Hurricane Victims Don’t Have the Complexion for Protection

It was under the darkness of night that the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, arrived in Houston, Texas to observe the damage to the San Jacinto River Superfund site from Hurricane Harvey.

At one o’clock in the morning, Jackie Young, a local community leader in Houston, received an e-mail from a journalist asking if she was joining Pruitt at the site the next day. Yes, she responded even though she had no idea he was coming and she wasn’t invited. She drove her car on the only access road to the site, blocked it and waited until Pruitt return to his car to leave. Jumping out of her car with a folder of information, photos and determination she told Pruitt the community’s story about the site.

Contaminated flood waters containing the most toxic chemical known to man, dioxin, has spread throughout the community. Additionally, small silver beads of mercury now dot many residential properties, discovered after the water receded.  Families living around the superfund site are poor and from many nationalities. The EPA’s sign, “Do Not Eat The Fish” is posted in four languages.

In Puerto Rico families have been without water, food and shelter for weeks. President Trump threw paper towels at the crowd of suffering families who were hoping for help. Families have lost everything. There are twenty one superfund sites in Puerto Rico that added toxic chemicals to mix of flood waters. Mothers with their infants in their arms need clean drinking water for the baby. They weren’t amused by Trump’s theatrics. They too are people of color and like Houston are not the right complexions for protection.

Dismissing victims is not unusual for this administration and EPA. Administrator Pruitt spends his time on the road meeting privately with corporate CEOs responsible for the toxic wastes and elected representatives. Local community leaders with few exceptions have not had the opportunity to talk with Pruitt or Albert Kelly who is leading the Superfund program at EPA.

Houston has several hazardous-waste sites among them are 13 Superfund sites. Puerto Rico has 21 superfund sites and a five story high coal ash dump impacted by the storm. These are industry-contaminated, abandoned areas that the EPA has slated for cleanup, or where it has already started the cleanup. The intensity of the storms destroyed what little cleanup work that was done, and evaluation and cleanup must start from ground zero again.

Congress passed legislation in 1986 directing EPA to pursue permanent remedies or cleanups that embodies stringent cleanup standards. Although permanent cleanups cost more at the front end they save money over the long term as evident by new efforts from storms like Katrina, Sandy and two recent hurricanes.

So why won’t EPA cleanup the sites to avoid future cleanup and evaluation efforts as well as protect the community?  Because around most Superfund sites live families who are poor and of color and are considered not worth the investment.

How do I know this?  An EPA regional representative told me that they are not going to spend millions to cleanup a site when the homes are worth $60,000. It doesn’t make cost effective sense he said, we’ll just try to contain the waste. Yet the houses are people’s homes where they raise their families, have picnics and celebrate birthdays in the yard. The homes are their American Dream. How dare the government dismiss their neighborhood’s values because they are not wealthier.

Around most Superfund sites are low income families because they were told to live there by historical city planners or have no other choice given their income. They pay taxes, contribute to society, vote and are entitled to the same level of protection as the wealthy. They deserve all protections available from our government.

Today I fear that innocent families will suffer even more than in the past, because of the color of their skin and income. After losing everything, as they try to clean up the mud and debris families are worried about exposures, especially their children’s to chemical residue in the mud.   There is no question in my mind that the Trump Administration does not care about these victims.

It is our responsibility, your and mine, to make the administration acts to adequately protect people living near superfund sites. It is our responsibility to permanently cleanup the sites so that when the next storm hits, toxic wastes sites are not a concern. We need to reinstate the Polluter Pays fee, which expired in 1995, to provide the resources to permanently cleanup Superfund sites. This fee is a tax on toxic chemical use by corporations. In doing so we’ll also protect the health of families living near these sites now and into the future.

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