June 4, 2004

LA COLUMNA VERTEBRAL
El Soporte Informativo Para Millones de Hispanos
Por John Suval

Stopping fires before they start

Community crusaders carry on the battle for environmental justice

Five years ago, lightning struck near John Mataka’s home, setting ablaze a mountain of illegally dumped tires-more than 7 million in all. For 34 days the tires burned, casting a suffocating black plume over nearby communities until, finally, an elite team of firefighters arrived to extinguish the blaze.

The Westley tire fire was but the latest indignity suffered by the working-class, predominantly Latino residents of the small towns west of Modesto in California’s Central Valley. Marked by large-scale agriculture and heavy industry, the area was home to trash incinerators and numerous other toxic sites. The same pesticides used to produce abundant harvests had seeped into people’s wells, turning the water into a witch’s brew of nitrates. Not surprisingly, the people suffered from high rates of cancer, heart disease, asthma, infant mortality and a litany of other woes.

“It’s a constant barrage of attacks (on the health of the community),” says Mataka of the Grayson Neighborhood Council.

Municipalities across the United States have long had a dirty habit of putting their factories and dumps precisely where low-income people of color live. During the civil rights era, a movement swept the nation to end this injustice. From the gritty battles of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers of California, to the barrios of New York, people rose up to demand a healthier, more equitable world. The “environmental justice” crusade notched a crowning achievement in 1994 when President Clinton issued an executive order directing the federal government to ensure that its policies and programs do not disproportionately impact minority and low-income communities.

Unfortunately the current administration seems to prefer the trash heap of history to healthy children. In March, the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency determined that the agency has turned its back on Executive Order No. 12898, failing to provide staffing, benchmarks or even to articulate a basic vision to prevent communities of color from getting dumped on anew.

This is not a surprise. At a time when asthma afflicts more children than ever and millions of Hispanic households have a primary source of water that is unsafe to drink, the administration of George W. Bush has taken an axe to key clean air and water protections. The clean up of toxic sites is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, the administration has allowed wealthy campaign contributors from polluting industries to re-write environmental laws and increasingly police themselves. Predictably, enforcement has dropped to the tune of 60 percent fewer notices of violation issued by the E.P.A. each month.

Fortunately, the John Mataka’s of the world refuse to give up the good fight. Impervious to the toxic winds blowing from Washington, he and his neighbors are holding their local elected officials’ feet to the fire. In 2001, they thwarted a plan to incinerate medical waste in their community, sparing themselves a steady diet of dioxin, an extremely potent carcinogen. The following year they prevented the county landfill from quadrupling in size. The plucky band of housewives and workers recently prevailed upon the Modesto City Council to invest more than $1 million in a new filter system to keep their drinking water safe.

“The only time local officials listen to us is when their phones ring off the hook, or we call a press conference and are on local television or in the newspaper, or we’ve dug up some dirt (on corruption),” says Mataka, a drug and alcohol counselor who also serves on the board of the environmental group Greenaction. “The good news is that a community can win if it puts its mind to it.”

The Central Valley crusaders have discovered another important weapon: the ballot box. When the incumbent on the County Board of Supervisors supported the expansion of the landfill, Mataka and friends threw their support behind a newcomer who ran on an anti-expansion platform.

The newcomer won. 

Such victories help ensure that a new mountain of tires does not pile up in the Central Valley, awaiting the next lightening strike.

For more information on how you can create a healthy environment for your family and community, call your national Hispanic Helpline toll-free at 1-800-473-3003.

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