And Clean Water for All

All Americans are entitled to live in communities where streams flow free of sewage and the air is safe to breathe, but in many areas under-served minorities must fight for these basic rights

06-01-2004 // Doreen Cubie

WHEN NA’TAKI OSBORNE was a child, she and her family lived for a time near Louisiana’s "Cancer Alley," where more than 100 oil and chemical companies are clustered along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In this area, the communities are predominately African American and epidemiological studies indicate most have higher-than-average rates of cancer, asthma and neurological disease. Not long after Osborne’s family moved away from the area, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I’ve always wondered if there was a connection," says Osborne, who is now NWF’s national leadership development coordinator. She is also an important part of the Federation’s environmental justice effort, which trains under-served minorities and organizes grassroots action in a nationwide initiative to help provide a healthy environment for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or income.

Based at NWF’s Southeastern Natural Resource Center in Atlanta, Osborne is committed to making a difference in her current hometown. "We’re trying to empower these communities," she says, as she drives from her midtown office to West Atlanta, where industrial plants are built right next to low-income neighborhoods and landfills are tucked away behind houses. "We’re helping them get their voices heard."

Osborne passes a sewage incinerator, a concrete recycling facility and a sprawling railroad yard, before parking her van in the driveway of a school. She strides toward a rusty bridge over Proctor Creek, one of three polluted tributaries of the Chattahoochee River that snake through this urban area. "You’re seeing the creek on a good day," she says, looking down into the swift current. "Usually you can smell it."

Fecal coliform bacteria levels are often high in this stream. "In Atlanta, sewage and stormwater are carried together in the same pipe," she explains. These combined flows end up at one of seven treatment facilities, two of which are located in the Proctor Creek watershed. When a heavy rain falls, the system can be overwhelmed. Raw sewage pours into the creek and contaminated stormwater sometimes floods streamside neighborhoods.

Osborne is identifying and training community leaders to tackle this and other environmental problems in the watershed. Another priority for her and NWF is educating children. Not far from where Osborne is standing, the creek loops behind Boyd Elementary School. There, as in many other schools in the Atlanta area, NWF staffers have pulled on their rubber boots and waded out into streams to teach kids about the importance of good water quality.

Like most of the residents of the Proctor Creek watershed, students at Boyd Elementary are predominantly African American—people who are much more likely than whites to live in areas with toxic or hazardous waste sites. "It’s been a way of life," says Jerome Ringo, NWF board member and environmental consultant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "We’ve grown up around landfills and petrochemical companies."

According to Ringo, things began to change in the early 1980s. At that time, the state government of North Carolina attempted to deliver soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs—suspected cancer-causing chemicals—to a landfill in rural Warren County. The nearby African American community began to organize protests, and when the first shipments arrived, the protesters laid down on the road in front of the PCB-laden trucks. National attention was drawn to the conflict, and the concept of environmental justice was born.

"Environmental justice is a vital part of NWF’s mission," says Ringo. In the Great Lakes region, for example, NWF is collaborating with other organizations to stem mercury pollution, which poses a serious health threat to people who eat a lot of fish at the top of the food chain. "In this area, many minority people fish for survival, not sport," says Guy Williams, senior director of community education programs.

The Federation’s Great Lakes office in Michigan is also active in the Earth Tomorrow® program, which strengthens environmental literacy and leadership skills in high school students by giving them hands-on experience and training. In August, a summer institute for inner-city teens was held at Wayne State University. The students visited a nature park to learn about wetlands and searched for peregrine falcons in downtown Detroit. They also met college recruiters and professionals, who introduced them to careers in the environmental field. A similar program took place at Clark Atlanta University in June, where Osborne introduced participants—including several teenagers who live in the Proctor Creek watershed—to the concept of environmental justice.

Osborne stresses that NWF goes into a community only when invited by the people who live there. "We want them to be the leaders," she says, turning her van into Carver Hills, a neighborhood of 300 households in the Proctor Creek watershed made up mostly of elderly people of color.

Carver Hills became the first community NWF worked with in Atlanta when its residents asked for help in a fight to shut down a nearby landfill. The former dump, which was closed in 1995, is now packed with dirt and planted with grass. An indigo bunting sings from a scrubby tree, and towhees call from a thicket.

Yet, "there’s still a lot of leaching from the landfill, and some cancer clusters in the neighborhood," says Osborne, shaking her head. "We still have a lot of work to do here."

Doreen Cubie wrote about native plants in the December/January issue.

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