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Justice in Time

Meet Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice

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By Gregory Dicum
March 14, 2006

Robert Bullard says he was "drafted" into environmental justice while working as an environmental sociologist in Houston in the late 1970s. His work there on the siting of garbage dumps in black neighborhoods identified systematic patterns of injustice. The book that Bullard eventually wrote about that work, 1990's Dumping in Dixie, is widely regarded as the first to fully articulate the concept of environmental justice.

Since then, Bullard, who is as much activist as academic, has been one of the leading voices of environmental-justice advocacy. He was one of the planners of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, at which the organizing principles of modern environmental justice were formulated. Bullard later helped the Clinton administration write the watershed executive order that required all federal agencies to consider environmental justice in their programs.

Under the Bush administration, progress made during the 1990s is under attack, with even the U.S. EPA working to dismantle that provision. As he has for 25 years, Bullard stands at the forefront of efforts to maintain environmental-justice gains, and to make mainstream environmentalists aware of the issues at stake.

Currently on sabbatical from his position as director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, Bullard has just published his 12th book. The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution brings together more than 20 contributors for a survey of the movement's past and future.

Grist caught up with Bullard as he took a break from working on a Ford Foundation-funded study of how government actions have endangered the health and welfare of African Americans over the past seven decades. Most recently, this work has turned Bullard's attention to the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which he describes as the latest urban environmental sacrifice zone.

Q: How did you first become involved in environmental justice?

A: I was a young sociology professor just two years out of graduate school. My wife asked me to collect data for a lawsuit she had filed. A company had decided to put a landfill in the middle of a predominantly black, middle-class, suburban neighborhood -- a neighborhood where 85 percent of the people owned their homes. Of course, the state gave them a permit, but the people said "no."

I saw that 100 percent of all the city-owned landfills in Houston were in black neighborhoods, though blacks made up only 25 percent of the population. Three out of four of the privately owned landfills were located in predominantly black neighborhoods, and six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators. In a city that does not have zoning, it meant that these were decisions made by individuals in government.

That's how I got dragged into this.

Q: And you got hooked.

A: I got hooked. I started connecting the dots in terms of housing, residential patterns, patterns of land use, where highways go, where transportation routes go, and how economic-development decisions are made. It was very clear that people who were making decisions -- county commissioners or industrial boards or city councils -- were not the same people who were "hosting" these facilities in their communities.

Without a doubt, it was a form of apartheid where whites were making decisions and black people and brown people and people of color, including Native Americans on reservations, had no seat at the table.

Q: Just before Hurricane Katrina, you were getting ready to look at natural disasters as part of a study of how government actions endanger the health of African Americans in the South. How does Katrina fit the historical pattern?

A: Katrina was not isolated. It was not an aberration, and it was not incompetence on the part of FEMA and Michael Brown and the Bush administration. This has been going on for a long time under Republicans and Democrats, and the central theme that drives all of this is race and class.

Q: You've done a lot of work with schools. Why is that of particular concern?

A: Poor children in urban areas are poisoned in their homes. And when they go to school, they get another dose. And when they go outside and play, they get another dose. It's a slow-motion disaster: the most vulnerable population in our society is children, and the most vulnerable children are children of color. If we protect the most vulnerable in our society -- these children -- we protect everybody.

Q: Can you give a sense of the scale of the problem surrounding these schools?

A: Moton Elementary School, in New Orleans, is built on top of a landfill, causing lots of problems with the water in the school. The playgrounds in Norco, La., in Cancer Alley, are across from a huge Shell refinery. You stay there 15 minutes and you can't breathe. And in South Camden, N.J., there are schools and playgrounds on the waterfront where you have all this industry, all this nasty stuff. Almost two-thirds of the children in that neighborhood have asthma. In West Harlem, the North River Water Treatment Plant covers eight blocks near a school. On the south side of Chicago, it's the same kind of thing.

From coast to coast, you see this happening. It's not just the landfill, it's not just the incinerator, it's not just the garbage dump, it's not just the crisscrossing freeway and highway, and the bus barns that dump all that stuff in these neighborhoods -- it's all that combined. Even if each particular facility is in compliance, there are no regulations that take into account this saturation. It may be legal, but it is immoral. Just like slavery was legal, but slavery has always been immoral.

What keeps Robert Bullard going? Can environmental sustainability exist without environmental justice? How does environmental justice influence politics? See page 2.

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