In Georgia, Black Communities Are More Likely to Live Near Toxic Waste Sites
Melissa Harris-Perry: We continue our ongoing series, Georgia at the Intersections, with a story at the intersection of racial and environmental injustice. Last month, the environmental protection agency issued an emergency order to close a metal processing facility in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the EPA, the facility has generated lead and other pollutants that pose a "imminent and substantial" danger to the public and the environment. Like many environmental threats, this waste site is located in a predominantly Black community.
Now, decades of research show that communities of color, especially those in the south are targeted by polluting industries for the placement of hazardous waste sites. It's as Practice Professor Robert Bullard describes as Dumping in Dixie. Christina Fuller is an associate professor at Georgia State University School of Public Health. Christina, it's good to have you here.
Christina Fuller: Thank you for the invitation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Drew Kann, an enterprise reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering climate and environmental issues. Drew, it's great to have you here.
Christina Fuller: Good to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Drew, I want to start with you. A recent analysis by Atlanta Journal-Constitution found neighborhoods surrounding the state's 18 Superfund sites are much more likely to be Black communities. Let's start, what is a Superfund site?
Drew Kann: The Superfund program is actually the informal name for an act of Congress that was established in 1980, and it's called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Besides what the Superfund label are among the most toxic in the country, and basically, the program is a way for the agency to allocate resources and funds to clean up those sites. Within the Superfund program, sites can also be placed on the program's national priority list, and this is reserved for sites that the agency has found pose a serious risk to human health and the environment and will require a long-term cleanup.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Christina, given that this study by AJC is one that reinforces a lot of what we've known about the patterns of these Superfund sites and other environmental hazards in their connection with Black communities and other communities of color in the south, let me just ask, which comes first? Is it that these polluters are there and then Black communities grow around them because the land is less expensive, or the community is there first and the polluters show up and begin to site there?
Christina Fuller: It can actually be both because of histemic, systemic, and historical discrimination with practices such as redlining. Areas where a Black population were located were sanctioned to be for undevelopment and for purposes that were polluting for many ways. Also, highways have historically been put in Black communities and other communities of color.
First that there is definitely a history of putting these polluting facilities near populations of color, but then on the other hand, due to other factors when a polluting facility is placed somewhere, it makes it less desirable, and then lower-income communities and also some communities of color, because of their less purchasing power, are only able to perhaps purchase in those areas. It's really both.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Drew, I'm wondering if in your analysis you found whether or not people know that those polluters are there. I live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where we very recently have been dealing with a massive fertilizer plant fire, and what I kept hearing from many community members was we didn't even know that it was there. We knew there was a building back there, but we didn't know what it was. Do you find that communities are aware that these Superfund sites are in their community?
Drew Kann: Yes. It really varies. Some of them, they do. The west side, lead side, that's a stone's throw from downtown Atlanta where we spent a fair bit of time, they know because a professor in 2018, an Emory professor and her students discovered a high level of lead in the soil there. I do think there are a lot of communities where they don't know, and I was struck in reporting this process even in the communities that do know about this stuff, they're concerned, but they're not surprised.
Black people living in these communities feel like this is something that is a fact of life. One mother of an eighth-grader who attends the school near the TAV holding site, which I should say, has not been declared a Superfund site, but some experts have said that they expect that it may eventually be one. She told me this is something that Black people have gotten used to, and it is being cleaned up and addressed in some places, but it can take many, many years to do that and can take many years before the pollution is even discovered in some cases.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I get your point there, Drew. Christina, that notion that there's almost a resignation to these polluting industries. Talk to me a little bit about what the effects of living near something like the TAV Holding Plant might be.
Christina Fuller: Well, there are definitely health effects that are associated with being exposed to different types of chemicals, and then, of course, depends on the chemicals. They can be associated with heart disease, with hypertension, high rates of asthma, especially when we're talking about different types of air pollution, as well as cancer. The health burdens can be very high.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What happens when something like the TAV holding plant is closed down? What are the next steps? Are communities involved in the choices? Because you're saying, oh, some are being cleaned up. Who's doing that cleanup. How clean do they end up being?
Drew Kann: It really varies from site to site and depends on the type of pollution. The situation around the TAV Holding site is very much unfolding. The site itself is a scrap metal processing facility, which basically breaks down auto scraps and electronic scraps, and other various metal constituents. It's a pretty dirty form of recycling, but it's located in South Atlanta, a short distance from Hartsfield–Jackson Airport.
What the EPA is doing right now is basically trying to determine the risk that pollution from the site poses to the surrounding community environment, and they're doing that by testing the facilities located very close to a middle school, which was very concerning to a lot of experts as spoken. Melissa, we're doing soil testing at the middle school, in a creek that runs between the facility and the middle school on the backside of it, basically, determine how far these toxins have spread into the surrounding environment. Based on that, the agencies told me that will determine the next steps. They do plan to have results of the testing in the coming weeks and share that with the community in a virtual forum, but as of yet, a date has not been set for that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Take a quick break with me, we'll be back with more on environmental injustice at the intersections in Georgia in just a moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We're continuing our series, Georgia at the Intersections. We've been talking about environmental injustice in Georgia with Drew Kann, an enterprise reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Christina Fuller, associate professor at Georgia State University School of Public Health.
Christina, let me come to you for a moment on this because I'm wondering about as you talked about this history and this history around residential patterns, and I'm thinking, okay, once you're talking about a school, once it becomes public, which is important, right? Shine the light, the disinfectant, it's public now that we have this polluter, it's near a middle school, we know the impacts of lead, but then I wonder, oh my goodness, what happens to the rating of that school? What happens to the value of those properties? Are families now stuck there unable to make a healthier choice to move even once these environmental inequalities are made apparent?
Christina Fuller: With regards to communities that are overburdened with pollutants, as we mentioned a few minutes ago, many times, the areas are already having difficulties in terms of economic conditions, in terms of having different types of polluting facilities that are already gathered in a single place. Shining light on it does not necessarily increase that, but what it does is that it provides an opportunity for others to take notice so that then there can be changes that can occur in the community. I feel that the communities themselves are the really key players in doing that and really key players in making that change happen in terms of advocating for themselves, and they do on a regular basis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say just one more beat about that. What kinds of activism, organizing, demands, activities do we see on the part of communities, especially in Georgia?
Christina Fuller: Oh, most definitely. First of all, it starts with education. Like we just mentioned, many communities don't know about the polluting facilities that are there. There's so many things going on in your life and things that you have to do, so you may not know that the warehouse down the street is actually putting out polluting chemicals and whatnot.
Having the community educate the broader area about what the issues are, is first and foremost, very important, and then next, communities also gather data sometimes in partnership with universities to really understand what the risks are because many times it's really unknown and there's no other party to do that. They take on themselves to do that information and then educate, and their elected officials and also reach out to them and let them know that there are large issues. That's when the organizing and advocacy really comes in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Drew, this, we're really focused in this series around Georgia, but this is not just a Georgia issue. Superfund sites are located across the country, and there are many in the south, is that right?
Drew Kann: Yes. I do think you're right. Georgia is not unique in the situation. There are hundreds of Superfund sites around the country, and not only that, I think it's important to note that Superfund sites, while it was a effective way for us to show readers the disproportionate burden that a lot of Black communities are facing from pollution, just focusing on Superfund sites doesn't really begin to capture the full scope of pollution sources that can have a disproportionate impact in communities of color. There's particle pollution, there's other types of pollution that's created by our roadways and cars and trucks and other industries, which have major health effects and are connected with tens of thousands of deaths each year. I think it really only scratches the surface of how the environment can affect certain communities more than others.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Drew, say a little bit more about highways and and roads, because honestly, part of as we were thinking about Georgia at the Intersections, we were thinking about that cloverleaf in Atlanta and those roadways. How is it that roadways are an environmental health hazard for communities, Drew?
Drew Kann: Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, we spend a lot of time in our cars. We do have public transportation, but most people getting around on a daily basis, hop in their car to get where they need to go, but roadways produce a lot of different types of pollution. One of the most dangerous and significant and common sources is fine particle pollution. It's essentially very fine dust. Its technical term for it is PM 2.5, and roadways, cars kick this stuff up in the air. It can be little bits of tires that are worn down over time. It can just be dust and dirt that's on the roadway, but when people are breathing significant amounts of it on a daily basis, it can cause really serious health impacts.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On the one hand, I think, okay, if we're in our cars, if that's what we think of as causing convenience to be near these roadways, I'm wondering, again, when we're thinking about how people understand what's happening in their communities, how it's impacting their health in communities that are near these roads or where highways have been built right through them. Tell me a little bit about that history for Black folks and other communities of color in Georgia.
Christina Fuller: There is a long history in terms of the building of our national highway system which was put through many and really bisected many communities of color, especially Black communities. What's been left is that you have very large highways that are very close to people's homes. Many people notice it as a nuisance in terms of the noise that's generated or how it's just an eyesore in the community, but many people do not realize about the pollution that is related from the combustion of those gasoline and diesel fuels, and also it being a physical barrier as well in terms of being able to get from one side of the community to another side of the community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are the health effects? What difference does it make to breathe it?
Christina Fuller: Yes. Exposure to, we call this group of pollutant traffic-related air pollutants, and they're associated with increases in blood pressure that would cause hypertension with heart disease and also including heart attacks with lung cancer and also with asthma. We already know that many communities of color are overburdened with asthma, especially among children. It really does lead to these disparities and different health outcomes that you can see across and between different groups.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Drew, I want to come to you on one last thing, because when you talk about the TAV site, you said that it is dirty recycling. I just wanted to follow back up on that because I wonder about, we think of recycling as good for the environment. We had a conversation on this show a bit ago about electric automobiles, which so many people, in seeking to green if they can afford, are looking to go towards electric automobiles, but then we're finding much of what's required to create those vehicles is being mined, dug from the ground on indigenous lands.
When I hear you say, "Oh, this is dirty recycling, that is actually putting lead into the ground in a community of color," I think sometimes this intersection between green and black and brown can feel so tense that somehow the environmental work or what is supposedly good for the environment ends up being bad for the very people who live in the environment.
Drew Kann: Yes. I certainly don't want to turn people off of recycling. It's very important to keep our waste out of landfills and such. I think the problem that the EPA and the reason the EPA side of the facility was really the way that it was holding and containing the waste that was produced from this process. They essentially had huge mounds of this sediment that was from converting the scrap material into the various medical constituents stored exposed to the elements and piles on the site. It was escaping both through runoff into the creek that is located nearby. It was also the bits of dusts were going airborne and being strewn along the roadway. I think the TAV holding site is less a combination of recycling and more just an example of how not to store this waste because it's dangerous and contains a lot of metal that can be toxic to humans and the environment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Drew Kann is an enterprise reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering climate and environmental issues, and Christina Fuller is an associate professor at Georgia State University School of Public Health. Thank you both for joining us today.
Christina Fuller: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.
Drew Kann: Thanks for having me.
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