In the air and the ground, a story of environmental inequalities

By Drew Kann, Shelia Poole and Nick Thieme

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lanetra Tucker lived in an apartment one block from Crawford W. Long Middle School. Most of the time, her children made the short walk to and from the South Atlanta campus, in the shadow of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

But she said she never noticed the factory just up the hill from the school, where dirt-like mounds of waste were exposed to the elements.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order saying lead and other pollutants from the metal processing plant could pose an “imminent and substantial” danger to the public. Environmental experts say it could be the city’s next Superfund site, requiring a massive cleanup.

The federal agency found that the area surrounding the TAV Holdings plant ranks above the 80th percentile in Georgia for many environmental health indicators, including cancer risk and respiratory risks. The neighborhood is primarily home to low-income people of color.

“It just doesn’t surprise me,” said Tucker, the parent of an eighth-grader at Crawford Middle, where the EPA collected soil samples. “Stuff like that is something black people have gotten used to.”

For decades, communities of color across the United States have faced a disproportionate burden from environmental threats. The case unfolds in the Glenrose Heights neighborhood of Atlanta and a Superfund cleanup is underway in nearby Vine City, another mostly black community, Georgia suggests. still counts with a history of environmental injustice.

Pile of waste on the property of the TAV Holdings site. Photo: HYOSUB SHIN/AJC

Research has found that polluting industries are more likely to locate in minority and low-income neighborhoods. And people of color are more likely to breathe air containing high concentrations of fine particulates, which are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year in the United States.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of EPA and Census Bureau data found that Georgia census tracts within two miles of a Superfund site had a higher percentage of black residents and lower house values. lower, on average, than neighborhoods farther from sites in the same county.

Sites with the EPA’s Superfund label are among the most toxic in the country. Superfunds may also be placed on the program’s national priority list, meaning the agency has found that the site will require long-term cleanup. Georgia has 18 sites that are on the NPL or have been proposed for addition.

About 44% of residents living in the census tracts surrounding these 18 Superfund sites are black, compared to 31% elsewhere. Homes within two miles of a Superfund site are also only worth $112,000 on average, compared to $165,000 further away, according to the AJC analysis.

Fatemeh Shafiei, a former member of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, calls environmental justice the civil rights of the new millennium.

Long before the 2020 anti-racism protests following the murder of George Floyd, many black communities “were already struggling with ‘I can’t breathe’ because of asthma,” said Shafiei, a professor at the Spelman Middle School. “Black people are disproportionately affected by asthma because they live in areas very close to pollution.”

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, air pollution alone is responsible for more than 6 million premature deaths each year from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and respiratory diseases, such as lung cancer. . The detrimental effect of contamination, heat, and air pollution leads to poor pregnancy outcomes, especially for black women.

And lead, like the one that leaks from the TAV plant, is a potent neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system, especially in children.

The Glenrose Heights neighborhood shown here in south Atlanta is located near a site managed by TAV Holdings. Photo: HYOSUB SHIN/AJC

Health problems persist in Newtown

On Desota Street in the predominantly black Newtown neighborhood of Gainesville, rests a granite monument engraved with the names of 20 residents who died of cancer between the 1980s and early 2000s.

Some were members of the Newtown Florist Club, which was formed in the 1950s by a group of black women who helped the sick and collected donations to buy flowers for residents’ funerals.

Sometimes residents would notice a strange smell coming from some of the nearby businesses. Over time, said the Reverend Rose Johnson, the current executive director, club members noticed that many residents suffered from cancer, lupus and various respiratory diseases.

Their homes, built for black families displaced by the 1936 tornado that destroyed large swaths of the city, were built on top of a former dump. Years later, industrial factories will settle in the region.

Club members have become advocates for environmental justice and civil rights, documenting disease and death.

Newtown Florist Club members Delinda Luster, left, and Rose Johnson visit the memorial to remember residents who died of cancer or lupus. Photo: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

Johnson’s family moved to the tight-knit community when she was 12. She remembers playing outside and coming home with her hair and clothes covered in fine yellow dust.

Those who could walk away did so. Others decided to hold on, not wanting to leave their family and friends and not having the means to do so.

In 1990, the state Department of Human Resources confirmed a higher rate of throat and mouth cancers in the neighborhood. But the state bureau of epidemiology later attributed the high rate to a lifestyle of smoking and drinking, which outraged locals, according to Ellen Griffith Spears, author of “The Newtown Story: One Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice”.

Two subsequent public health assessments conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and the Disease Registry found insufficient evidence to link health problems in Newtown to pollution.

But independent environmental consultants have questioned the agencies’ conclusions. Over the past 20 years, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division has enforced five consent orders involving facilities around Newtown for a variety of issues, including air quality violations.

Jamie Baker Roskie, the former chief counsel for the University of Georgia Land Use Clinic, has spent years studying Newtown and says she understands why residents feel ignored.

“The conversation seems exactly the same as it did 10 or 20 years ago…It doesn’t seem like any real solutions have been offered to these residents,” Roskie said.

Today, although some of the nearby industries have addressed the concerns, Johnson wonders if the younger generations who grew up in Newtown will have similar health issues.

“Any community like ours that has fought or dealt with environmental contamination needs to pay attention to the long-term generational effects. Wondering if they’ll be next?

“Little has changed”

Robert Bullard is known as the “Father of Environmental Justice”. In 1994, he started the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark University in Atlanta.

He followed in the footsteps of the Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who is widely credited with popularizing the term “environmental racism” in the 1980s when he was director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice.

Over the past few decades, “little has changed in terms of the fight for equal justice when it comes to things like location and land use,” said Bullard, the author of “Dumping in Dixie : Race, Class and Environmental Quality”.

“America is separate, and so is pollution,” added Bullard, now a professor at Texas Southern University.

He says it’s not just about income, because white people may find it easier to move than black people due to housing discrimination, red lines and unfair practices in the real estate industry.

Lead-contaminated dirt is removed from a property in Vine City on Atlanta’s Westside last week. Photo: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Westside tries to step out of the past

Standing at the top of the stairs that lead to her front door, Ellis Smith watches an excavator dig her yard.

Using the machine’s grapple to scoop up dirt, the operator dumps loads of dark sediment into the bed of a waiting dump truck. When the black dirt gives way to Georgia’s signature red clay, he moves on to the next plot.

The Smith Yard cleanup is part of a massive ongoing EPA effort to remove lead from hundreds of Vine City properties, which include the Westside Lead Superfund site.

Experts say it’s not clear exactly how dangerous levels of lead ended up in the ground beneath this historic black community, where Martin Luther King Jr. lived, but say it likely came from smelters in metals that were once common in the Westside of Atlanta.

After an Emory professor and his students found high lead levels in the neighborhood in 2018, the EPA began sampling 60 properties in March 2019. Today, the site has grown to include 2 100 properties, according to Leigh Lattimore, EPA remediation project manager. for the construction site.

While remediation work on the Westside could last until 2028 or 2029, the task of restoring trust in communities that have been affected by pollution could take much longer.

Workers remove contaminated dirt from a property at the Westside Lead Superfund site last week. Photo: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Daniel Blackman is well aware of this challenge. He was recently appointed EPA Administrator for Region 4, which includes Georgia and seven other southern states. He is the first black man to hold the position of administrator for the region.

Blackman said the agency must take the time to listen and engage with affected communities, but also hire people who are like those they serve.

Just around the corner from Smith’s house, Octavious O’Neal’s backyard is much different. Instead of a mess of clay and tangled tree roots, O’Neal’s yard has grass, fresh mulch and new hedges along the fence, after the EPA cleared it at the end of last year.

“We are finally getting the justice we have long deserved,” he said. “That evil is being righted here and hopefully in other parts of the city the same will happen.”

Ellis Smith stands on her porch last week as workers remove dirt from a Westside Superfund site in Atlanta’s Vine City neighborhood. Photo: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

— Pete Corson, Digital Audience Specialist, contributed to this article.