Toxic Nightmare

What's happening with the hazardous waste extracted from the Gulf gusher, the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history? Would it surprise you to learn that municipal landfills located near minority communities are the final resting place for tons of toxic debris?


From the first hours of BP's oil spill, most of the coverage concentrated on how and when the well would be capped; how much oil was spilling into the Gulf; what the overall economic damage would be to Gulf Coast communities and to those dependent on the Gulf for their livelihoods; and whether BP would have to pay for all the damage it had caused.


Other issues, including what the long-term health hazards will be for workers involved in cleaning up the spill, haven't received a great deal of attention. Even less attention has been paid to the disposal of thousands of trash bags with tar balls, oil-soaked booms that can't be recycled, oil-stained sand and sea grass, medical waste used for wildlife rehabilitation, and tons of oil-contaminated rags, gloves, protective gear, and toxic clothing used by clean-up workers.


The Miami Herald reported on August 3, "Since the first trucks began rolling in June, nearly 40,000 tons of 'oily solids' and related debris have been sent to municipal landfills from Louisiana to Florida, sparking enough consternation that BP agreed late last week to stop dumping in one Mississippi landfill…. Under a 34-page waste management plan developed by the federal government, oily solid waste that reaches Gulf Coast beaches is bagged by BP contractors and transferred to area landfills by waste management giants Heritage Environmental Services in Louisiana; Waste Management Inc., which is working from the Louisiana-Mississippi border east to the Ecofina River, southeast of Tallahassee; and Republic Services, which covers Florida's west coast, the Keys and Miami…. Oily water is handled differently: mostly it's processed for recovery" (8/3/2010).


Lesley Clark and Fred Tasker reported in the Herald that, "The EPA and each state's environmental protection agency have signed off on the plans for the oil-smeared bulky waste. And the operators of the landfills insist the BP garbage is not unprecedented and is suitable for the type of landfills they've selected: disposal sites that take household waste, as well as 'special waste' like contaminated soil. They note much of the waste is generated by the cleanup operation itself: soiled cleanup coveralls, gloves, sandwich wrappers and drink containers. Some 44 tons of waste materials have been recycled."


Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center (EJRC) at Clark Atlanta University and author of Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (Westview 2009), recently wrote that, "Given the sad history of waste disposal in the southern United States, it should be no surprise to anyone that the BP waste disposal plan looks a lot like 'Dumping in Dixie' and has become a core environmental justice concern, especially among low-income and people of color communities in the Gulf Coast—communities whose residents have historically borne more than their fair share of solid waste landfills and hazardous waste facilities before and after natural and man-made disasters" (Dissident Voice, 7/29/2010).


According to Bullard, "The nine approved Gulf Coast solid waste landfills, amount of waste disposed, and the percentage of minority residents living within a one-mile radius of the facilities are:

  • Alabama—Chastang Landfill, Mount Vernon, 6008 tons (56.2 percent); Magnolia Landfill, Summerdale, 5,966 tons (11.5 percent)
  • Florida—Springhill Regional Landfill, Campbellton, 14,228 tons (76 percent)
  • Louisiana—Colonial Landfill, Ascension Parish, 7,729 tons (34.7 percent); Jefferson Parish Sanitary Landfill, Avondale, 225 tons (51.7 percent); Jefferson Davis Parish Landfill, Welsh, 182 tons (19.2 percent); River Birch Landfill, Avondale, 1,406 tons (53.2 percent), Tide Water Landfill, Venice, 2,204 tons (93.6 percent)
  • Mississippi—Pecan Grove Landfill, Harrison, 1,509 tons (12.5 percent)

Bullard pointed out that, as of mid-July, "a large share of the BP oil-spill waste, 24,071 tons out of 39,448 tons (61 percent), is dumped in people of color communities. This is not a small point since African Americans make up just 22 percent of the coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, while people of color comprise about 26 percent of the population in coastal counties.


Bullard maintains that, "The flow of BP oil-spill waste to Gulf Coast communities is not random…. The mix of waste and race was the impetus behind the Environmental Justice Movement in Warren County, North Carolina more than 25 years ago. In 1982, toxic PCBs were cleaned up from North Carolina roadways and later dumped in a landfill in mostly black and poor Warren County. We also saw the pattern in 2009 when 3.9 million tons of toxic coal ash from the massive Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant spill in East Tennessee was cleaned-up and shipped more than 300 miles south by train and disposed in a landfill in rural and mostly black Perry County, Alabama."


At the time of Bullard's research, "The largest amount of BP oil-spill solid waste (14,228 tons) was sent to a landfill in a Florida community where three-fourths of the nearby residents are people of color. Although African Americans make up about 32 percent of Louisiana's population, three of the five approved landfills (60 percent) in the state that received BP oil-spill waste are located in mostly black communities."


In mid-June, the New York Times reported that Marlin Ladner, a supervisor in Harrison County, Mississippi, "spoke angrily about the prospect of debris from the spill being deposited in the local Pecan Grove landfill in his district…. BP oil is responsible for polluting our sand beaches and our estuaries," Ladner said. Now, he noted, "They pick it up, put it on trucks, take it four or five miles north, and dump it on us again."


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.