Sixty one percent of the British Petroleum oil-spill waste – that’s 24,071 tons out of 39,448 tons — is being dumped in communities largely made up of people of color, according to Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.
For the last three months most of the news coverage on the oil spill has been how and when the well would be capped; how much oil was spilling into the Gulf; what the overall economic damage would be to Gulf Coast communities; and how BP would be held accountable.
Yet these days less attention is being paid to how waste is being disposed. That means thousands of trash bags with tar balls, disposable oil-soaked booms, the oil-stained sand; the oil-soaked sea grass, medical waste used for wildlife rehabilitation, and the tons of oil-contaminated rags, gloves, protective gear and now-toxic clothing used by clean-up workers.
The BP oil spill is the biggest environmental disaster in American history. Government officials estimate the well leaked between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.
Environmental activists say the situation has become a toxic nightmare.
Writing on Dissidentvoice.org last month, Bullard notes more than 39,448 tons of oil garbage had been disposed of at nine approved landfills in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi as of July 15. More than half (five out of nine) of the landfills receiving BP waste are located in communities where people of color comprise a majority of residents, he writes.
African Americans make up just 22 percent of the coastal counties in those four states, while people of color comprise about 26 percent of the population in coastal counties.
“Clearly, the flow of BP oil-spill waste to Gulf Coast communities is not random,” says Bullard.
According to Color Lines magazine, the only place that has successfully halted dumping at their landfill is Harrison County, Miss., where 71 percent of residents are white.
In Florida, white residents were incredulous that their town of Spring Hill was picked for dumping oil waste – until they realized the Environmental Protection Agency had printed a typo. The federal agency didn’t mean Spring Hill, where whites make up 94 percent of the town. They meant the Springhill Regional Landfill in Campbellton, a town of just 221 people, where 60 percent of residents are African American.
“Black communities too often have been on the receiving end of polluting industries without the benefits of jobs and have been used as a repository for other people’s rubbish,” charges Bullard.
For decades, African American and Latino communities in the South became the dumping grounds for all kind of wastes – making them “sacrifice zones,” he adds.
The largest amount of BP waste (14,228 tons) was sent to a landfill in a Florida community where three-fourths of the nearby residents are people of color.
Although African Americans make up about 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, 60 percent of the approved landfills in the state receiving BP waste are located in majority Black communities.
Black communities in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and continue to experience the toughest challenges in rebuilding and recovery after five years.
“Dumping more disaster waste on them is not a pathway to recovery and long-term sustainability,” writes Bullard.
He continues, “Allowing BP, Gulf Coast states, and the private disposal industry to select where the oil-spill waste is dumped only adds to the legacy of environmental racism and unequal protection.”
Others say the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should serve as a wake-up call for the entire country and BP’s waste dumping in majority minority areas is a dirty secret.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green For All, recently wrote on Alternet.org that the disproportionate amount of toxic waste near communities of color has historically been linked to high cancer rates, asthma rates, and other environmental health problems that follow.
“Still, the racial disparity in toxic dumping continues, and federal regulators have not done enough to stop it,” she writes.
Aspects of recovery from environmental and economic mishaps of a pollution-based economy must be fair and equitable, she notes, adding such burdens from the last centuries shouldn’t continue.
“We must build the next century in the image of tomorrow’s triumphs, not yesterday’s failures,” she said.
Photo: Steve Gardner of Mobile, Ala., scrapes oil from the sand along a 700-yard long strip of oil that washed up on the Alabama’s beaches from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. (Dave Martin/AP)