Lecture #22: Return of the Repressed: Toxic Torts and Environmental Justice

Suggested Readings:

Jerry Jenkins et al, Acid Rain in the Adirondacks: An Environmental History (2007)
Lois Gibbs, Love Canal: My Story (1982)
Richard S. Newman, Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present (2016)
Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action (1995)
Luke Cole & Sheila Foster, ed., From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (2000)
Christopher Foreman, The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice (2000)
Joni Adamson et al, The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, & Pedagogy (2002)
Robert Bullard, Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality 3rd ed (2008)
Eileen McGurty, Transforming Environmentalism: Warren County, PCBs, And the Origins of Environmental Justice (2007)
Dorceta Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (2014)
Gregg Mitman, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes (2007)
Kate Orff & Richard Misrach, Petrochemical America (2012) (an amazing graphical analysis of toxic pollution along the lower Mississippi)


I. Fixing Pollution, Moving Pollution: The Coming of Acid Rain

Start by noting the relative success of government legislation and regulation in dealing with several aspects of 1960s pollution: auto emissions fell; DDT was banned by EPA in 1972 and declined; water pollution down.

But, crucially: solving pollution in one place sometimes means simply moving it elsewhere.

Note the high smokestack solution to local air pollution: move to upper atmosphere, hope it will be dilluted there, where it will also be transported downwind. Famous early (1963) study of air pollution from the iron-sintering plant near Wawa, Ontario serves as a classic example.

Acid rain, which became an object of public controversy in the 1980s, is a useful example of the interregional transport of pollutants, resulting from several converging factors:

  • midwestern coals from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky are naturally high in sulfur, and the energy crisis of the 1970s led to increases in their use in midwestern factories and power plants;
  • tall smokestacks injected sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide pollutants higher into atmosphere;
  • these combined with atmospheric moisture to form sulfuric and nitric acid;
  • then carried by prevailing winds to be deposited as acid fog or rain on lakes and trees in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada;
  • areas where bedrock and soils didn't neutralize acidic deposition (granites, basalts, other igneous and metamorphic rocks as opposed to sedimentary limestones) saw a long-term decrease in pH in lakes (some Adirondack lakes especially vulnerable);
  • increased mortalities for fish populations;
  • damage especially to coniferous forests at high elevations.

Acid rain became a major political cause in Canada, which had taken more aggressive steps to address the problem than US, causing considerable diplomatic friction between the two countries (but note also the benefit for Quebec hydropower from increasing costs of midwestern electricity, creating incentive to transport power across the border).

Acid rain can thus serve as a symbol of the difficulty of solving pollution, the ease with which problems can be move elsewhere, resulting in ordinary landscapes becoming toxic in unexpected ways: what one tries to throw away often returns to haunt one in new guises.

Acid rain and its impacts on Central European forests (including Germany's famed Black Forest) played significant roles in the rise of the Green Party in Germany in the 1980s.

For further details and subsequent regulatory history, see

II. Hiding Pollution: Long-Term Toxicity at Love Canal & Times Beach

Notorious early episode of toxic pollution brought this issue to national prominence at Love Canal, just downstream from Niagara Falls. For a summary of this story, see
http://library.buffalo.edu/specialcollections/lovecanal/ (impressive online archive, including many images)

1890s: William T. Love sought to construct a power canal to attract industry to his new development in Niagara Falls, NY, at a development he called Model City. It failed, leaving behind the abandoned canal site.

1942-52: the Hooker Chemical Co. filled an abandoned canal in Niagara Falls with 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals, stored in barrels, buried 20-25 feet deep, then covered over.

1953: When the canal was full, Hooker sold the property to the city for the site of an elementary school at the price of $1.

The nearby working-class neighborhood that grew up adjacent to the school was eventually plagued with chemical odors, sludge seeping through basement walls, various health problems.

1976: first government investigations into possible problems at the site occurred, yielding a catalog of toxic chemicals with serious health implications. Families in the neighborhood were terrified. Property values fell precipitously, making it impossible for them to cash in the equity in their houses to move elsewhere.

Lois Gibbs emerged as a local leader, having been politicized by the local school board's refusal to transfer her son to a new school after he came down with severe asthma and convulsions. She led a neighborhood petition campaign that eventually brought state and congressional action to help families relocate. In 1980, she founded the Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, later renamed the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), to help neighborhoods like hers deal with toxic waste dumps in their vicinity.

1976: Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) became the first federal law attempting to deal with toxic waste problem.

1980: In the wake of Love Canal, Congress passed Superfund legislation to fund cleanups. $20 million was appropriated for the emergency relocation of families at Love Canal, mainly to purchase houses. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superfund

Cases like Love Canal increasingly frequent as public became aware of the hazards associated with old industrial waste sites, and as funds became available to intervene for their cleanup. Among the most notorious cases occured in 1983, when the EPA (under much political pressure) moved to purchase houses in Times Beach, Missouri, that had been accidentally contaminated with dioxin. $33 million was spent to buy out residences, and the town of 2500 residents was then bulldozed into oblivion after its citizens relocated.

1980, Anne Anderson organizes citizens' group (FACE, For A Cleaner Environment) in Woburn, MA, in response to childhood leukemia cases in neighborhood near industrial waste sites, files lawsuit that becomes basis for Jonathan Harr's bestselling book A Civil Action, resulting in 1986 jury decision that W. R. Grace had negligently dumped chemicals (Beatrice was acquitted); elaborate wranglings about evidence and judicial procedure continued long after the trial.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a growing list of toxic dumps around the country, especially in the industrial Northeast and Midwest: legacies of earlier industrial eras.

One unexpected result was the politicization of ordinary neighborhoods, many of them poor and working class, especially women with children fearful of harm to their families.

Note the fear-provoking Insidiousness of the threat: invisible, striking inside homes, potentially lethal damage to one's family and loved ones without knowing what was happening until it was too late. Once again, cancer served both as a very material threat and as a symbol of microscopic damage to cells and bodies.

III. Manufacturing Pollution: Bhopal, Coal, Cotton, Asbestos

Toxicity from chemical-based industries could be dramatic or very quiet.

The most horrific single instance in the 1980s was the Bhopal accident at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India on December 3, 1984: a leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas killed 2500 nearby villagers within a week, blinding thousands more, ultimately injuring 150,000. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster

As we've seen in previous lecture, the toxicity of industrial substances had been a familiar feature of working-class life for long time: black lung disease among coal miners; brown lung (byssinosis) in textile mills.

Hawk's Nest Incident 1930-32: construction of water power tunnel for Union Carbide through Gauley Mountain, WV, exposed almost 5000 workers (at least 2/3 of them unemployed African Americans recruited to migrate to the site) to heavy clouds of silica dust in poorly ventilated underground conditions, with over 700 of them dying within 5 years from silicosis (lungs' inability to absorb or remove silica). Because there were no nearby cemeteries that would permit African-American burials, many of the workers were buried in an open field near the site.

Asbestos essentially kills in a similar way, and was already beginning to emerge as a problem during 1930s, especially in shipyards and other pipefitting activities where it was heavily used as insulation. The long fibers of this naturally occurring rock meant that it could be woven into textiles or sprayed on surfaces subjected to high heat--and because it was made of silicon, it would not catch fire.

Asbestos companies suppressed early evidence of health problems as the substance became widely used in shipbuilding, plumbing, insulation, building construction, auto brakes, etc.

By the 1960s, Dr. Irving Selikoff's research demonstrated clear links of asbestos to silicosis-like asbestosis and the rare cancer mesothelioma, the main cause of which is exposure to asbestos. This knowledge produced a growing wave of lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers.

1982, Manville Co. files for bankruptcy to escape liability; EPA proposed ban 1986, though asbestos continues to be used for some purposes in U.S.

For further details, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asbestos

IV. The Geography of Toxicity: Class and Race

Given the centrality of cancer to public fears about environmental toxins, the history, geography, and demographic distribution of its incidence are inevitably bound up with this history of environmental toxicity.

If we consider the national per capita incidence of cancer in the U.S. purely in terms of gender, mortalities from various cancers have fallen quite drastically over the past century for variety of reasons (earlier diagnosis, more effective medical treatment, changes in diet, etc.). Cancers whose rates have declined include stomach, colon, rectum, uterine. Lung cancer, on the other hand, rose quite dramatically over the same period, largely because of the growing popularity of cigarettes in the middle decades of the twentieth century (with women lagging men because women were slower to adopt smoking).

Illnesses with possible environmental causes, including cancer, are by no means evenly distributed geographically.

For instance, deaths from all cancers in U.S. for white males are highest in the lower Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, but deaths from breast cancer for all women are highest in the industrial Northeast and Great Lakes.

Potential causes of such concentrations are so numerous as to be almost impossible to analyze: populations whose gene pools carry different susceptibilities by class, race, ethnicity; different geography of industry, uses of chemicals, features of natural environment; etc., etc. Here again the problem of statistical causality makes it challenging to identify clear linkages between geographical variations in disease incidence and their potential causes.

Pesticide use has historically been greatest in the midwestern Corn Belt and in California's chief agricultural areas. The United Farm Workers increasingly focused during the late 1960's on the exposure of migrant workers to pesticides, moving on from Cesar Chavez's organizing campaign for better working conditions to an attack on pesticides, including national boycotts of grapes.

American linkage of class and race means that poorest Americans--often people of color--frequently dwell in the shadow of major industrial sites where real estate values are lowest; furthermore, there is some evidence that certain highly toxic industries have chosen sites near such neighborhoods on the assumption that there will be little effective political resistance of the kind associated with upper-middle-class white environmentalists. (Again: note the difficulty of disaggregating class and race as causal factors.)

What has been described as California's dirtiest zip code, 90058, located between South Central and East Los Angeles (the state's largest Latino and Black Neighborhoods): 1 square mile of land with 4500 residents, 59% black, 38% Latino, 33 million pounds of toxic discharges into its environment.

Warren County, North Carolina: a landfill designed to become a regional and even national repository for PCB wastes being cleaned up elsewhere was situated here, leading to protests at the site starting in 1982. These lasted for 20 years with 100s of arrests, becoming some of the most significant civil rights protests in the South since the 1960s, effectively launching the environmental justice movement.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice publisheed its report on Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, which argued that people of color suffered disproportionate environmental risk, estimating that 60% of African-Americans and Latinos and 50% of Asians and Indians lived in communities with at least one uncontrolled toxic waste dump. It also declared that 40% of the nation's toxic landfill capacity was concentrated in just three counties: Emelle, Alabama, with 79% African-American population; Scotlandville, Louisiana, 93% African-American; and Kettleman City, California, 78.4% Latino.

Reverend Benjamin Chavez, then the Commission's executive (later head of the NAACP) coined phrase "environmental racism" in 1981 to describe this phenomenon.

Toxic Waste and Race in the United States is available online here:
with a 20-year update here:

1991: First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit convened in Washington, DC, and prepared a formal statement offering 17 "Principles of Environmental Justice," including "sacredness of Mother Earth"; environmental protection "free from all discrimination or bias"; "fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples"; "cessation of the production of all toxins." The full set of principles can be viewed here: https://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.pdf

New groups devoted to merging social movements for environmental protection and anti-racist social justice. The environmental justice movement critiqued "mainstream" environmental groups for ignoring affected people of color.

One notorious case study: “Cancer Alley” along the Lower Mississippi River in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where historic black communities had been displaced by a growing number of petrochemical facilities.

Florence Robinson organized a one-woman war against oil refineries in Cancer Alley. Robinson was a professor of biology at Southern University, living in Alsen near Devil’s Swamp where a borrow pit for toxic wastes had been created in 1964. Starting in 1993, Robinson led citizen science efforts to gather scientific data about health effects of petrochemical processing and toxic waste dumping in Louisiana communities along Mississippi.

V. Refusing Pollution: Not in My Backyard (NIMBY)

The emerging crisis of toxics was a challenge not just to environment and health, but to political economy and community: the boundary between waste and non-waste as a boundary of moral responsibility...closely related to the boundary we encountered way back at the beginning of the semester between "useful" and "useless" things, though now the "useless" things were dangerously toxic and feared. "Waste" took on a whole new meaning in this context compared to what it had once meant for Progressive Era conservationists.

Crucial social divides existed between those who had the wealth and political power to resist toxic waste and those who did not.

This expressed itself in persistent efforts to make waste someone else's problem: in the geography of NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard), the boundaries of class and race were almost always just beneath the surface.