Robert D. Bullard likes to say that he was “dragged into” the environmental-justice movement.

In 1978 he was an urban planner in Houston, Texas, when his now ex-wife, an attorney, took a case representing a predominantly African American neighborhood that had been chosen as the site for a planned garbage dump. At her behest, Bullard did the legwork to uncover some shameful evidence: landfills in the city were almost all in black neighborhoods, despite the fact that only a quarter of Houston residents were black.

It was the first U.S. lawsuit to allege “environmental discrimination” under federal civil-rights law, and Bullard’s findings are widely regarded as the beginning of the environmental-justice movement. The lawsuit failed, and the landfill was built 1,400 feet from a high school without air conditioning, where the classrooms soon reeked of garbage. But the experience spawned Bullard’s career as a crusader for the rights of poor and minority communities.

In the decades that followed, Bullard would visit desolate dumps and toxic ghost towns throughout the country, most in areas with predominantly minority populations. The people living near these sites had higher-than-average rates of cancer, asthma, and diabetes.

Bullard’s first book, Dumping in Dixie, brought attention to the disparity in how waste facilities, chemical plants, incinerators, and smelters were sited in the South. In 1990, when the book was published, not a single state had an environmental-justice law on the books. In 2012 every state has some such law, policy, or executive order. But the problem hasn’t gone away: of the 9 million U.S. citizens who live within two miles of a hazardous-waste facility, more than half are minorities. “The people who live closest are oftentimes the most vulnerable populations with the fewest resources,” Bullard says. He has made it his life’s work to help them.

Born in 1946, Bullard grew up in Alabama. He went to graduate school at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia and received his PhD in sociology from Iowa State University. For sixteen years he served as director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center, which he founded at his alma mater Clark Atlanta. In his early days there he had no staff, just “a laptop, a phone, a fax machine, and an empty office.”

Bullard’s seminal role in uniting concerns about civil rights and the environment has led many to call him the “father of environmental justice.” He is the author or coauthor of more than a half dozen books, including The Quest for Environmental Justice; Confronting Environmental Racism; Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina; and, most recently, The Wrong Complexion for Protection. When President Barack Obama appointed Lisa Jackson as head of the Environmental Protection Agency [epa] in 2009, Bullard was one of the first activists she consulted. Newsweek has named him one of thirteen Environmental Leaders of the Century.

Bullard recently became dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, but when I spoke with him, he was still in Georgia. It was summer, temperatures were above ninety, and the air conditioner in his office was broken, but Bullard didn’t complain. Though his beard was gray, his expression and manner were youthful. The secret, he told me, was that he still ran every day, a habit he’d developed as a Marine in the late sixties.


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Cowell: What does the environmental-justice movement do that the environmental movement doesn’t?

Bullard: Environmentalism traditionally has been more concerned with preserving wilderness. For more than a century the environmental movement was dominated by white middle- and upper-class individuals, many of them fishermen and hunters. It broadened after the first Earth Day in 1970, but areas of human settlement were still largely left out of the picture.

The environmental-justice movement has redefined environment to mean both the natural world and the places where we live. We can’t leave people out of our concept of the environment. And once we start to talk about people, we have to talk about justice and equality. Too many Americans don’t have a clue what happens outside their own neighborhood. They assume that everybody shares equally the effects of pollution or degradation, but that’s not true. Our society is still very segregated along class and race lines, and the poor and minorities suffer more adverse effects.

Cowell: Is environmental injustice more of a problem in rural or urban communities?

Bullard: It’s a problem everywhere, but rural communities have more challenges. Most waste facilities are located in rural areas, and if the community is unincorporated, the only way it can address these issues is through the county board of commissioners or county managers, who often do not know much about the isolated communities they represent. In the cities people have more local organizations and educational institutions, and there are more young people to do the legwork. The overwhelmingly elderly populations in rural areas have a hard time going to meetings or traveling to the state capital, much less to Washington, DC.

Cowell: You’ve said that, before the site is chosen for a toxic facility, we should consider whether the community is already “saturated” with such facilities. It seems there is no official threshold, no point at which the law says, “Enough.”

Bullard: We need a system to determine when a community has already shouldered its fair share. Right now, if someone wants to build a hazardous-waste facility, the EPA or state will assess the risk to nearby residents from that new facility only; the risks posed by the three or four or five polluters already in the area aren’t added to the equation. So there is nothing that might trigger the EPA or state to say that this community is overburdened by pollution.

For the past twenty-five years we’ve been trying to convince the government to consider what we call the “toxic load” of a community. The current EPA has held hearings, and we are hopeful about the outcome, but we’re frustrated that it has taken so long. It’s difficult to turn even a common-sense idea into policy. When you go into that negotiating room, you face corporate lawyers and scientists and lobbyists with sophisticated strategies. Activists on the ground don’t have that kind of representation or resources.

Cowell: Is part of the problem that officials have not physically visited the communities and seen the disparities for themselves?

Bullard: Yes. The majority of officials making these decisions have not witnessed firsthand the effects of these facilities. We give a “toxic tour” to open people’s eyes. We’ve taken many policymakers to “Cancer Alley,” an eighty-five-mile stretch of Louisiana from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

Norco, Louisiana, is located along that stretch, on the site of the old Diamond Plantation, where freed slaves bought land from their former master and carved out their own small parcels. The neighborhood was known as the “Diamond community,” and it was a peaceful, quiet place until the oil industry came in and placed it under toxic assault in the 1950s. A refinery and a plant were built on either side. You could stand in the neighborhood’s only playground and smell an overpowering stench of gasoline. After an hour you’d have a headache and would want to leave — and this is when you’re standing next to swings and slides.

The people of the Diamond community had to live with those noxious fumes every day for decades. All night the refineries lit up the sky with powerful industrial lights, and they had to use heavy drapes to keep out the glare. After a pipeline explosion killed two residents in the 1970s, neighbors lived in constant fear of an accident, and some even slept with a bag packed every night in case they had to evacuate. They were hostages in their own homes. They didn’t want their children to go outside, they couldn’t sleep at night, and they experienced constant fear. For anyone to live with such anxiety is an injustice.

After a long grassroots campaign, the oil industry finally agreed about a decade ago to relocate the Diamond residents. The relocation itself took years. It was a bittersweet victory for the community. That land had been handed down from generation to generation. They had to leave it because white county officials had decided that the best place to put those refineries was next door to this little African American community.

Cowell: Several weeks ago I visited a neighborhood that borders a landfill outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A community organizer who lived there described looking out his window and seeing buzzards roosting on his grandchildren’s playground.

Bullard: This tells that community and those children that they are worthless: the garbage dump is compatible with their community, and therefore they are garbage. That should be criminal, but it’s not.

I’m working on a case right now in Dickson County, Tennessee. The county is only 5 percent black, but all the landfills in it have been placed in the middle of a black community. This is the county government doing this, mind you, not an outside industry. The Harry Holt family has a 150-acre homestead adjacent to the county’s landfill, which has contaminated the wells in the area with TCE [trichloroethylene], a chemical that has been linked to cancer. In 1988 the county told the Holts that their water was safe. In 1994 the county notified nearby white families of the contamination and provided bottled water for them to drink, but they allowed the Holt family, which has lived there for six generations, to drink that polluted water from 1988 to 2000. Now the whole family is sick. Sheila Holt-Orsted’s father died of prostate cancer. Her aunt has cancer. Sheila has breast cancer. This family survived slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, but it may not survive environmental racism through zoning, land use, and waste-facility siting.

Cowell: What are some environmental injustices that don’t involve race?

Bullard: In West Virginia, low-income white communities are experiencing pollution created by mountaintop-removal coal mining. That’s an environmental injustice. We fight just as hard for those communities. We believe that all vulnerable populations must be protected, particularly those who don’t have access to the political machinery: children, for example. Contamination in water fountains and lead paint in classrooms disproportionately affect children, but children don’t have voting power. They can’t go out and demonstrate on their own.

There are gender inequalities too. In some cases chemicals are specifically affecting young girls’ bodies and causing them to reach sexual maturity early.

Cowell: Speaking of gender, in your book The Quest for Environmental Justice, one chapter profiles women who have assumed key leadership roles in their communities.

Bullard: It’s no accident that 75 percent of environmental-justice leaders are women. In the mainstream environmental movement, corporate nonprofits with paid staff do much of the work. Our movement is different. We have small groups run by volunteers who get drafted because they have family members or friends who are sick, or because they are ill themselves. A lot of them are retired schoolteachers or women who were active in their church or PTA but weren’t active on environmental issues until they were confronted by injustices where they live. After they get involved, they see that this issue is much larger than the local landfill or incinerator.

A lot of activism emerges from concerns about family, home, and community, and women are more involved there. I can tell you from experience that if you go to a black church, the minister might be a man, but when it comes to who’s making things happen, it’s the women! [Laughter.] It was a woman who got me involved. I merely collected the data and wrote the study to support my ex-wife, Linda McKeever Bullard. Not enough attention has been given to her role in conceptualizing the legal theory of environmental discrimination.

This family survived slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow, but it may not survive environmental racism through zoning, land use, and waste-facility siting.

Cowell: What types of environmental hazards do you see most often in low-income and African American communities?

Bullard: It’s mostly waste. Everybody produces waste regardless of class or race, but not everybody has to live near where the waste is dumped. We did a study of commercial hazardous-waste facilities and found that more than half of the residents living within a two-mile radius of these facilities were people of color. When you look at two or more of these facilities in close proximity, that number jumps to 69 percent, and it’s likely that there aren’t just two or three but four or five in a single area. When smelters, refineries, and chemical plants are located near schools, the students attending those schools are predominantly low income and minority. And if you live in a community of color, you are two and a half times more likely to live near a polluting facility. That’s part of the reason why zip codes and neighborhoods are consistent, powerful predictors of people’s health.

Poor communities are sometimes exposed to chemicals that haven’t even had toxicological research conducted on them yet. Local governments are gambling with people’s lives. And when someone objects, the burden is on those who are fighting serious illnesses to prove that this toxin has destroyed their health. Sometimes they don’t even know which chemical is making them sick. The burden of proof should be reversed: the company producing the chemical should have to prove that it will not harm the public.

A 1992 report in the National Law Journal exposed the fact that if you have money and are white, you have a greater chance of getting an environmental problem near your home dealt with. It also revealed that fines levied against polluters were 500 percent higher when the pollution was in white communities than when the pollution occurred in communities of color. It takes longer to get contaminated sites in communities of color added to the official Superfund list of places to be cleaned up. And when remediation does come, it’s done on the cheap: instead of digging up the contamination and putting clean soil down, they place a fence around the site. That’s nothing but a band-aid.

There are even cases in which waste that’s been removed from a wealthy community gets dumped on a poor community. In 2008 the Tennessee Valley Authority had a massive coal-ash waste spill in predominantly white Roane County, Tennessee. After they cleaned up the spill, they sent the waste three hundred miles south to a landfill in Perry County, Alabama, which is predominantly black. We asked officials for an explanation of how they’d made this decision. They couldn’t give us one. There should have been a hearing. No hearings were held. The EPA claimed that the waste had been shipped to an isolated area. They said no one was living nearby, but there’s an African American community two hundred feet from the facility. It was business as usual.

Cowell: Many people saw environmental racism at play in the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Bullard: The hurricane hit all of New Orleans, but the most damage occurred in poor communities and communities of color, which, since that city’s founding, have been located in the areas most prone to flooding, while the whites have owned homes on higher ground. White communities also had stronger levees.

Since Katrina, $7 billion has been spent to fix infrastructure. In black communities levees are anywhere from two to six inches taller than they were before Katrina. In white communities the height of the levees has increased by as much as six feet.

African Americans were given smaller amounts of compensation and were often cheated out of their resettlement money. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit, the majority of the residents owned their houses, however small. Their home was their wealth, and many of them have not been able to go back and reclaim it. In many predominantly black neighborhoods homeowners can’t even get basic insurance. There are no public hospitals in those communities. The public schools have all become charters, and families are having to sue the school system to get their kids a seat. School buses don’t come out to where these children live, and many of their parents are without cars.

The federal government recently agreed to pay $62 million to 1,460 Louisiana homeowners after a lawsuit demonstrated blatant discrimination in the distribution of relief funds following Katrina.

The disaster in New Orleans is an extreme example of what’s happening elsewhere. It’s difficult for black people to get land and hold on to it. That land is often the only wealth those families can pass down from one generation to the next. And you have to understand, too, how difficult it was for those people’s ancestors to get that land after slavery. When you put a landfill “over there,” you might be ensuring that this is the last generation of a family that will live on that homestead. You have displaced them. What we are talking about is the theft of land by contamination. And right now there isn’t even a policy that would relocate the landowners.

Since Katrina, $7 billion has been spent to fix infrastructure. In black communities levees are anywhere from two to six inches taller than they were before Katrina. In white communities the height of the levees has increased by as much as six feet.

Cowell: When a company wants to build a plant in a community, residents are often told that it’s going to create jobs.

Bullard: It’s difficult for people who are unemployed to turn down an offer of jobs, but local residents don’t usually get the jobs that are created. Say a company wants to build a wastewater plant and incinerator in a community. The company tells residents it will create 500 jobs, but out of those, 450 are construction jobs. Once the facility is complete, there are only perhaps fifty long-term positions, most of them for technicians, engineers, and skilled laborers, few of whom live in the area. So the people in the community are left with the low-end jobs like janitor. If the company had said up front, “You’ll end up with five cleaning jobs,” the community would likely have decided it wasn’t worth the destruction of their environment.

Cowell: But disseminating those facts takes a lot of organizing and going door-to-door.

Bullard: Yes. Oftentimes no meetings are held to warn the residents. The company gives its presentation in private to the government officials who make the decision. By the time the residents find out about it, the deal’s been signed.

Cowell: Have there been cases in which a potential polluter tried to build a facility in a poor neighborhood only to have the community rise up and fight it off?

Bullard: In the last thirty years I’ve seen a lot of cases like that. Louisiana Energy Services tried to build an $855 million uranium-enrichment plant in Claiborne Parish in the early nineties. They were going to sandwich the plant between Forest Grove and Center Springs in a rural area where the residents were extremely poor and 97 percent black. Louisiana Energy Services was a privately owned company, and its environmental-impact statement said there was no one living there — nothing but trees. Yet these two black communities had been there since Reconstruction.

The residents fought hard. Louisiana Energy Services spent $35 million to make its case in court, but the citizens organized, and, after a ten-year battle, they won. Once the plant was stopped, they didn’t just sit back. They ran a candidate for county office and became more politically active. The county officials kept saying the plant would bring jobs, but the folks in those communities also had gardens: they ate the food they grew, they drank from wells, and they didn’t think it would be acceptable to have a toxic plant next door.

Cowell: Do people of different races and backgrounds ever join together on environmental-justice issues?

Bullard: A lot of environmental-justice groups, as they have developed and matured, have become not only multigenerational but multiethnic. The movement started off as a black group over here, a Latino group over there, and a Native American group here. But we soon realized we needed to be working together. And we expanded to work with white Appalachian communities. We’re all going up against the same governmental and corporate entities that take us for granted.

Cowell: What about environmental racism in other countries? Do you see similar problems there?

Bullard: Yes. In Nigeria the government and Shell Oil are openly polluting the environment where the poor live. The microelectronic industry is shipping waste containing lead and old batteries to Africa and Asia. The very act of a wealthy nation shipping its waste to a developing country is an environmental injustice.

Cowell: Isn’t there an assumption that the rich have always lived in the house on the hill, and that’s just the way it is?

Bullard: In Brazil it’s the poor who live on the hill, and their houses slide down during heavy rains. But, yes, the assumption is that the rich will take the best land. Just because something has been that way forever, though, doesn’t make it right. I see opposition to that attitude in the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is dissatisfaction in this country with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Various movements today are converging. Through social networks and inexpensive global communications, people are seeing how issues are connected and how what happens in Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, India, or China affects us in the U.S. The world is much smaller today than it was a hundred years ago, and we are much more aware of our interconnectedness.

Cowell: In your book Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, you say that environmental justice and sustainability are intimately linked. Sustainability is a buzzword among environmentalists, most of whom live a long way from the communities we’re talking about. How do you bridge the two?

Bullard: Sustainability is a three-legged stool: it has to include the environment, economics, and equity. But a lot of the talk about sustainability somehow leaves the equity leg off. A stool cannot stand on only two legs.

I just wrote an article on “outdoor apartheid” — about how access to parks and green space is often linked to race and class. Environmental justice isn’t just about keeping out polluters. It’s also about making sure that everyone gets his or her fair share of parks, green jobs, transit, farmers markets, and supermarkets carrying fresh fruits and vegetables.

The middle class is demanding urban hiking trails and bicycle lanes while the poor don’t even have a way to get to the store. With childhood obesity higher among low-income minorities, their communities could also benefit from a hiking trail or a bicycle lane — or access to fresh, unprocessed foods instead of the convenience stores, liquor stores, and fast-food outlets that saturate low-wealth communities. I’ve been in on meetings where there’s an assumption that every neighborhood has a bank, a grocery store, a park, streetlights, and sidewalks. But those are amenities, not givens. We need to connect our communities so that we can have a healthy, livable region, not just a gentrified area of the city that’s gone “green.”

Cowell: Waste dumps and landfills have to go somewhere. Isn’t one community’s success in fighting one off inevitably another community’s loss?

Bullard: I understand that there will always be waste. What I want is equity. There should be a sharing of the burden, so that not all of these facilities end up in one community. We need to look at the problem from a regional perspective. And if a particular community is producing more waste than others — as rich communities often do — it needs to deal with that waste locally, not ship it to poor communities. Suppose the people who generate the most waste had to have the most facilities in their communities? Rich people would be forced to reduce, reuse, and recycle if they didn’t want to live in the presence of rotting garbage! Middle- and upper-class homeowners would put pressure on local governments to have comprehensive waste-management plans and cleaner landfills if more of them lived near one.

Suppose the people who generate the most waste had to have the most facilities in their communities? Rich people would be forced to reduce, reuse, and recycle if they didn’t want to live in the presence of rotting garbage!

Cowell: Can landfills be clean?

Bullard: Yes, I’ve visited landfills in the Northeast where you can be half a mile away, and you don’t smell the trash or see the scavenging birds. There are buffer zones and trees around them. The waste is covered daily. And some of these landfills are located in predominantly white communities. But if you come down south to a black community with a landfill, you’ll see debris along the road and smell odors from several miles away.

The same is true of manufacturing plants. In New England a great deal more care is given to compliance and safe daily operations than in Louisiana. Every facility should be operated as if your grandmother lived next door.

Cowell: What do you say to people who don’t live in one of these communities but want to get involved?

Bullard: I tell my students that it’s great to go to India and fight poverty or go to Brazil and save the rain forest, but there are third-world conditions only five blocks from their home.

We live in this country together. Severe pollution makes us all vulnerable, even if we don’t live in the community where it is. We are all affected by a rise in health problems, because everyone will pay higher insurance premiums and taxes when poor people get sick. I think we should be a caring nation and prevent illnesses when we can. It’s our moral responsibility to demand that no community become a toxic wasteland just because it’s located on the wrong side of the tracks.