on May 28, 2011
In "Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental; Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor," Steve Lerner chronicled life in a segregated town where the poor lived cheek-to-jowl with two nasty industrial plants. It's a story of abuse, struggle and triumph --- in the end, a grassroots campaign led by a local schoolteacher forced Shell Oil to buy up many afflicted homes.
"Sacrifice Zones" brings stories like that back home --- to a dozen communities that were knowingly polluted by American businesses. It's a repetitive book: suffering, more suffering, government indifference, then the residents fight back. It's hardly an even fight. The companies have squads of lawyers on staff. Because they often provide the only jobs for miles, they have local governments in their pockets. It's oh-so-hard to prove that the filth on the once-white sheets hanging from the clotheslines of the poor came from a polluter's smokestack. And the victories are bittersweet --- activists don't always see the fruits of their work, having used precious days from their surely shortened lives to organize their communities.
Ocala, Florida: "black snow" from a charcoal factory. A city run by five white people. Activists who presented filthy bed sheets to the city council. A plant without afterburners in its smokestacks. The company closed the plant and tore down the smokestacks before they could be tested for pollutants.
Port Arthur, Texas: 15.5 million pounds of pollutants released in a single year by a refinery owned by Shell Oil and Saudi Aramco. (Once the plant released 9 tons while children were waiting for school buses.)
On and on the dishonor roll goes --- Addyston, Ohio and Daly City, California and San Antonio and Greenpoint, New York. You get the idea fast.
And, if you're me, you ask yourself: Who really needs to read this book?
Well, how about the villains? That is, the corporations that target and then pollute minorities and the poor. Steve Lerner isn't shy about naming them. Often, he identifies their spokespeople.
But no way are the bad guys going to spring for this book. The record is voluminous --- they don't care.
I have a thought: Buy the book. Read as much as you can stand, then send it on to the CEO of the biggest polluter you know. Maybe with a cheery note: "Looking forward to reading about your company in the next edition."