Fighting for Air

Throughout the United States, waste disposal facilities, power plants and industries are frequently sited in low-income communities of color where environmental laws are poorly enforced and cleanups happen slowly, if at all. Camden City, which has a predominately African-American and Latino population and is one of the poorest cities in the country, is a classic example of a disadvantaged community suffering the consequences of environmental racism. Camden is home to more than 100 contaminated sites and hundreds of polluting industries. The city’s drinking-water supply has been contaminated for decades, and its air pollution levels are among the highest in New Jersey.

Last year, a federal court case against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) challenged a permit that had been issued to a cement-grinding facility and brought national attention to Camden’s plight. The litigation raised public awareness of environmental racism, fostered development of local leadership and gave rise to new alliances among Camden activists. The struggle also illustrated the difficulties of advocating for environmental justice, and the necessity of including environmental justice concerns in a community redevelopment agenda.

South Camden Citizens in Action (SCCIA), the community group that filed the lawsuit, was not formed as an environmental justice organization, and its members would not have called themselves environmentalists.

SCCIA came together in 1997 when a local nonprofit organization in Waterfront South decided to sponsor a grass-roots neighborhood planning project. Its members were mostly African-American, mostly women, all low-income and some in poor health. They were not experienced activists, but they were long-time residents of Camden and shared a commitment to making their community safer and more livable.

At SCCIA’s first open community meeting, residents quickly decided to tackle the horrific odors emanating from a huge treatment plant and an open-air sewage-sludge-composting facility constructed in the early 1980s to process the sewage from the county’s 35 mostly white, suburban and affluent municipalities. The strong smell of raw sewage constantly permeated the area. According to the local school principal, children thought they were being punished if they were told to play outside during recess because of the odor. Residents stopped sitting in their backyards and on their stoops on hot summer days and were embarrassed to invite friends and relatives to visit. SCCIA organized a campaign to enforce the odor regulations, but after DEP failed to address the complaints, they brought a citizen lawsuit and obtained a settlement requiring the facility to upgrade its odor controls.

While that litigation was pending, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representative came to Camden to inform residents about the General Gas Mantle site, one of two federal “Superfund” sites in their neighborhood. Residents learned that the site contains radioactive thorium. The radioactivity was first discovered in 1982, but 20 years later the radioactive soil at the site and at “hot spots” in adjoining backyards and basements has still not been removed. SCCIA members provided input regarding the EPA’s remediation plans, and EPA adopted their recommendation that all contaminated materials eventually be removed.

Through these organizing efforts, residents slowly became aware of the extent of environmental health hazards in their community. There are 14 known contaminated sites and many still-active polluting industries in Waterfront South, including at least seven scrap metal recyclers and junkyards, a petroleum coke transfer station, several auto body shops, a paint and varnish company, a chemical company and three food processing plants. Just north of the neighborhood is the large and dusty G.P. Gypsum plant. In addition, Camden County has continued to use the neighborhood as a dumping ground for undesirable and polluting facilities. The sewage treatment plant was followed by a regional trash-to-steam incinerator, one of the largest in the state, and by a cogeneration power plant in the early 1990s. The DEP granted permits for these facilities despite strong community opposition and failed to adequately enforce environmental standards.

As a result, Waterfront South residents have been forced to endure toxic fumes, dust, odors and noise. Eighteen- and 24-wheeler trucks barrel down residential streets, endangering young children playing outside, drowning out conversations, damaging the foundations of houses and streets and leaving residents choking for air. An odor study showed that 61 percent of Waterfront South residents experienced some type of respiratory symptoms, compared to 35 percent in another Camden neighborhood. Administrators at a local elementary school report that almost one-quarter of the students require treatment for asthma.

SCCIA members used their newly acquired awareness of these environmental problems and gained a reputation for being assertive in tackling government and other institutions. The group’s skills were severely tested in 1999, when, despite its lack of experience and financial resources, it had to confront a new major environmental justice struggle: the coming of the St. Lawrence Cement Company to Waterfront South.

More Smoke Than Hires

The St. Lawrence Cement Company (SLC), based in Canada, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cement. In March 1999, SLC negotiated a lease with the South Jersey Port Corporation, a state agency, to lease 12 acres for a cement-grinding facility at the Port’s terminal in Waterfront South. It would ship in blast furnace slag from Italy by barge to a docking facility in Camden, truck it three miles to the facility and grind it into a very fine powder for use as a cement additive, which would be distributed throughout the northeastern United States. The cement company’s operations would generate more than 77,000 diesel truck trips and emit 100 tons of pollutants per year.

Because its facility is located on state land, SLC pays no property taxes or host benefits to Camden. Cement-grinding operations are highly mechanized and produce only 15 jobs, which is typical of the heavy industry that proliferates in Waterfront South. Trash hauling, “recycling,” trucking and waste disposal are not labor intensive, and the pollution and blight that accompany these industries discourage more desirable businesses from locating nearby.

SLC hired a public-relations consultant in Camden and lobbyists in Trenton and Washington, DC. After submitting its permit application to DEP in August 1999, the company engaged in an aggressive public-relations campaign to gain support from local churches, nonprofit organizations and community groups. SLC also organized a community advisory panel and paid experts selected by the panel to review the permit application. SCCIA members declined to participate in the panel and began organizing opposition through petitions, letters, neighborhood speak-outs and meetings with DEP officials. The cement company’s significant investment in community outreach and public relations created a David-and-Goliath struggle typical of environmental justice controversies: communities without any resources are pitted against corporate giants that can pay to influence public opinion.

The DEP reviewed SLC’s permit application and determined that the estimated emissions would not exceed the National Ambient Air Standards for inhalable particulates set forth in New Jersey and federal air quality regulations. In doing so, the DEP applied a 1987 standard, even though it is inadequate to protect human health. (Implementation of a new standard has been delayed by litigation.) The DEP allowed SLC to construct the $50-million facility “at risk” before obtaining a permit. By the time the DEP issued a draft permit and scheduled its sole public hearing in summer 2000, construction was more than 50 percent complete. Some residents viewed SCCIA’s campaign against the facility as futile. Nevertheless, more than 120 persons appeared at the public hearing, most of them testifying in opposition to the plant and raising both civil rights and health concerns. In October 2000, SCCIA filed administrative civil rights complaints with both the DEP and the EPA; both agencies ignored the complaints. By the end of the month, DEP issued the final permits to the cement company. Litigation became the only way to continue the struggle.

The Legal Battle

SCCIA filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court on February 13, 2001, and requested a preliminary injunction to prevent SLC from starting operations. Unlike many other environmental justice cases, SCCIA’s lawsuit did not include environmental claims.

SCCIA’s primary claim was racial discrimination in violation of the regulations enacted under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits any entity that receives federal funds from discriminating. SCCIA also alleged violation of the Fair Housing Act and intentional discrimination in violation of Title VI and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On April 19, 2001, Judge Stephen Orlofsky ruled that the DEP violated the Title VI regulations by relying exclusively on environmental standards and failing to make a “disparate impact analysis” before issuing the permit, and ordered the DEP to conduct such an analysis within 30 days. He made extensive factual findings about the environmental and health conditions in Waterfront South and the cement company operations, concluding that SCCIA was likely to prevail on the merits of the case. Most importantly, he enjoined operation of the facility.

But five days later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Alexander v. Sandoval, in which a group of citizens protested the decision of the state of Alabama to administer driver’s license exams in English only. The case proved to have broad implications for Title VI when the court held that only the federal agency that enacted the regulations can enforce them – not private citizens.

Judge Orlofsky kept the injunction in place despite the Sandoval decision. In May, he issued a second decision, allowing plaintiffs to use Section 1983, a different provision of the civil rights statutes, to enforce the Title VI regulations. Both the cement company and the DEP appealed the two trial court decisions to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In December 2001, the appeals court reversed Judge Orlofsky’s second decision and held that Title VI regulations were not enforceable through Section 1983. SCCIA’s requests for rehearing by the full Third Circuit Court and review by the U.S. Supreme Court were denied. The Third Circuit’s decision thus placed SCCIA in the ironic position of having obtained a ruling that the state environmental agency violates civil rights, but without the ability to enforce that ruling.

SCCIA’s intentional discrimination and Fair Housing Act claims remain, and SCCIA’s counsel is seeking permission to amend the complaint to include state law claims against SLC. The group expects to proceed to trial next year. Meanwhile, the cement company continues to operate, releasing invisible but dangerous particulates from its smokestacks. On windy days, dust from its 60-foot-high uncovered slag piles blows around in the streets. The company’s diesel trucks circle the neighborhood. The air quality in Waterfront South remains severely unhealthy.

What Was Gained

Despite the legal setbacks, the South Camden litigation significantly furthered environmental justice advocacy on the local, state and national levels. The court action gave the community new leverage and strength. The two-month delay in the start of the cement company’s operations cost millions of dollars in losses to the company, sending a shock wave through the regulated business community. Judge Orlofsky’s findings concerning the discriminatory environmental burden placed upon the Waterfront South community gave new credibility to the arguments of environmental justice advocates and a sense of entitlement to Camden City residents. SCCIA members emerged as community spokespeople and leaders and obtained favorable coverage in The New York Times, Business Week, the National Law Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer and on National Public Radio, raising public awareness about environmental justice and the plight of communities such as Waterfront South.

Because of their visibility, SCCIA members connected with long-time environmental justice advocates and other activists. Public-health agency staff, church leaders, members of traditional environmental groups, long-time civil rights activists and representatives of educational institutions began to lend their support to SCCIA’s campaign. This new, informal coalition organized numerous local educational events, protests and petition drives. Camden City Council passed a resolution opposing the cement company’s operations. The county, state and national NAACP all publicly expressed support for SCCIA’s struggle.

The increased awareness about environmental racism and the connections with other advocates also made it possible for Camden residents to take on new issues with greater unity and strength. For example, in spring 2002, Camden residents learned that they had been provided severely contaminated drinking water for more than 20 years from what is now a Superfund site. Community activists initiated a campaign to pursue toxic tort litigation, educate the public, ensure that the current water supply is safe, plan a health impact study and monitor clean-up of the Superfund site. In March 2002, the new DEP Commissioner accepted SCCIA’s invitation to visit Camden. The immediate results of his visit included enforcement of truck traffic restrictions, testing of Camden’s drinking water, relocation of five families living immediately adjacent to the radioactive Superfund site and a comprehensive citywide enforcement initiative. Later this year, a proposal to discharge radioactive wastewater into Camden’s sewage system generated high levels of public opposition from many affected communities, involving both suburban and Camden City environmental activists. The public outrage expressed by the community has forced officials to reconsider the plan.

In the past year, Camden residents also became engaged in statewide efforts to change DEP permit procedures and prevent further disproportionate siting of polluters in communities of color. SCCIA members were joined by environmental and civil rights activists from around the state at a rally at DEP headquarters protesting the department’s refusal to address civil rights. SCCIA and other local activists helped bring together environmental and civil rights groups to respond to DEP’s newly proposed “environmental equity” regulations, which did not change permit standards to protect environmentally overburdened communities. The DEP decided not to proceed with the proposed regulations.

SCCIA and the broader Camden coalition also have participated in national environmental justice advocacy, including a press conference at the U.S. Senate concerning judicial appointments, the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights environmental justice hearings. In addition, SCCIA has used its defeats in court to educate local, state and federal legislators about the need for stronger protection for residents who have suffered from environmental racism.

What CDCs Can Do

Community development corporations (CDCs) and other established nonprofit organizations can play an important role by training local leaders, providing technical advice, and donating office space, equipment and supplies. By emphasizing environmental issues in their neighborhood planning initiatives, CDCs can educate residents about environmental health, work with residents on pollution-reducing strategies, help residents understand their rights and assist them in finding legal and scientific experts. Planners and other community development experts lend credibility and bolster grass-roots advocacy by participating in environmental justice initiatives.

Also, advocates need to work together to push federal and state legislators, administrative agencies and elected officials to create more legal tools and implement sound policies. Environmental justice advocacy offers an opportunity to build alliances of civil rights, environmental, public health and children’s advocates with local neighborhood activists. SCCIA’s history shows the obvious connection between neighborhood planning, community development and environmental justice. Community development specialists could be active players and facilitators in building coalitions and could lend their technical expertise to these efforts.


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Olga Pomar is an attorney with Camden Regional Legal Services and lead counsel for South Camden Citizens in Action. Jerome Balter and Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and Luke Cole of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in San Francisco, are co-counsels on the case.

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