Source: Earthkeeping: "Toxic Racism"
In this video segment adapted from Earthkeeping: "Toxic Racism," follow the story of how a Latino community of farm workers helped stop the construction of an incinerator in their town. Learn about the rural town of Kettleman City, California, where one of the country's largest hazardous waste landfills is located. Hear how farm workers and farm owners joined together to sue the waste management corporation for environmental discrimination against poor and minority communities. In addition, learn about environmental law principles that led to a ruling in favor of the citizens.
Hazardous waste incinerators have a number of benefits. For example, by converting waste into ash, gas, and heat, the process of incineration can reduce the volume of waste materials by 95 percent. In addition, because an incinerator provides controlled conditions for burning, such as very high temperatures, there is complete combustion of the materials, and pathogens and some toxins are destroyed. However, emissions from a hazardous waste incinerator can contain contaminants such as particulate matter, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, heavy metals, and organic compounds. Although hazardous waste incinerators are regulated under the Clean Air Act, which requires emission control systems that remove the majority of pollutants from the gas, concerns remain.
In particular, environmental contaminants may place the health of communities located near hazardous waste incinerators at risk. Even though the incineration facility may meet emission requirements, pollutants at allowable levels are still pollutants. Any small amount of pollution released into the environment, combined with other ambient concentrations of pollutants, could be a health hazard. People can be exposed to contaminants by inhaling polluted air; in addition, contaminants could end up in soil and water supplies or damage agricultural crops in the area. Persistent organic pollutants, which can remain in the environment for a long time, are of particular concern as they can accumulate over time and concentrate as they move up the food chain.
The video describes how the farm workers and farm owners in Kettleman City joined forces to fight a proposed hazardous waste incinerator. Chemical Waste Management Inc. (CWM or Chem Waste) operates the landfill near Kettleman City, one of the largest hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities in the United States. Practically speaking, it made sense to build an incinerator at that site, as it was near the landfill and there was already an existing infrastructure. However, there was controversy about whether the site was chosen because the residents of Kettleman City were largely Latino farm workers who, because of their ethnicity and poverty, may have had less power in the political system.
Concerns over the effects of the pollutants brought people together in opposition to the incinerator. Although it's been typical for farm workers and farm owners to be on opposing sides of issues, in this case they were in agreement: they did not want any more environmental pollutants. They became allies because farm workers were concerned for their own health and job security, and farm owners were concerned for their business and crops. Together, they won the fight against the incinerator, but the battle between the residents of Kettleman City and CWM continues. Since their original victory, the community has fought against requests for expansion of the landfill, and residents have demanded investigations into the unusual number of babies born with birth defects, which they believe must be related to pollution from the landfill.
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