Interview with Father of Environmental Justice Robert Bullard

Image: Robert Bullard. Title: Interview with Father of Environmental Justice Robert Bullard
Brittani Flowers

Note: This interview is from an article in published in the Fall 2007 issue of Co-op America Quarterly, now called Green American.

Dr. Robert Bullard is Ware professor of sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He is also widely known as the “father of environmental justice” for more than 25 years of tireless work on behalf of communities of color who have been victims of environmental racism. His work gained a national spotlight in 1987, when two landmark studies—one by Dr. Bullard that focused on Houston and the Toxic Wastes and Racenational study commissioned by the United Church of Christ (UCC)—found that toxic facilities like landfills, chemical plants, and incinerators are much more likely to be located in areas based on race and class.

This year, Dr. Bullard and three of his colleagues published a follow-up to the first UCC study, called Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007. In it, they showed that things haven’t changed much—communities of color are still bearing the poisonous burden of America’s industrial way of life. 

Co-op America editor Tracy Fernandez Rysavy talked to Dr. Bullard about this latest study; about how environmental justice issues affect everyone, not just those who live near toxic facilities; and about what gives him hope as he gets ready to begin the next 25 years of his important work.    

CO-OP AMERICA/TRACY FERNANDEZ RYSAVY: What kind of role has race played in siting toxic facilities in the US?

DR. ROBERT D. BULLARD: When you look at all of the variables, race is still the most potent factor to predict where these facilities are located, more important than income or other socio-economic factors. Even when you control for how much money people make and the price of housing, race still comes out as the number one factor in determining where toxic facilities are located.

Race permeates everything, in terms of housing, education, where people can live, land- use decisions, transportation and mobility. And often, the fact that so many people of color live near facilities that other people don’t want is based on historical factors that resulted in residential segregation and affected the decisions of housing commissions.

TRACY: So you’re saying that it’s not being poor that makes a community end up with toxic facilities—it’s more the fact that brown people or black people live there?

DR. BULLARD: That’s right. And it’s not just toxic waste facilities. Communities of color have more of the negatives and also fewer of the positives—for example, they often lack something as basic as a grocery store or a park or a library, or ease of access to hospitals and other amenities.

Land use oftentimes is not based on any objective, rational criteria. The negatives follow the path of least resistance in terms of how they get sited and the extent to which groups can organize and fend off unwanted land use.  A lot is due to legacy issues, or things left over from the past, when city councils and boards of supervisors were made up of all white people.

And newer occurrences are based on patterns that have not yet changed. Even when we get people of color elected to city councils and boards of supervisors and task forces, these things generally still follow these patterns. That’s what we’ve shown in our report, Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty (TWART).

What that means is that the current land use and environmental protection apparatus is broken and needs to be fixed. It does not protect all communities equally. And that’s why many of the policy recommendations we put forward in the TWART report are crucial—because the existing laws and regulations and industrial siting policies do not protect and do not address these wide disparities.

TRACY: Can you give me an example of one of the policy recommendation in the TWART study that would be very powerful in repairing these disparities?

DR. BULLARD: Before toxic facilities can be located, we need to take into account the extent to which a community or neighborhood already is saturated. Right now, there’s nothing in the laws or regulations that would prohibit a neighborhood from being overly saturated with locally unwanted land uses or industrial facilities.

There’s nothing in our current laws that would take into account the cumulative effect of having a number of facilities within one area—we’re talking about a two-mile radius, which is a very small area. There’s no threshold where we could say, “This community has had enough and there should be no more toxic loading.” When a permit is granted, only that permit is taken into account, not what’s already there.

The way it works in our society is that when one community gets one facility, it’s easier to get two. When it has three, it’s easier to get four. The idea is that since you have five facilities, one more won’t make a difference. And we say that kind of concentration really disadvantages the communities that are hosting these facilities and oftentimes did not ask to get them.

There’s another recommendation where we talk about the question of examining health effects and looking at comparative health disparities within a specific community or neighborhood when a facility is being proposed. The idea is that if a community is already sick and overburdened with toxic facilities, it does not make a whole lot of common sense to add an additional facility.

One example is in Port Arthur, Texas. There’s a neighborhood there, a predominantly black neighborhood, that has all kinds of facilities—we’re talking incinerators, petrochemical plants, all kinds of refineries, you name it. And recently, there was an incinerator that was put there to burn VX nerve gas wastewater. It’s like giving a permit to blow smoke in a roomful of asthmatics!

There should be a trigger that would say, “This community has had enough, and it’s already sick, and it does not need any more environmental stressors and polluting facilities placed in this area.”

Now that’s not rocket science.

TRACY: You’ve said that this type of environmental racism even affects schools.

DR. BULLARD: Schools are not exempt from what we’re talking about. If a neighborhood is saturated with landfills, incinerators, toxic waste sites, and many of our schools are in those neighborhoods, they’re affected, too. If you look at schools across the US located within a one-mile radius of these facilities, you’re talking about a lot of school children that are located in areas with heavy industrial pollutions.

It’s important that we not think of children as little adults. We have to think of them as very sensitive populations that need special protection. We want our children to play outside and get physical activity and not be obese, but we don’t want our children to be outside on dirty air days or in parks built on dump sites. It’s not safe.

TRACY: I remember reading that the people who lived in the Love Canal neighborhood in the 1970s—which was built on top of a toxic waste site—had toxic waste barrels erupting in their local schoolyard. Does that kind of thing still happen?

DR. BULLARD: It still happens. As a matter of fact, there are a number of similar cases that we’ve worked with. There was a school in Los Angeles that was built on top of an old toxic waste site. The Agriculture Street Landfill community in New Orleans, for example, had an $8 million elementary school built on top of an old garbage dump. The school had to be closed, and people who lived nearby were fighting for relocation. They finally won in January 2006, but they were relocated in August of 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, unfortunately.

Almost every school district in the country will be looking for land on which to site new schools, and it’s important that we not make the mistakes of the past.

TRACY: We’ve talked about asthma rates a bit. What else happens to communities when they have clusters of toxic facilities around them?

DR. BULLARD: What also happens is that the only industries that these communities can often attract are other dirty industries. The clustering effect, the piling on effect, the saturation effect, leads to the fact that these are not areas where you will get a lot of clean industry and clean jobs coming in. What you get are basically more and more dirty industries—and they often are not even employing the local residents living nearby.

Residents are always given this promise of jobs: “Well, if we locate this factory here, you’ll get jobs.” The promise of a job is very different from a job. And too often, many of the fence line residents get promises and not jobs.

Some people say that the least that these companies can do is hire local residents when they put a toxic facility in their neighborhood. If you’re living on the fence line, you could walk to work. But in many cases, these jobs are not for the residents at the fence line or nearby; they are for people who commute in with their cars, and they drive in and out, causing more pollution.

So the people who are at the fence line are left with poverty, pollution, and too often, illnesses. That’s a triple whammy that needs to be reversed.

TRACY: Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty said things really haven’t changed in the last two decades when it comes to putting toxic facilities in communities of color.  What gives you hope in the face of these findings?

DR. BULLARD: It’s an uphill struggle, but I’m optimistic that we will be able to continue to expand the issues. A lot of these things just didn’t happen until the last 20 or 30 years. A lot of this has been building for centuries.

First, what gives me hope is the fact that we have more people working on these issues—we have young students, and we have universities that have environmental justice courses in law school and medical school and planning school.

There are other areas where we’ve made improvements in terms of getting more grassroots people on board commissions to identify other problems that may not necessarily be related to a landfill or hazardous waste site. They’ve expanded the whole idea of environmental justice to include access to transportation, access to full-service grocery stores, equity in how we plan our cities and our metropolitan regions. We have broadened the definition of what environmental justice means for policy makers.

And there’s the fact that we’ve gotten all kinds of organizations—faith-based, environmental groups, mainstream as well as health groups—to say with us that the environment should be nurturing, and we should be able to get sustenance from the environment; it should not be something that’s harmful.

So we’ve changed the definition, and we’ve gotten more and more people involved.

The other thing is that we’ve been able to get environmental justice on the international radar. These issues are global and they’re international, such as when we’re talking about the issue of climate and climate justice. The same people who are disproportionately and adversely impacted in terms of environmental problems—generally people of color—are impacted negatively and disproportionately when we talk about climate issues.

Environmental justice is now a concept and paradigm that is not just confined to rural places in southern US; it’s international.

TRACY: You recently testified before Congress on environmental justice issues. How did that come about?

DR. BULLARD: The four principal authors of the TWART report, myself and Drs. Paul Mohai (University of Michigan), Robin Saha (University of Montana), and Beverly Wright (Dillard University of Louisiana), circulated a letter with the ten policy recommendations that were pulled out of the report. We sent it out to civil rights groups, environmental groups, health groups, and others, and we received the support of over 100 organizations representing millions of people around the country. We took that letter to the Senate, and as a result, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health, held the first-ever Senate hearing on environmental justice on July 25 of this year.

Tracy: You’ve been working on these issues for more than a quarter of a century, and this is your first hearing?

DR. BULLARD: (laughs) This is the first Senate hearing.

I think what that says is that we have to do a better job in getting the information out, in informing our elected officials about what’s going on. In my testimony, I presented a lot of the materials and findings and recommendations from the report, and really tried to challenge the Senate Subcommittee and the Congress to strengthen and to put back in place many of the environmental justice regulations and initiatives that are being stripped and rolled back.

Like the enforcement and implementation of the Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, which required the EPA to take the lead in addressing environmental justice issues. There have been recent attempts to redefine environmental justice and not deal with racial disparities and income—or to basically strip race and income out of the Executive Order. That was not the intent of the order when President Clinton signed it in 1994.

There have been reports from the General Accounting Office and two reports from the EPA’s Inspector General (one in 2004 and one in 2006) that basically say EPA has done a lousy job of implementing the Executive Order since it was signed 13 years ago. We’re asking Congress to put the rules back in place and to strengthen what we have, and also move to the next level.

TRACY: What kind of reactions did you get after your testimony?

DR. BULLARD: After a number of us testified, we did get some commitments from the Subcommittee to move forward and get the EPA to implement the recommendations the Inspector General made in those two reports, regarding strengthening the Executive Order. If those recommendations were carried out, we would be well on our way to addressing a lot of the environmental injustice problems in communities of color and low-income communities around the country.

The Subcommittee did press the EPA on why it has taken so long to get things moving and why they’ve really dragged their feet. I think they really scolded the agency for not doing what it needs to do. And we want the EPA and the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and the Interior—all those 12 or 13 agencies that come under the Executive Order—to really get back on track. The problem is that when EPA backed off, especially in the last six years, that’s given the wrong signal to a lot of these other federal agencies because they take their cues from EPA.

TRACY: Do you think they’ll start acting, or do you think it’ll take until after the next election?

DR. BULLARD: I would hope that the Congress would begin to move on some of these environmental justice initiatives—there are a number of bills currently moving through Congress. I’m hopeful.

But it’s all about getting communities around the country energized and mobilized to say we can’t wait another 12 years. We’re talking about communities that are really hurting, especially the most vulnerable parts of our communities, low-income children and elderly people.

It should not be a Democratic or Republican issue. This is an issue of health and equal protection of our environment and our communities.

TRACY: What do you recommend people do if they live in a community that’s targeted?

DR. BULLARD: It’s important that people identify the strengths in their community, especially the organizations. Many times, low-income communities and communities of color do not have environmental organizations operating within, but they do have church-based groups, neighborhood groups, civic groups, and homeowners associations that can do this work.

They need to organize and mobilize and get themselves educated on what the impacts of these toxic facilities are. Get the permit applications and read them and see exactly what kind of thing is being proposed. Then, access databases like the toxic release inventory database and see what the effects of that facility could be, so they can tell people about them.

We have more resources available to these communities today than we did 20-30 years ago—there are all kinds of environmental justice organizations around the country and environmental centers based at local universities that can assist.

There’s no substitute for organization and education. No substitute at all.

Also, it’s important for everyone to understand that we are all in this together, even though most Americans don’t live next to a toxic waste site or next to a freeway or polluting facility. It affects everybody, because when illnesses rise and health care goes up, everybody will have to pay.

If we are to be a just society, that means we all should share in trying to address these problems that may somehow hit some populations harder. In the end, we all will pay. There are some people saying, “Well, I don’t drive, I don’t pollute.” But if you breathe the air, you are impacted.

So it becomes our civic duty to say, “If we really are to become a safer, more secure, and healthier society, we all have to contribute to solutions, not just talk about the problems.”