Global communities unite

It was in June that groundWork together with groundWork US organised a delegation of community groups from South Africa to attend a landfill and incineration exchange in the United States. The aim of the exchange was to make participants aware and understand what environmental injustice meant, to create awareness of problems regarding landfills and incineration, to exchange expertise between communities and learn from cases studies thereof, to develop knowledge regarding tools and techniques that could be used about how to go about building up a campaign, to develop an understanding of the alternatives available, and to build up networks with other communities and technical experts. To enrich their local struggles, the delegation toured different parts of the United States and met with experts in the field and communities facing similar environmental injustices.

June 14 – 16
During this period, the South African activists visited Linden, Newark, and Camden in New Jersey. In Linden, the delegation met the New Jersey Work Environmental Council (NJWEC), an alliance of labour and environmental groups and was taken on a tour of the industrial and waste disposal sites that contribute to the environmental problems being faced by the Linden community. Local activists described the organising strategies employed by communities to challenge not only local industries but also the municipal government that repeatedly placed the interest of corporate industries over those of the community.

We were glad to see that South Africa was not alone in its struggles and that communities in the States also shared similar concerns and had developed campaigning strategies we could learn from. The skills share group also had the opportunity to share a meal with Linden community members and share and discuss the similarities and differences between their respective struggles.

Participants also visited the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC), a community-based organisation based in Newark, New Jersey, which since 1969 has helped to connect residents to social services and child-care and has recently expanded to engage with environmental justice issues. We were surprised to learn that roughly eighty percent of the Ironbound community’s population is foreign-born, with many immigrants coming from Spain and Portugal. As the third oldest city in the U.S. and an early hub of industrial activity, this “iron bound” community was burdened both by this history of pollution and present day consequences of poor city planning. Like South Africa, we were not surprised to hear how the state’s plan to construct an incinerator in each county disproportionally affected less affluent counties and communities of colour.

It was shocking to hear how the construction of the third largest domestic waste incinerator on the Eastern seaboard processed up to 70,000 tonnes of waste a month, some of it as far away as New York City. Because of lax regulations, operators have been able to increase the amount of mercury that this incinerator emits. We were, however, glad to hear how the ICC has begun to move towards a more proactive approach in dealing with issues of industrial pollution. By polling residents about how they would like their neighbourhood to look the ICC have been able to develop a community plan that reflects community priorities. The ICC will be monitoring the air quality of the emissions from facilities like this incinerator.

We were saddened when we visited the Passaic River, a superfund site described by the ICC as one of the most polluted rivers in the country and no longer navigatable because of sediments from industrial pollution. It was shocking to hear that the local EPA officials recommend that a middle-aged adult should only eat a crab from this river once every twenty years. It was not uncommon to hear the difficulty of making polluters pay for what they have done, as Newark has such a long history of industrial pollution that most claimed the pollution was caused by their predecessors.

We also had the opportunity to meet with members of the Central New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, who were meeting to organise their opposition to legislation before the state assembly that would fast-track permits related to a variety of environmentally sensitive projects, greatly limiting government oversight and public scrutiny. They welcomed our delegation and were struck by the similarities of the struggles on both continents. This was ironic since in SA environmental justice groups including groundWork have at the same time also been opposing new legislation pertaining to the Air Quality Bill. Civil society has expressed concern that the Bill may not fill the state’s constitutional obligation to take reasonable measures to prevent pollution.

June 17-22
During this period, the delegation visited Oakland, Berkley, and San Francisco in the Bay Area, California. We had the opportunity to visit Berkley’s Ecology Centre, an alternative waste centre that grew out of an early 1970s anti-incinerator campaign. We were glad to see and learn from the centres recycling efforts, which included a weekly curbside recycling of mixed paper, plant debris, cans, glass, and certain types of plastic. We also conducted a tour of a transfer station and saw how their recycling efforts had demonstrated that between one-half and three-fourths of the waste material could either be recycled or naturally broken down through composting.

After a tour of the recycling facility, the delegation visited Urban Ore, a reclamation project that seeks to salvage useful material from the waste stream. Expert Dr Dan Knapp, the director of Urban Ore, spoke with the delegation about the possibility of recycling and reusing what we normally consider waste. Dr Knapp emphasised the importance of looking at what gets thrown not as “waste” but as “discard,” material that can be passed along and used once again. This approach, according to Dr Knapp, can help to make a zero waste approach a reality.

We also travelled to Bayview-Hunter’s Point to visit environmental justice NGO Green action in San Francisco. The Hunter’s point was predominantly an African-American section of the city and was burdened with a variety of environmental problems. Both the navy and the power plant company have dumped chemicals into the fishing waters of the Bay area. We were happy to hear that those responsible were successfully challenged to clean up the waters they have contaminated and that the city had been successfully pressured to put up signs properly notifying residents in different languages not to eat from this water. We were shocked to hear that the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area had the highest rates of breast cancer for African-American women under 50 and one of the highest rates of asthma among African-American children in the nation.

The delegation also had the opportunity to speak about environmental justice in South Africa in relation to the problems they were facing in their communities at Berkeley’s Ecology Centre. Audience members listened with great interest and were amazed to hear the similarities being faced between SA and the United States. Informative discussion unfolded and an exchange of campaigning and technical strategies shared.

June 23-26
During this period, the SA delegation visited Los Angeles, California and had the opportunity to visit Union de Residents para la Proteccion Ambiental de Val Verde (URPAVV), a community group based in Val Verde. The organisation has been working to deal with a landfill located next to the community. It was sad to hear that many residents have suffered from cancer and respiratory problems. The group, however, was looking to do a study to make a correlation between air quality and health and use this in their campaigning. URPAVV successfully lead a campaign to block plans to expand the size of the landfill despite opposition from some white residents and county supervisors.

We also had the opportunity to visit one of the better sites, Sun Valley landfill, run by Waste Management. To enrich their technical knowledge, the delegation spoke with landfill managers operating the landfill. We were glad to see and learn how the landfill was run stringently to the highest standards possible. This was unlike as in South Africa compared to the poorly operated landfills such as Bissarsar and Limbro park to name a few.

Also toured was the Simi Valley landfill and recycling centre. We were amazed to see how the facility was developed out of a natural crater in a mountain range away from residential areas. The company has been working to avoid the environmental hazards that arise at other sites and countries like South Africa, where pollution is prominent and the health of communities are affected.

Overall, the exchange was successful and an eye opener for communities in South Africa regarding waste management and operations. The exchange tangibly enriched the local struggles taking place for communities in the United States and South Africa and had helped to forge linkages that strengthened the environmental justice movement in each country. Participants learnt that the case for recycling is strong in that recycling saves money and reduces pollution, creates more jobs than landfilling or incineration. And a largely ignored but very important consideration, recycling reduces our need to dump our garbage in someone else’s backyard.

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