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Toxic Terror

by Ruth Rosen
How one community fought for the human right to breathe clean air.


Winning the Battle, Losing the Community

Although major environmental organizations provided invaluable assistance to Diamond activists, such collaboration is not all that common. In a very real sense, mainstream environmental organizations and local environmental justice activists come from two very different worlds and are often concerned about two different kinds of environmental dangers. “The likely reason for this,” writes Steve Lerner,

is that many environmental activists have yet to see the connection between the preservation of wilderness and the cleaning up of heavily contaminated poor communities, despite the fact that the decontamination of brownfield sites in many parts of the country already provides living space for many Americans who might otherwise live in an area that was previously farmland, rangeland, or forest.

When large groups fail to help environmental justice groups, however, they deprive local activists of invaluable “lobbying talents and resources” and rob them of the political support they need to control releases from chemical plants.

What many environmental activists also fail to understand, explains Lerner, “is that this emerging movement is a civil rights issue. By highlighting the disproportionate toxic burden that some poor and minority communities endure, environmental justice activists have effectively opened a new front in the long struggle for civil rights.”

The legacy of Diamond is significant. Gary Cohen of the Environmental Health Fund thinks that “‘the Diamond struggle will be seen as a watershed event where the toxics and the environmental health movement learned that bringing international pressure to bear could yield an environmental justice win and help leverage a larger engagement with one of the largest corporations in the world.’ ”

Out of this struggle, moreover, has come the awareness that all industrial plants must have “buffer zones” that protect residents and their homes. “What is needed,” writes Lerner, “is new legislation that will protect residents of settlements adjacent to highly toxic and explosive industrial facilities.”

But Lerner also understands that such legislation is just a beginning. As his brother Michael later wrote, “To get environmental contamination under control will require fundamentally restructuring society on a sustainable basis. That is the vision and it is every bit as compelling as the vision that moved us from monarchy to democracy, from slavery to equal rights and women as property to the women’s movement today.”

So what happened to Diamond? CCN was unable to win the right for the entire community to be moved together. “Most residents I interviewed,” writes Lerner, “feel whipsawed by conflicting emotions about staying and leaving. On the one hand, they want to get out of Diamond to escape the pollution from the Shell plants; on the other hand, they want to stay because of the close ties they have with their neighbors.” Still, in the end, “most residents have decided that the environmental conditions are so distressing that despite their ties to the community they are ready to leave.”

As a result, Diamond has basically disappeared. “Within months,” writes Lerner,

nearly every home in Diamond was bulldozed, burned, or disassembled as residents took Shell up on its relocation offer and moved to safety. The residents had won their struggle, but their beloved community was transformed into another fenceline ghost town. It was a victory for the residents to have won the relocation offer from Shell, but it was a bittersweet victory that meant the end of their community and the severing of the ties with the land, their neighbors and their churches.

If this were a film, it is the kind of ending that an independent filmmaker would understand, but probably not Hollywood producers determined to send audiences away with an inspirational message that the system, after all, always works in the end.

Reprinted with permission from Dissent Magazine (Winter 2005)

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