More than one hundred days into the BP disaster, folks are wondering where all the oil has gone–much of it seems to have crept under the water’s surface, or maybe evaporated into thin air. But, as officials scramble to assess the pending damage, we do know the destination of around 40,000 tons of the spill waste: it’s headed for the families that have been getting dumped on for years. In what may be yet another calm before the storm, BP’s colorfully advertised waste management plan appears to follow a haunting pattern of environmental racism.
The activists tracking the region probably locate the targeted sites without glancing at a map. According to an analysis by Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center of Clark Atlanta University:
More than half (five out of nine) of the landfills receiving BP oil-spill solid waste are located in communities where people of color comprise a majority of residents living within near the waste facilities.
In addition, a significantly large share of the BP oil-spill waste, 24,071 tons out of 39,448 tons (61 percent), is dumped in people of color communities. This is not a small point since African Americans make up just 22 percent of the coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, while people of color comprise about 26 percent of the population in coastal counties.
These are communities already pummeled by the a triple-blow of Hurricane Katrina, economic paralysis and racial inequality. Within these populations, the pollution may strike women and children the hardest. Exposures to oil chemicals, such as benzene, along with the mystery cocktail of dispersants, may pose major risks to reproductive and maternal health, though much more research is needed.
On the potential health impacts, Truthout’s Lucinda Marshall notes, "there is little data to go on in large part because the companies responsible have been allowed to keep that data from the public and, in the case of this particular spill, we don’t even know what all the chemicals involved are."
Are we retracing the trajectory of Hurricane Katrina and Rita’s aftermath, a catastrophe that still cries out for a regulatory response to generations of neglect?
As Kimberly Inez McGuire points out at RH Reality Check, BP’s foulness is now stalking the impoverished stretch along the Mississippi known as "Cancer Alley." Along this forsaken corridor, families live with the toxic threats flowing from dumps and industrial plants, including developmental disorders, fertility problems and respiratory illness.
Among the poorest local hurricane survivors, the health of mothers and children is further compromised by everything from post-traumatic stress to formaldehyde-laden trailers.
The Gulf Coast mirrors the overlap of reproductive justice and environmental justice struggles among women trapped by failed environmental and economic policies. Toxic exposures during pregnancy are linked to birth defects, while air and water contamination make it hazardous for children to play outside. The lethal synergy between poor health and sick communities deepens the cycle of social disenfranchisement. And with limited access to health care and abortion, many poor women of color risk losing control of both their reproductive and environmental destinies.
Referring to the usual targets as "sacrifice communities," Bullard explains the intensity of toxic exposures as a measure of the devaluation of human lives:
Although African Americans make up about 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, three of the five approved landfills (60 percent) in the state that received BP oil-spill waste are located in mostly black communities. African American communities in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and have experienced the toughest challenge to rebuild and recover after five years. Dumping more disaster waste on them is not a pathway to recovery and long-term sustainability.
So this is what corporate America means by "waste management." Though Obama’s EPA vows to enhance federal monitoring of local environmental justice issues, we’re left today in anxious expectation of another avoidable crisis of race and health. Like the oil itself, the ultimate consequences are sure to surface down the line, borne out in the next generation to inherit this unconscionable legacy.