Communities For a Better Environment

It’s three to
five times more likely that a toxic dump site will be found in an African American or
Latino community than a white one. In the Southeast Los Angeles communities of color
it’s estimated that there are over 200 toxic hazards there and more than 60 federal
EPA designated Superfund sites. A group of urban environmentalists, members of Communities
for a Better Environment (CBE), say the contamination is making them and their children
sick. Last month, they launched a campaign to do something about it called the Campaign
for Local Environmental Action and Regional Solutions (CLEARS). It’s a comprehensive
effort to force environmental justice issues onto the agendas of regulators and

Most CBE activists
never set out to be environmental crusaders. Take Joe Perales, a 53-year-old printer who
says he’d rather be answering reporters’ questions on fishing. It would be
easier than discussing the toxic hazards that he thinks caused his youngest son, Alex, to
die of cancer last year at the age of 14. “When Alex was in the fifth grade at Suva
Intermediate School, he started getting sick on us. We took him to the doctor, but the
doctor didn’t know what was wrong. He assumed it was just a virus.” But Perales
says Alex didn’t get better. He was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,
and went into remission some 16 months after his diagnosis. Last year, he acquired an
acute form of leukemia and died.

After Alex was
diagnosed, Perales began asking questions. His daughters told him of friends, neighbors,
and ex-classmates who’d had cancer or had relatives who’d had it, and he found
that several teachers at Suva had died of the disease. CBE organizer Carlos Porras told
him that two chrome plating plants next to the schoolyard at Suva had been emitting high
levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen that’s also implicated in miscarriages,
birth defects, and infertility. The soil beneath the two plants was found to be so
severely contaminated that they were designated Superfund sites by the Federal
Environmental Protection Agency.

Panic swept the
school 10 years ago when 7 of 11 pregnant women on staff had miscarriages. Teachers
persuaded the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to set up air monitors on
the schoolyard. Levels of hexavalent chromium were so high that the agency estimated that
as many as 7,200 out of a million people in the area could become ill with cancer as a
result of the emissions. Under federal air quality standards, one additional cancer in a
million is unacceptable. Even under looser AQMD standards that set the threshold at one
hundred cancers per million, the results at Suva were frightening. Air District officials
assured school staff and residents there was no need for emergency action. Still, they
passed new regulations—effective in 1990—that limited hexavalent chromium
emissions. They then considered the problem solved. For Joe Perales, it’s still not
solved, and painful questions remain. The new rules might have brought down emissions at
each plant, he says. But it turns out there are a half a dozen chrome plating facilities
in the immediate area. Eight years after the regulations were passed, people in the
neighborhood are still exposed to six times more cancer-causing emissions than are
considered healthy by AQMD standards.

Even if the air
were safe, says Perales, the issue of soil contamination still hasn’t been addressed.
And, there’s the question of the community’s right to know what’s in their
air, water and soil.

“If we had
known that this area was contaminated, we would have never moved here. But, we did, not
knowing. The government, the AQMD, whoever’s responsible, has to let the people

“When I had a
chance to speak to the AQMD Board in January,” Perales says, “I let them know
how I felt as a parent who lost a child. Would they want to send their kids to Suva
Intermediate School. Nobody answered. So, I said, doesn’t anybody want to say
something? Tell us, would your kids go there? Of course not.

Carlos Porras says
the AQMD had largely ignored the environmental justice issues Perales raised until CBE
filed a civil rights complaint last year with the Environmental Protection Agency.

CBE charges that
Air District policies—like giving oil companies the right to emit greater quantities
of benzene and other toxins if they set up programs to take heavily polluting cars off the
road by buying them from their owners—burden the mostly Latino communities that
surround the refineries with more than their share of toxic contamination.

Since the complaint
was filed, the AQMD has been a bit more attentive. They’ve agreed to reconsider key
policies that affect health risks, and they’ve committed $750,000 for research to
quantify health hazards in communities, an effort that should take 18 months to 2 years.

campaign will enable the group to do independent studies without waiting for AQMD results.
Armed with a $1.7 million grant and a team of academic researchers, they’ll be able
to get beyond the “not in my backyard” approach that sometimes pits one
low-income neighborhood against another, to take a more comprehensive view. “What
we’d like to do,” says economist and project participant, Manuel Pastor,
“is take these efforts that are emerging around environmental justice issues and say
not in anybody’s backyard. Basically, we need to move beyond backyards to looking at
a regional approach to dealing with pollution and environmental hazards.” What that
might look like, says Pastor, is a proposal to set limits on the total amount of
contamination to which an area would be exposed. Once the limit is reached, additional
polluters would not be allowed to locate there.

Another priority
for CBE, says Carlos Porras, is stepping up grassroots organizing efforts in order to deal
with regulators and politicians from a position of greater strength. “If Suva
Intermediate, for example, were in Beverly Hills, that chrome plating facility would never
have gotten a permit to operate next door. And, if by some freakish event, that type of
land use contradiction did occur, I’m sure that because of the political and economic
clout in those communities, that facility would have been relocated.”


Robin Urevich works mostly in radio,
doing stories on community and labor organizing.