Where There's Smoke, There's Danger: The Pentagon's Domestic Burn Pits
July 30, 2017
Kelly Macias / The Daily Kos
Though the face of the mainstream environmental movement is largely white, environmental justice is an issue of pressing concern for people of color. There is a direct link between race, class, and environmental issues and black people are on the forefront of our nation's environmental crisis -- with exposure to lead paint, and the chance of living in proximity to landfills and toxic waste sites disproportionately affecting our community.
In Colfax, Louisiana, the Military Is Burning Waste
With No Regard for the People Who Live There
Kelly Macias / The Daily Kos
(July 21, 2017) -- Though the face of the mainstream environmental movement is largely white, environmental justice is an issue of pressing concern for people of color. There is a direct link between race, class, and environmental issues and black people are on the forefront of our nation's environmental crisis -- with exposure to lead paint, and the chance of living in proximity to landfills and toxic waste sites disproportionately affecting our community.
Flint, Michigan's water crisis is one of the more notable and recent cases in which government systems not only failed to protect the well-being and health of poor black people, but one in which they further punished them by also trying to make them pay for the very services that poisoned them in the first place.
Unfortunately, this story is not an isolated occurrence. In Colfax, Louisiana, the US military burns explosives and munitions waste, with little regard for the people who actually live there.
The burns take place several times each day, and when they do, they turn parts of Colfax into a virtual war zone.
"It's like a bomb, shaking this trailer," said Elouise Manatad, who lives in one of the dozen or so mobile homes speckling the hillside just a few hundred yards from the facility's perimeter. The rat-tat-tat of bullets and fireworks crackles through the woods and blasts rattle windows 12 miles away.
Thick, black smoke towers hundreds of feet into the air, dulling the bright slices of sky that show through the forest cover. Manatad's nephew Frankie McCray -- who served two tours at Camp Victory in Iraq -- runs inside and locks the door, huddling in the dark behind windows covered in tinfoil.
The stockpile of aging explosives are burned at a plant in Colfax which is "the only commercial facility in the nation allowed to burn explosives and munitions waste with no environmental emissions controls, and it has been doing so for the military for decades."
So given that the Environmental Protection Agency has no oversight whatsoever, it's really hard to believe that the waste is not poisoning Colfax's 1,532 residents. Not shockingly, those residents happen to be mostly black. And economically, they are struggling, with the average resident earning $13,800 a year.
The company that runs the plant, Clean Harbors, claims it became a target for controversy two years ago after a stockpile of these very same munitions blew up at a former Army ammunition plant in Minden, Louisiana -- just 95 miles north of Colfax.
After the residents became furious about possible exposure to toxins, that's when the military agreed to transfer and dispose of the explosives in Colfax. It's worth noting that Minden is larger than Colfax, and almost half of its residents are white.
Many of the black residents living close to the plant see the history differently. They say they have for years harbored concerns over their health. Manatad suffers from recurring strokes and respiratory infections. She says at least five of her neighbors have thyroid disorders, a condition that has been linked to exposure to perchlorate. Residents gossip about former burn facility employees who died of cancer.
Though the state has found Clean Harbors in violation of several regulations and one state representative has sponsored a bill to ban the burning of hazardous waste, they continue to burn it. This is because they have a powerful lobby behind them -- the Department of Defense as well as Louisiana's chemical industry.
They argue that this is about losing jobs and US soldiers being able to detonate their weapons properly. Of course, there's nothing like invoking a little patriotism to justify poisoning people. And frankly, who cares about the lives of a few thousand poor black folk when there is money to be made by burning waste, right?
Environmental activists and residents are doing their best to push back against Clean Harbors but, sadly, they are the ultimate underdog in this story. This country has shown time and time again that rich white men who run governments and corporations win over poor, black people.
This is the injustice of America, where cash and greed win out over protecting people's health and right to live with air free of toxic fumes.
"I'm pretty sure if they was living in an environment like this they wouldn't be pleased either, because it's not safe," said Annie Tolbert, 80, resting from the heavy heat in her fenced-in porch. Tolbert takes a puff of steroids from an inhaler, prescribed for her severe asthma. "They are not going to listen to us because we are black."
"But we are citizens, too."
Happy endings are rare in real life, but every so often the underdog wins. Let's hope the residents of Colfax are the David to Clean Harbor's Goliath.
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