Racial Bias In Facility Siting?

Residents in Chester, Pa., say that racial bias by the state has produced a cluster of solid waste handling facilities in a predominantly black neighborhood. In response, they have taken their claims to a federal district court.

The lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) charges that state officials violated the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act. The complaint alleges that over the past nine years, DEP has issued permits for five waste treatment centers and transfer stations in their community.

Over the same time span, the plaintiffs say, the state has granted permits for two waste facilities in two predominantly white areas in Delaware County outside of Chester. However, black-majority areas play host to eight commercial waste sites, while white-majority neighborhoods have only three such operations, the suit claims.

"This is environmental racism," said a lawyer with Philadelphia's Public Interest Law Center, representing the plaintiffs. "In granting permits, the state never inquired in-to the nature of the community or the number of other facilities in the area."

A growing number of environmental lawsuits against government agencies and companies involve discrimination claims by community groups. However, the Chester case is one of only a few where the plaintiffs have filed a claim under the federal civil rights law, arguing that racial bias influenced the permit issuing process.

The other cases have never gone to trial. A Michigan case involving a wood-burning plant has been settled in part: The facility agreed to reduce its operations and in-crease its monitoring for compliance with air emission standards.

"Our case only involved one facility," said a spokes-person for the Detroit non-profit civil rights group that represented Genessee County residents against Michigan state officials and Genessee Power Company, which owned the wood-burning plant. "But the Chester case may be the first one involving a group of facilities."

The Chester case does not allege that the waste plants create health problems for residents who live nearby. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs claim to have studies showing that Chester residents have higher mortality rates than residents elsewhere in the county. The lawsuit also says that Chester residents complain to the state about air pollution more often than other county residents.

What makes the lawsuit significant is its focus on discrimination in the permit decision itself. DEP overstepped the bounds of fair play and equal protection when it issued a permit for a fifth waste processing plant in the same predominantly black community, the suit charges.

Under the Clean Air Act, each state sets its own emission standards, which then become federal requirements for the state and are enforceable by state environmental officials. The U.S. Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA) parcels out grants and other financial assistance to states for managing pollution control programs.

Under a 1984 regulation, no governmental agency that receives EPA money "shall ... use criteria or methods of administering its program which have the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination be-cause of their race, color, national origin or sex." As a result, citizens who allege discriminatory behavior by EPA-funded state programs may have their claims heard in a federal court.

Delaware County landfills were nearly full in the 1980s when Ches-ter residents began battling state environmental authorities. By 1987, only one sewage treatment plant ex-isted in a mostly black neighborhood in the county. Eight years later, DEP had licensed a transfer station and facilities for four disposal companies in the area. The transfer station permit was revoked. In addition, a company that sterilizes contaminated medical wastes recently shut down its operations. Soil Remediation Systems, which secured its permit last year, is not yet operating.

Nevertheless, say local residents, the overall effects of operations by the four firms with state permits make living conditions intolerable. Residents have continuing problems with sore throats, headaches, itching and asthma, the suit alleges.

"We have become acceptable risks," said one of the 18 individual plaintiffs in the Chester case. "We do not have the comfort of our homes, and residents are tired of the noise, smoke, dirt and trucks."

One of the operating plants, a waste incinerator, is open six days a week and allegedly bombards the neighborhood with odors and smoke. Residents also complain that the steady truck rumble to and from the burn plant has caused structural damage to their homes.

"This used to be a really nice place to live, but now it's like living next to a nuclear plant," said one plaintiff who has lived in the community for 30 years.