“The concept of environmental injustice arose from the
fact that some communities or human groups are disproportionately subjected to
higher levels of environmental risk than other segments of society. Growing
concern over unequal environmental burdens and mounting evidence of both racial
and economic injustices led to the emergence of a grassroots civil rights
campaign for environmental justice in the 1980s in the United States”. This is
a definition of environmental injustice from the Environmental Justice
Organizations, Liabilities and Trade Research Project (EJOLT). There are
multiple cases of environmental injustice throughout the world and this post
will focus more specifically on a case in Manatee County, Florida.
Here is a quick history of the events that occurred regarding contamination in the Tallevast community in Manatee County. The American Beryllium Company operated a machine parts manufacturing plant, where metals were milled, lathed and drilled. They had hazardous materials and these operations created beryllium dust. The company closed in the 1980s, and at that time the residents that lived near the site still used well water for drinking, showering and other uses. At the time, there was still no discussion on contamination and pathways of exposure. Lockhead Martin acquired American Beryllium in 1996 and ceased operations. The new company paid for a site investigation to determine if chemicals were present on site. In the year 2000, Lockhead Martin discovered groundwater contamination. Only in 2004 were private drinking wells tested for contaminant levels which came out as positive for solvents and other volatile compounds. Multiple individuals tested positive for beryllium sensitivity. Since then, most wells have been capped and people were moved to the public water system. They submitted a cleanup plan to the state which indicated that cleanup of the contaminated site would take 50 years, but majority of the contaminants in the groundwater would be cleaned up in 5 years. We are now past the 5-year mark since the clean up plan was initiated.
Jeannie Zokovitch Paven is an attorney and a law professor who focuses on environmental issues. She worked for environmental non-profits in Florida. She ran an environmental law clinic and worked with communities in Florida that suffered the consequences of environmental injustice. She became involved in the early 2000s with the contamination in Tallevast while she was working with a non-profit organization. On an interview with WSLR, Paven commented on how the community felt that the clean up plan was still not enough. “Pathways of exposure were not fully explored but the state accepted the clean-up plan anyway [even though] the community challenged the state’s decision”. Being past the 5-year mark now, the community still does not know what happened in that 5-year margin. They do not know how the cleanup plan will continue. On top of that, they are finding contamination beyond what they documented as the boundaries of the plume in certain aquifers. Paven says that they did not fully know the boundary because they had not done enough sampling of the contamination nor fully knew how they were going to clean it up. At this point there is still a lot of questions regarding the clean up plan, its efficiency and how it continues to affect people’s lives in Manatee County.
This story is an example of environmental injustice because the community of Tallevast is predominantly African American and of mixed socioeconomic class. Paven discussed in her interview with WSLR that a big part of environmental injustice involves “recognizing the disparity that exists within the power base because the people that are making the decisions are rarely the people that are having to live with those risks. No one in the Tallevast community was involved in the permitting of the facility, or decisions made when the leaks were found or with the investigation.”