting in the third row coughing. A citizen who hasn’t been taught the moves of the game can seriously undermine the decorum of a public hearing.

Environmentalists who have worked with the EPA tell me about a tendency for people in the agency to keep information to themselves when they are working on a matter that has aroused strong interest outside the ranks of professional environmentalists. They do this not in an attempt to cover up, but because they think they know what needs to be done, and they want to avoid the hassles involved in explaining things to people whose frame of reference may be different from their own. The mistrust of the agency that sometimes develops in these situations often arises from this difficulty in communication.

A lack of money creates another disabling obstacle for community groups. Environmental battles drag on forever. The 13 years of fighting over the East Liverpool incinerator is not really unusual. The cleanup of the Grand Calumet River in Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago began in the late 60s, and even now there is not an agreed-upon plan for finishing the job.

Staying on top of an issue for that length of time takes cash. If you have, say, a vigorous retiree willing to shoulder the burden, you may be able to get by without hiring a full-time staff person. But you will need money to travel to hearings. You will need money for postage and phone calls and printing expenses. You may need to hire an expert from time to time. While your opponents spend their spare time calculating the value of their stock options, you will be struggling to meet the deadlines for public comment, calculating the cost of a mailing to your supporters, or wondering how to raise enough money to cover the heat and light bill for a meeting at the Bethel Baptist Church.

The mainstream environmental movement in America is primarily supported by foundation grants. The larger organizations all have a director of development whose job description includes schmoozing with foundation staffers, in part to find out what they are thinking and what they are interested in funding this year.

A group like Jesus People Against Pollution has a very hard time breaking into that loop. JPAP probably has nobody who knows the subtleties involved in writing a successful grant request and nobody who spent enough time in college to learn the rituals of the professional classes. Such groups are also very local and very specialized. Foundations like to give their money to national-or at least regional-organizations that will make the money visible. Foundations also lack the staying power needed to take on serious environmental problems. If they funded toxic wastes in 1993, they will switch over to energy projects in ’94 and land use questions in ’95. Professional environmental organizations can usually figure out a way to fit themselves into this year’s agenda and keep the money flowing. But a group whose sole concern is controlling the lead smelter next to the grammar school or cleaning up the toxic dump that is contaminating the drinking water doesn’t have the kind of flexibility the foundations want to see.

Isolation is the final obstacle. Back in 1983, I marched in a demonstration outside a Holiday Inn in Oak Brook where Waste Management, Inc., was holding its annual meeting. I arrived with a bus load of black and Hispanic people from the southeast side. We were protesting a plan to put a dump in a marsh at 116th and South Torrence. I remember the surprise we all felt when we found we weren’t the only group there. Contingents had come from Joliet, where a Waste Management landfill was leaking into groundwater, and from northern Indiana, where Waste Management owned a hazardous waste dump. We all stood and blinked at each other as we realized that this thing we were part of was bigger than we knew.

Isolated groups can’t draw strength from the knowledge that others are fighting the same kind of battle they are. And they have to learn everything the hard way. They have to study the laws, work out the details of permit processes, look into the past record of the company that is seeking the right to poison them. Where an Audubon or Sierra Club chapter concerned about some local toxic situation would have the resources of the national organization to draw on, grass-roots environmentalists are usually on their own.

But the obstacles are falling. The isolation has been breaking down during the past three years, beginning with the national People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference held in 1991. This conference brought together activists from all over the country and led directly to the creation of regional groupings like the Midwest People of Color Alliance and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic justice.

Established civil rights groups are also making a strong move into environmental issues. Benjamin Chavis was the executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, the group that did some of the early studies of environmental racism. He is now executive director of the NAACP, and he has taken his environmental awareness to his new position.

In addition, cooperation is increasing between working-class, multiracial groups and the established conservation organizations. There has been some contact for many years. The Grand Cal Task Force was initially a project of the Lake Michigan Federation. A group of steelworkers concerned about the state of the environment in their communities invited LMF to send someone to give a talk at the union hall of Local 1010. Dave Fogarty, who was then on the staff at LMF, gave the talk, and afterward, with the help of the union, he contacted church groups, community groups, block clubs, and other local organizations that were not used to participating in environmental affairs.

The claim that environmental degradation is a necessary trade-off for jobs is blatantly revealed as a lie in northwest Indiana. The state of the local environment is an obvious obstacle to economic revival. It isn’t even safe to buy land around Gary or Hammond. If you buy a piece of land whose subsoil is subsequently discovered to be saturated with pyrobenzene, you are liable for the costs of cleanup even if the poisons were dumped 50 years before you ever saw the place.

The Grand Calumet River was a good focus for organizing. From a distance, it is an attractive little stream, meandering between strips of cattails that line the banks. If you drive the Indiana Tollway, you will cross it several times. It may be the most heavily polluted stream in the Great Lakes basin. If you dredged the sediments from its bottom and removed all the toxic organic compounds from them, there would be so much heavy metal still left that you could sell the mud for ore.

Dave Fogarty helped draw attention to the Grand Cal by organizing a canoe trip that has become an annual event. He originally billed it as the Most Dangerous Canoe Trip in North America, the danger coming not from white water but black water. Paddling down the Grand Cal, you worry if you accidentally splash some water on yourself. If you fall in, you might dissolve.

With organizational help from both the Lake Michigan Federation and the United Steel Workers, the Grand Cal Task Force was able to get well established before it had to function on its own. If the new environmental groups are to be effective in the future, this kind of cooperation will have to spread. As of now many community-based environmental organizations can’t get the help they need. Even if they hook up with an established conservation group, the relationship may not be entirely smooth.

David Hahn-Baker, a black environmental and political consultant, describes the results of cooperation between the conservation and community groups as “uneven.” The kind of relationship the conservation organizations are most comfortable with casts them as advisers, providers of technical assistance. This can work. Niaz Dory, a Greenpeace organizer who lived in East Liverpool for 18 months, talks of connecting the local activists with others around the country and also providing a fax machine so the group could get press releases out on a daily basis. On a broader level, the Sierra Club assembled a Clean Steel Network that included representatives of both unions and community groups in numerous steelmaking states and successfully negotiated a deal with steel companies on air pollution control.

But difficulties arise when the community groups decide they don’t need mentoring. This same kind of tension developed in the civil rights movement in the 60s. The experienced, white, college-educated activists sometimes find it difficult to accept leadership from people less educated than they are and perhaps less experienced in environmental battles.

The Sierra Club has reacted to this problem by stepping up its training efforts. The club has long sponsored trips to Washington for its own volunteer activists, educational excursions that involve visits to agencies and lobbying of senators and representatives. Community activists are now getting a chance at these trips too. More importantly, club volunteers are getting training both in the effects of environmental racism and in how to work with community groups.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, a longtime Sierra Club volunteer in New Orleans, says that when middle-class activists start working with the mostly black community groups, it’s a “new reality” for the activists. “They get educated by it.” If they can get educated quickly enough and well enough, environmentalism may emerge as the largest, strongest, and most diverse political movement in America.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.