Did BP help poison a poor Florida neighborhood?


If you follow environmental issues, you know and understand this basic fact of American life: Poor communities — especially those populated by people of color — are much, much more likely to get dumped on than places where affluent folks live. If you show me a lead smelter, a trash incinerator or a hazardous-waste dump, there’s an excellent chance that the people living on the surrounding streets will be low-income citizens, quite likely African-Americans or Latinos.

My early years as an environmental lawyer in the 1990s were largely spent going after Big Oil for its dumping of radioactive wastes and other toxic byproducts of oil production across rural swaths of Louisiana and Mississippi, many of them in places where folks were already down on their luck. The lack of concern that the oil companies or their subcontractors showed for these neighbors was evident, with dangerous material often dumped in unlined pits or open fields.

As a result, when I first started tracking BP’s Deepwater Horizon fiasco back in its early days in 2010, one of the first questions I asked was: Where were they disposing the oil wastes that were being collected from the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline? It was hard to get answers but there was evidence that the mistakes of the 20th Century — disposing of these toxic wastes in facilities that aren’t really proper for handling them — were taking place all over again. Indeed, my eyebrows were raised this week by a shocking report out of the Florida Panhandle. It concerns a low-income, mostly black neighborhood of Pensacola called Wedgewood:

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA – “My husband died of renal failure, my neighbor died of renal failure, my other neighbor behind me died of cancer. The lady over there, her granddaughter’s six months pregnant, and was just diagnosed with breast cancer. They live right here at the pit.”

We’re standing in the parking lot of the Marie K. Young Community Center in the Wedgewood community of Pensacola, a quiet African-American neighborhood where most residents own their own homes, many of which are generational, passed down from their parents, who bought them in the late 1950’s or 60’s.

Judy Cook, a retired teacher and community resident, turns slightly. “On that street,” she says, pointing to the left, “all but three houses have someone taking chemotherapy. “

She sighs and takes a deep breath, “And now my daughter has a tumor on her brain. She’s only forty-two. My son already died of lung cancer.”  She sighs again. “He didn’t smoke.”

What does BP have to do with this? Possibly quite a bit:

After the 2010 BP Disaster, residents say boom, tarballs, tarmats and other oil waste was trucked into the nearby Longleaf facility, operated by Waste Management. Records show the facility was only permitted as a temporary storage site, meaning debris was only allowed to stay for 24 hours before being moved, in most instances to the Springhill Regional Landfill.

Neighbors, however, aren’t convinced. They report dumpsters sitting uncovered for days, and harsh headache-causing odors emanating from the facility. Many worry for worker safety and are surprised OSHA hasn’t been involved.

Several things are in important here. First of all, it’s important that state and federal investigators get a better handle on what is happening in the Wedgewood neighborhood, and then also get a better handle on the role that BP’s oil-spill wastes caused in aggravating them. Once again, the oil company’s arguments that it has been a good corporate citizen in cleaning up the Gulf Coast, and that it actually cares about the everyday health and welfare of its residents, has been demolished. Second of all, it’s unconscionable for any one neighborhood to have to deal with seven or eight of these unlined, unregulated dumps, with such little information as to what is being buried there. There needs to be a major cleanup in Wedgewood — and BP’s multi-billion-dollar oil-spill fines are the ideal source to pay for it.

Read more about Wedgewood, “An American Nightmare”: http://foytlinfam.wix.com/lifesupportproject#!An-American-Nightmare-The-Community-Wedgewood/cjds/D825587B-5C65-4271-98A7-5266044438CA

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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