From Niagra to Afton: Environmental Justice in the United States

By Jessica Yorko, Environmental Justice Coordinator, Ingham County Health Department

In the late 1890’s, William T. Love built part of a canal and some houses between the Niagra River and Lake Ontario. He ran out of money for the nature-shrouded neighborhood he’d envisioned, abandoning the site. Then the City of Niagra Falls, the U.S. Army and Hooker Chemical dumped municipal, nuclear and chemical waste into the canal for 60 years. Hooker closed the site in 1953, and the Niagra Falls City School District bought the land. They constructed two schools and sold the remaining property to developers for a 36-block neighborhood.

In the 1960’s, protest was in the air. Activists, students and reporters marched against local governments, universities and other institutions, crying out against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War. Parades, sit-ins, rallies and negotiations resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964*, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Fair Housing Act of 1968 and waning public support for the war.

In January 1969, 210,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into the Santa Barbara Channel, due to industry non-compliance with regulations to prevent such a breach. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in U.S. history, killing thousands of sea birds, dolphins, elephant seals and sea lions. On April 22, 1970– the world’s first Earth Day– more than 20 million people took “to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies.” The United States Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970.

In Niagra Falls in the late 1970’s, twenty years after Love Canal neighborhood was built, a reporter discovered alarmingly high rates of miscarriage, cancer and birth defects such as mental retardation and enlarged limbs. Affected families embarked on relentless action that was ignored by their local governments. President Jimmy Carter eventually announced a health emergency and allocated federal disaster funds to remedy the site and relocate more than 800 households. Occidental Petroleum, the company that bought out Hooker Chemical, was sued by the EPA, and in 1995 paid $129 million in restitution. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was enacted by Congress in 1980.**

In the early 80’s, on the heels of Love Canal tragedy, the State of North Carolina and the U.S. EPA picked a site in the small town of Afton to bury soil contaminated with 31,000 gallons of Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB)-laden oil. PCBs cause cancer and irreversible damage to human immunological, reproductive, neurological and endocrine systems. The oil had been intentionally drizzled alongside 210 miles of sate highway by Ward PCB Transformer Company in 1978 to avoid disposal costs. Scientists warned that the site in Afton would not contain the waste because of the soil’s permeability and the close proximity to groundwater. The residents of Afton were 84% African American and 20% below poverty. On December 20, 1978, North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt declared, “public sentiment would not deter the state from burying the PCBs in Warren County”. The US EPA backed him up. Decision-makers moved forward with their plans regardless of the warnings of scientists, litigation, and protests that included residents lying down in front of 10,000 trucks of contaminated soil for six weeks. The 1982 truck protests resulted in 550 arrests, and were called “the largest civil disobedience in the South since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched through Alabama.”

Under massive national pressure and constant media exposure, Governor Hunt later promised to install a perforated pipe leachate collection system, and to detoxify the landfill when the technology became available. 60,000 tons of contaminated soil were buried within the groundwater and the leachate system was never built. In 1993 the dump was nearly burst, filled with with close to a million gallons of water, making a breach of the liner imminent. Citizens continued direct actions that resulted in Hunt finally fulfilling his promise to detoxify the soil. In 2003, after twenty years of struggle, treatment of 81,600 tons of soil was completed at a total cost of $17.1 million. No reparation or relocation was ever ordered for the residents of Afton, and no settlement was ever obtained from the Ward PCB Transformer Company.

This debacle was aptly named “environmental racism”. People throughout the U.S. gathered to define the principles of Environmental Justice, and held the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991.

The U.S. Environmental Protection agency created the Office of Environmental Justice in 1992. In 1994 President Bill Clinton issued an executive order directing federal agencies to consider environmental factors negatively affect people of color.

Since 1991, the Environmental Justice movement– championed by grassroots organizations and health researchers and practitioners– has grown and changed, and is now imperceptibly interwoven with issues of health equity and economic and racial justice.

This is Part II of a multi-part series on Environmental Justice. Check future posts to learn about the present and future of the EJ movement in the United States, Michigan and Ingham County and how you can get involved.

* Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says, “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 
** The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. This law created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and provided broad Federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. Over five years, $1.6 billion was collected and the tax went to a trust fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.