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(DV) Bullard: Poisoned Water, Government Response, and Race







Poisoned Water, Government Response, and Race 
Black Families Still Must Wait Longer for Protection

by Robert D. Bullard
August 31, 2006

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A recent New York Times article, “Texas Lawsuit Includes a Mix of Race and Water,” detailed what many environmental justice advocates have known for decades. Namely, there is a clear racial divide in the way government responds to emergencies-toxic contamination, industrial accidents, and natural and man-made disasters-affecting blacks and whites. Long before Hurricane Katrina created the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and the levee breach drowned New Orleans nearly a year ago, millions of African Americans from West Harlem to South Central Los Angeles learned the hard way that waiting for government to respond can be hazardous to their health and the health of their community.

This sad state of unequal environmental protection is typified in two small black communities in East Texas and in Middle Tennessee. The first case involves Frank and Earnestene Roberson and their relatives who live on County Road 329 in a historically black enclave in the oilfields of DeBerry, Texas. The Roberson family is the descendants of a black settler, George Adams, who bought 40 acres and a mule there in 1911. In the 1920s oil was discovered in the area, and DeBerry enjoyed a brief boom.

The family's wells were poisoned by a deep injection well for saltwater wastes from drilling operations that began around 1980. The Roberson family first complained to the Texas Railroad Commission back in 1987 -- the same year the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published its groundbreaking “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” study-but to no avail.

Nearly a decade later, in 1996, the railroad commission took samples and found "no contamination in the Robersons' household supply water that can be attributed to oilfield sources." This is tantamount to saying: "Black folks, your wells may be poisoned but the state can't prove the poison came from the oilfield injection wells." Because of the contamination, the family had to drive 23 miles to a Wal-Mart near Shreveport for clean water.

In 2003, the railroad commission tests found benzene, barium, arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in the wells at concentrations exceeding primary drinking water standards. Still, no government cleanup actions were taken to protect the Robersons and other black families in the community. In June 2006, the Roberson family filed suit in federal court, accusing the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state's oil and gas industry, of failing to enforce safety regulations and of "intentionally giving citizens false information based on their race and economic status."

The Robersons point to the slow government response to the toxic contamination in their mostly black community and the rapid clean-up response last summer by the railroad commission in Manvel, a largely white suburb of Houston. One need not be a NASA scientist to see this racial disparity in black and white.

The lethargic government response in DeBerry is no aberration. Unfortunately, the Texas case mirrors the slow government response to toxic contamination in another mostly black enclave on Eno Road in Dickson, Tennessee -- a small town located about 35 miles west of Nashville. The sad events in Dickson are chronicled in Toxic Terror in a Tennessee Town and Deadly Tennessee Two Step.

Harry Holt and his family have owned over 150 acres of land in Dickson County’s segregated African American Eno Road community for more than six generations. The Holt family wells were poisoned by the leaky Dickson County Landfill-located just 54 feet from their property line. The landfill accepted tons of toxic industrial wastes in the late 1960s.

Government officials first learned of the trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination in the Holt family wells as far back as 1988 but assured the black family their wells were safe. TCE is a suspected carcinogen. The wells were not safe. Three generations of Holts are now sick after being poisoned by their own government.

Contamination was found in a white family's spring in 1993 and the county dug the family a new well. Local government officials later placed the white family on the city water system after tests showed contamination in the family’s new county-dug well. No such actions were taken to protect the Holt family. It was not until 2000 that the Holt family was placed on the city tap water system-after drinking TCE-contaminated water for twelve years -- from 1988 to 2000. In 2003, the Holt family sued the city, county, and the company that dumped the TCE in the county landfill. The case is still pending.

In DeBerry and in Dickson, black families see their health compromised and their homesteads-land acquired during the height of Jim Crow segregation-poisoned and devalued by industrial pollution while the government does absolutely nothing.

Black families in Texas and in Tennessee were allowed to drink poisoned water from their wells long after government tests detected industrial contamination. The million-dollar question is why? Clearly, some Americans just “don’t have the complexion for protection.”

All levels of government failed to provide equal environmental and health protection of these black families as required under the U.S. Constitution. African Americans, like other Americans, should not have to wait for dead bodies to line their streets to get government officials to respond swiftly and fairly to environmental health threats and to man-made disasters.  
Robert D. Bullard is the author of The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (Sierra Club Books, 2005).