The Gulf oil spill that has been capturing the news cycle in the United States for the last few months finally appears to be under control, and now we’re faced with a common problem: We have a whole lot of waste from the spill and associated cleanup, and it needs to go somewhere. This includes crude oil, equipment used by cleanup crews, soiled booms, and all kinds of other spill-associated detritus.
According to a story published at Colorlines last week, nine landfills in the Gulf region have been selected as sites for disposing of waste. Waste management authorities claim the material isn’t toxic, which means that regular municipal landfills, rather than landfills specifically designed to handle hazardous waste, are being used. Of the nine landfills chosen, five are located in low income communities of colour.
This is not a coincidence. While it is true that there are a number of primarily nonwhite communities in the Gulf, and that many of these communities are also low income, thus making it statistically more probable that at least some of the waste would end up in such communities, this case is clearly an example of environmental racism. There is a very long history in the United States of pushing unwanted toxic waste into low income communities in general, and communities with large nonwhite populations in particular.
There have been rumblings over the last few months about where BP is putting the oil spill waste, and most of those rumblings have focused on outraged white communities. This distracts neatly from the far more serious issue, the fact that most of this waste would end up in nonwhite communities, and that these communities would experience serious long term consequences. Focusing on white communities also allows the media to completely ignore the overt racism involved in deciding where potentially toxic waste ends up.
From the start, the oil spill has disproportionately impacted people of colour. Many of the cleanup workers were people of colour, and BP also used primarily nonwhite prison labour in oil spill cleanup and tried to hide it. Now, with the spill cleanup winding down, waste from the spill is being dumped on nonwhite communities even as these communities struggle to recover economically from the impacts of the spill. They can look forward to leaching of oil and chemicals from their landfills in the coming decades, and reports on the ground also indicate that the waste is already poorly controlled, with oil slicks and tarballs showing up around communities being used as dumping sites.
Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why were cleanup workers wearing protective suits? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why are people who have been exposed to it getting sick? Given that this waste is supposedly ‘nontoxic,’ why is care being taken to ensure it doesn’t end up in privileged communities?
Communities with limited support systems to help sick and disabled community members are the ones disproportionately facing an increase in chronic conditions and disabilities. A long term policy of dumping toxic pollutants on low income nonwhite communities and refusing to provide support for the consequences sends a pretty clear message to members of those communities, as well as to the rest of society.
Crude oil can contain things like benzene, chromium, mercury, sulfur, toluene, and xylene. These substances are known to have deleterious effects on human health; at the very least, skin irritation and difficulty breathing. The oil spill waste also contains traces of dispersants, known to be toxic. And the government wants to stand by the claim that the waste isn’t toxic? Dumping these waste in facilities poorly equipped to handle it will result in long term environmental repercussions, in addition to human health problems.
I’ve written here before about how hazardous waste disposal methods tend to disproportionately impact communities of colour, and how they are most definitely a disability rights issue. Environmental pollution is a disability rights issue, and it’s a social justice issue. Toxic waste makes people sick. Making people sick is not ok, especially when familiar patterns of oppression can be seen in who is exposed to the greatest risks. If this waste is nontoxic, surely it can go in any landfill, and it would make sense to use landfills as close to the coast as possible, right? So the waste travels the shortest distance? What exactly was the selection process behind the nine landfills identified as sites for Gulf spill waste?
BP, like other major oil companies, has a long history of engaging in environmental pollution, including unauthorized dumping of materials known to be toxic. The vast majority of this pollution occurs in communities least equipped to fight it, and when oil companies are caught doing it, often the biggest punishment is a relatively small fine. In this case, BP isn’t being clandestine: the company is being openly invited to dump waste. The claim is that it’s ‘nonhazardous,’ but is it? Even if it’s not toxic, is it really the kind of thing we want leaching out of landfills and into waterways and farmlands?
These communities will be dealing with the repercussions of BP’s dumping well into the future, just like communities all over the world where people are sickening and dying because of toxic materials present in the environment. Just like communities where rates of chromosomal anomalies are skyrocketing as a result of exposure to toxic substances. Communities with limited support systems to help sick and disabled community members are the ones disproportionately facing an increase in chronic conditions and disabilities. A long term policy of dumping toxic pollutants on low income nonwhite communities and refusing to provide support for the consequences sends a pretty clear message to members of those communities, as well as to the rest of society.
We need to be talking about the connection between environmental pollution and racism and we need to be combating plans to dump hazardous waste on low income communities of colour, from protesting clearly racist environmental policy to working in solidarity with communities who are actively fighting toxic waste disposal in their landfills and on their sacred lands.