|FEATURE | spring 2007
In Syracuse, N.Y., activists for environmental justice-part of a growing national movement-prove how racism leaves toxins at the doorsteps of the poor and people of color.
Syracuse, in Onondaga County, New
York, is like so many other cities across the
United States: a place where the poor—a disproportionate
number of whom are Blacks,
Latinos and First Nations peoples—live in a
very different world from that of the wealthy
and privileged. The poor communities often
have highways that cut right through them, like
Interstate 81 slices through the Black community
in Syracuse. When I-81 was built, residents
were uprooted and the entire community
pushed to the south side of the city to make way.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, immediately
following the civil rights movement, city
planners paved the way for white flight from the
city by designing a highway and roads system
that facilitated the development of suburbs while
simultaneously creating a physical demarcation
line between the worlds of rich and poor. The
poor communities were left saturated with excessive
noise, automobile exhaust and other pollutants;
the rich ones were kept pristine.
“Racism happens because we let it. Only with public oversight,
dogged persistence and committed resistance will equity
become the enforced law of the land.”
—Aggie Lane and Tarki Heath
The civic leaders of Syracuse, like those in
other places, put sewage and water-treatment
plants, along with numerous other environmental hazards,
within or very close to the city’s poor communities.
Not surprisingly, the health problems experienced by residents
of those communities as a result of the pollutants
are tremendous. To take just one measure, the asthma rate
of the predominately African American community situated
on the edge of Syracuse’s industrialized area and the
interstate is 13 times higher than in the rest of Onondaga
County. Women and children in particular bear the brunt
of the health problems.
Syracuse also has the dubious distinction of being home
to one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country,
Onondaga Lake, along with a number of equally polluted
streams—including Onondaga Creek, which, despite its
name, is a sizable tributary. For almost a century, companies
located on the lake’s shore disposed of their waste—
some 165,000 pounds of mercury, as well as phosphorus
and chlorine compounds—either on the shore or directly
in the lake. Allied Chemical—now Honeywell—was the
main culprit before its facility closed in 1988. This toxic
dumping seriously impacted water quality and left numerous
hazardous waste sites around the lake, practically in
the front yards of many of the affected communities. Furthermore,
the Syracuse Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant released phosphorus and ammonia from its
treated waste into Onondaga Lake for many years. The
lake ended up with extremely high levels of these chemicals,
in addition to mercury, to various salts and other pollutants,
including household and animal waste from
Global warming still seems like a catastrophe of the future; while we are working to halt it, we shouldn’t forget the environmental
calamities of today. Countless people already suffer from pollutants and toxins in the ground, air and water—substances allowed to
proliferate because of weak or nonexistent government regulations and enforcement or, worse yet, because government colludes
with powerful corporate and special interests. Too often, those paying the greatest price for toxic contamination are people of color
and those living in poor communities. Their neighborhoods have become places where hazardous chemicals are released and waste
management facilities are sited.
The struggle against this environmental racism—often led by women-of-color activists—is one for justice, health and survival. The
story told here, about Syracuse, N.Y., is far from unique, but reminds us once again how such travesties occur—and that a growing
environmental-justice movement is fighting back. —THE EDITORS
The county embarked on a cleanup plan years ago, and
New York State stepped in as well, filing in 1989 a suit for
natural resource damage (following the 1972 federal
Clean Water Act) against Allied Chemical for depositing
so much sediment on the lake bed and killing off aquatic
life. But while much has been done over the last three
decades, residents of the affected communities still feel
that the cleanup job has been halfhearted and inadequate.
If the impacted communities had been white and affluent,
they strongly believe, it would not have taken more than
three decades to complete the job.
After years of state, county and city political and legal
wrangling over the cleanup, community residents’ distrust
of government grew. Adding to their suspicion is the $550
million cost for local cleanup projects, and what they view
as the close relationships between the county and various
engineering firms and business contractors that stand to
profit. Small wonder, then, that many in these communities are now expressing their outrage, fed up with the
environmental racism that has been practiced by government
at all levels.
This is the context in which the grassroots nonprofit
Partnership for Onondaga Creek was formed in 2000 and
began to lead protests, which have continued to this day. A
coalition of neighborhood groups such as Syracuse United
Neighbors, Syracuse Peace Council, Onondaga Nation,
Syracuse University Student Environmental Action
Coalition and the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Partnership
is challenging yet another sewage treatment plant
on the city’s predominately African American south side.
Despite protests and offers of alternative plans, the
Midland Avenue sewage treatment plant is now being built
for $122 million (and growing) in an African American
community that has been torn apart. Many longtime residents
who were asked to move and whose homes were
razed to make way for the plant have already relocated.
Some residents chose to leave when the county bought
their homes to make way for the pipelines; others stayed,
even though they would prefer to leave but can’t afford to.
For them, it is a troubled existence with no choice.
The plant will have an obtrusive 12-foot-diameter,
mile long pipeline and will utilize aboveground storage and chlorine-based technology—despite the Partnership’s
advocacy for underground storage and far less toxic
sewage treatment. The chlorine technology has been especially
distressing to community residents, as airborne
chlorinated byproducts of sewage treatment are as harmful
to humans on the ground as the toxic disinfectant by-products
are to the aquatic life in Onondaga Lake.
“The population at risk from this plant is one that government
officials at all levels have historically never cared
about,” says Aggie Lane, a spokesperson for the Partnership.
“The extensive chlorination projected for use in this
plant will do irreparable damage to the creek, the water
and the south side community.” Moreover, she emphasized,
“We cannot pretend that the extremely high rates of
asthma that we see in the community are not related to
the high levels of toxins in the community.”
Still, there is a dearth of information on the impact of
years of environmental racism on the quality of community
residents’ health, and how this plant would exacerbate that.
According to New York State Department of Health indicators,
Blacks and Latinos across the state have higher rates
of asthma and diabetes. Throughout New York State, for
example, recent asthma hospitalization rates among Blacks
and Latinos, whether children or adults, have been consistently
more than twice the rate for that of whites. Similarly,
lifetime asthma prevalence increases with age for girls,
making the rates higher among women than men.
While no direct link has been made between these
health disparities and poverty or the environmental conditions
in which people live, studies clearly show that
these factors tend to exacerbate poor health. What is clear
in New York and across the country is that greater allergen
and toxic irritant exposure is responsible for adverse
South side community residents have long accused
county officials of environmental racism—which the officials,
of course, deny. The residents are familiar with
and wary of excuses given by politicians concerning issues
that affect their neighborhoods adversely. This decision
to locate a toxic waste facility was no different. The Partnership
for Onondaga Creek has argued that the county’s
decision to build the plant is based on the fact that the
south and west sides of the city are home to mostly poor
communities. They point out that the north side communities
produce tons of sewage, but a disproportionate burden
for disposal of this sewage is shifted to the south side.
Moreover, the partnership argues that county decisions
serve corporate interests and the engineering and construction
firms that will benefit from expensive contracts.
The Partnership began its protest by focusing on better
alternatives to the proposed plant, but by 2004 had shifted
its focus to civil rights. Since the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) was providing a large chunk of
the plant’s funding, the Partnership decided to file a race
discrimination complaint under Title VI of the 1964 Civil
Rights Act. The Partnership claims that Onondaga County
was acting in a racially disparate manner: protecting its
predominately white, middle- and upper-class north side
by building a small underground facility there, while tearing
apart its poor and predominately African American
south side by building the huge Midland plant. The EPA
dismissed the complaint in early 2005, but the Partnership
didn’t give up: It is now asking the EPA to reconsider its
Title VI claim.
The persistent pattern of environmental racism in
Syracuse is neither new nor surprising; it’s a daily occurrence
across the country. Witness New Orleans, the most
horrifying recent example. While flooding affected all
residents, it had a disproportionate impact on Blacks.
Eighty percent of the city’s Black population lived in areas
damaged by flooding, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.
At Syracuse University, we have begun to examine the
impact of environmental racism on nearby communities,
with the support of a Ford Foundation grant. The
Department of African American Studies will be gathering
information from community residents on how they
view their communities in terms of the condition of
women’s health. Next spring, we will hold a national symposium
of scholars and activists to engage the issues of environmental
justice and Black women’s heath. Subsequently,
we hope to use this information to gain the attention of
state officials and encourage them to promote policies
that support environmental justice.
Meanwhile, the Partnership for Onondaga Creek continues
its struggle to protect communities from pollution
and racism. It hasn’t stopped the plant, but is gaining some
concessions (such as a state-of-the-art odor control system
and a smaller facility) and stirring public debate. As Aggie
Lane and Tarki Heath of the Partnership wrote in a recent
paper for a conference at Howard University Law School,
“Racism happens because we let it. …Only with public
oversight, dogged persistence and committed resistance
will equity become the enforced law of the land.
LINDA CARTY is a professor in the Department of African
American Studies at Syracuse University.
JACQUELYN ACKEIFI provided research assistance for