Donele Wilkins, executive director of Detroiters Working for
Environmental Justice, is pictured in front of the Greater
Detroit Resource Recovery Facility. Her son attends school
one block from the municipal incinerator, the nation's largest.
Donele Wilkins knows exactly where she's making her stand -- and it's beneath the shadow of this
country's largest municipal waste incinerator.
The incinerator is in an east Detroit neighborhood populated mostly by low-income African Americans
who also must deal with the cumulative toxic side effects of everything from a hazardous waste site to
manufacturing plants and industrial cleaning shops.
It is a community of people trapped by circumstances. And if you doubt that, ask yourself this question:
Would you live next to a hazardous waste incinerator or toxic dump if you didn't have to?
"Give any of the people living in neighborhoods like this the money and ability to move, and they are
going to move," said Ms. Wilkins, executive director of the group Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
For Ms. Wilkins and many others, the phrases "environmental justice" and "environmental racism" are
Living Near Hazardous Waste
Since 1987, numerous federal, university, and independent studies have shown that in determining where
polluting industries and hazardous waste sites will go, race is a primary determining factor. In 1993, with
grassroots activists raising awareness of the issue across the country, a study conducted for the United Church
of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice revealed that the situation had grown worse. It found, for example,
that minorities were 47% more likely than others to live near hazardous waste sites.
A 1991 study by two University of Michigan professors found similar results in southeast Michigan,
observing, "One need only look to affluent Oakland County and its [absence] of operating sanitary landfills to
recognize that the disparate burdens of siting decisions are apparent in our own state."
The word affluent is important. As Ms. Wilkins points out, economic status runs a razor-close second to
race when it comes to determining who lives near the sources of pollution. And this is why some activists
contend that the term "environmental justice" extends beyond the strictures of race and ethnicity to include
economic status as well.
Employing the Civil Rights Law
There is little legal recourse under current law to fight siting and permitting decisions on the basis of social
class. However there is a potentially mighty hammer that the government can drop if the issue is one of race.
It is called Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. Until 1994 the law had not been used to ensure minorities
equal protection from the effects of pollution. But that year President Clinton issued an executive order mandating
that, when it comes to matters of human health, no federal activity -- including the Environmental Protection
Agency's regulation of polluters -- could contribute to racial or ethnic discrimination.
Since then, the EPA has come under increasing fire from business interests and their political allies for
implementing that order. Their fear is that development will be choked off if minority, inner-city residents
start rejecting businesses that pose a toxic threat to their neighborhoods.
It is a situation that has created some odd political bedfellows, such as Detroit's Dennis Archer, a stalwart
Democrat and one of the nation's leading African American mayors, aligning with Gov. John Engler, a conservative
Republican who has gained a national reputation for his program to undo environmental protections.
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