May 2012 – The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice continues efforts to educate and train Gulf Coast community residents living near landfills where waste from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is being disposed. A community training was held in Mt. Vernon, Alabama, Saturday, April 14th to continue training residents in waste tracking, landfill truck traffic monitoring and air emissions. As of April 1, 2012, all approved landfills have received a total of 110, 695 tons of waste from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The differential effects of catastrophic disasters consistently reveal that low-income and minority communities suffer from both higher socio-economic stress and greater environmental exposure to toxins, hazardous wastes, and other environmental burdens.
Mobile County residents were engaged in interactive workshop sessions including topics on the Legacy of Toxic Wastes and Race in Communities of Color, Deepwater Horizon waste tracking, the human right to a healthy environment, adverse health effects of air emissions from landfill diesel trucks, and community resilience and landfill operations. Residents learned about a range of environmental hazards associated with landfills and underground gas pipelines.
The question was posed “Why does race and place matter?” In their recent book The Wrong Complexion for Protection, Dr. Robert Bullard and Dr. Beverly Wright address the geography of social inequality and ecological vulnerability. The built environment, infrastructure, and environmental quality all have a direct impact on health and wellbeing. One of the most important indicators of an individual’s health is one’s street address, zip code, or neighborhood. Mobile County residents expressed concern about possible exposure to toxins from leakage from landfills and the high diesel truck traffic going to nearby landfills and plants. They are also concerned about the underground gas pipelines in the community. Residents asked what is their “right- to- know” concerning possible toxic exposure from landfills and gas pipelines.
Residents were given an overview of landfill design features, operational best practices, and landfill hazards. Some operational best practices include, permitting and siting. Landfills should be at least a mile distance from a community. Landfills should never be built near an airport, storm water control should be considered when developing a landfill, the community should have access to monitoring and reporting. Some negative impacts of landfills include ground water and surface water quality, leachate migration, illegal roadside dumping near landfill, odors, dust and litter, vectors, insects, rodents, and birds, decreased property value, increased truck traffic and exhaust pollution.
Truck traffic and diesel engine emissions contribute to serious public health problems, including premature mortality, aggravation of existing asthma, acute respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function. More than 30 health studies have linked diesel engine emissions to increased incidences of various cancers. Diesel particulate matter (dust) alone contributes to 125,000 cancers in the US each year.
Workshop participants were also given an overview of the US Environmental Regulatory System as it impacts human rights. The U.S. Environmental Regulatory System presumes that human health and the environment are protected via technological controls already in use by polluting industries; there are no requirements for safe materials or safer alternative manufacturing process. The US Environmental Regulatory System sets air quality standards for large geographic areas but ignores toxic hot spots. The US Environmental Regulatory System relies on polluting industries to self-monitor for compliance. Therefore, the question is posed, who defines safety and harm? Nearby communities are at the mercy industry that doesn’t always report leaks and other problems.
Contamination can also have psychosocial impacts on residents living near polluting facilities. Perceived contamination can have further psychological and physiological effects, including elevated levels of psychological distress, feelings of perceived threat and subclinical anxiety and depression. The psycho-physiological effects from stress can exacerbate existing stress levels beyond what community residents face in everyday life.
Mobile Alabama County participants discussed next steps to address their concerns. They will reach out to their state and federal officials to hold them accountable for enforcing environmental regulations already in place and hope to work with government officials to provide input to develop policies to reduce risks of harmful exposure to communities in the Mobile County area. The Mt. Vernon meeting was the third of four meetings with Gulf Coast communities to raise awareness and discuss solutions to waste and race disparities. The culminating meeting will be held in New Orleans, Louisiana at Dillard University in July 2012. This meeting will recap lessons learned and provide a hands-on waste tracker training with all Gulf Coast communities exposed to wastes from the Deepwater Horizon landfill.