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A Dirty Injustice: Pollution Threatens The Health Of Millions Of Latinos

By Javier Sierra

May 1, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2004 Hispanic Publishing Corporation May 2004. All rights reserved.

There's a dirty secret that threatens the health of millions of Hispanics, a dirty secret that endangers the future of the country's largest minority-us.

According to the federal government, three out of every five Hispanics live dangerously close to a toxic site, whether it's an incinerator, a landfill, a refinery, a power plant or agricultural fields where pesticides are sprayed. Millions of Hispanics-especially Hispanic children-are exposed to some of the most dangerous pollutants known to man, including heavy metals, PCBs, poisonous gases and pesticides. Yet, a vast majority of us are unaware of these risks.

We are talking about an injustice-an environmental injustice-of national proportions. Eighty percent of Hispanics live in counties where air quality fails to meet minimum federal standards, as opposed to 57 percent of Anglos. In Los Angeles alone, 60 percent of those living close to 81 industrial plants are Hispanic, whereas only 18 percent are Anglos.

Hispanics are almost three times as likely to die of respiratory diseases-which are exacerbated by air pollution-than Anglos. In the last decade, asthma deaths have tripled among Hispanics, and in the Southwest and in large cities, asthma is already an epidemic among Hispanic children.

This has been going on for decades. How do we stop this injustice? By imitating what dozens of communities throughout the country are doing-fighting back.

Meet Sylvia Herrera, a community activist with a Ph.D. in health education and co-founder-along with her partner, Susana Almanza-of PODER, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources. These two ladies of humble origins, Mexican Indian ancestry and steely determination have become the local polluters' worst nightmare in Austin, Texas.

"It goes back to a very deliberate master plan in the 1920s to relocate Latinos and African Americans [to East Austin] along with industrial sites," says Herrera. "Even today East Austin contains three times as many industrial sites as the rest of the city."

This toxic legacy included a 52-acre storage facility owned by six oil companies, including Exxon, Texaco and Chevron. In 1991, Herrera learned that the site-located almost next door to her home-had applied for a permit to continue releasing benzene and xylene, two carcinogens. It was a call to arms.

"We mobilized the community, leaders from 11 different barrios and a number of state and local officials," Herrera recalls. "Two hundred people came to one of our meetings. Keeping the community informed was key. Within 18 months we shut down six major oil companies, which had committed numerous violations we never knew about."

New challenges lay ahead for Herrera and Almanza, including a polluting metal works factory located right next to an elementary school playground. "We took care of the big guys. This one should be easier," says Herrera.

In Puerto Rico, it took an island to save another island. Sixty years ago, the U.S. Navy bought two thirds of Vieques, an island southeast of Puerto Rico, to build its largest shooting range in the Atlantic. Six decades of intense bombing had turned Vieques into one of the most polluted places in the U.S.

The Navy itself acknowledged that the waters surrounding the island contained levels of heavy metals like lead, cadmium and manganese hundreds of times higher than the federal limits. A local government study concluded that Viequenses were 27 percent more likely to suffer from cancer than the general Puerto Rican population.

In 1999, the accidental death of a private guard during a shooting practice triggered a wave of environmental activism-led by groups such as the Committee to Rescue and Develop Vieques-which united all Puerto Ricans to demand a permanent cease-fire. Their call to arms-which included mass demonstrations, the support of Puerto Rico's major parties, relentless lobbying in Washington and international support-was able to finally silence the guns.

On May 1, the Navy shut down its operations and relinquished most of its properties on Vieques.

Stories of improbable Davids and mighty Goliaths, stories like those of East Austin and Vieques, prove that a united, informed community can fight back and defeat environmental injustice.

Unfortunately, many people, many polluters, show very little respect for all living things, including millions of Hispanics exposed to very dangerous toxins. There are many lessons to learn from East Austin and Vieques. We have to get organized, form alliances in our communities. And when we vote, we need to keep in mind which candidates protect those polluters and which ones protect you and your family.

Environmental injustice should not be a dirty secret anymore. Become a David among the Goliaths. Protect your community from polluters.

We Are Talking About An Injustice Of National Proportions.

JAVIER SIERRA is a columnist for the Sierra Club

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