Our systems of industrial production are as harmful today as they have ever been, but now the ugly side of manufacturing is hidden in faraway places where workers are most vulnerable. Out of Sight, by labor historian Erik Loomis, explains how this came to pass and how workers can take power back from corporations. Order the book now by donating to Truthout!
In the following excerpt from Out of Sight, the history of US corporate pollution and toxic dumping is recounted.
From the moment American corporations were born in the late eighteenth century, they saw the natural world as a dumping ground. Within a few years of an industry arriving on a waterway, fish runs went extinct and waterways became disgusting dumps of foul-smelling water that made people sick. The air was no better: smoke coated nearby buildings, killed vegetation, and wiped out bird populations. Although the courts favored this behavior in nineteenth-century decisions, some citizens resisted. As early as the 1870s, residents of Newark, New Jersey, attempted to prevent a paper mill from dumping waste into the Passaic River, just upstream. In the early twentieth century, citizens in Pittsburgh and St. Louis demanded that corporations clean up their smokestacks. They knew that all this smoke and smog made them sick. Chicago passed the nation’s first serious smoke law in 1881, giving citizens some legal rights to classify smoke a nuisance and authorizing a municipal inspection agency against smoke violations. While groundbreaking, it was also almost totally unenforced in an era of corporate domination of politics and society. The federal government was not ready to act.
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The fight was renewed during the Progressive Era of the 1910s. Settlement house workers including Jane Addams and Florence Kelley lobbied to move Chicago’s largest dump out of a poor residential neighborhood—already the nation had chosen to site toxicity in poor neighborhoods. Settlement worker Mary McDowell made it her mission to improve environmental conditions in Chicago’s stockyard district, where meat producers polluted at will and thousands of people lived in horrifying conditions. The south fork of the Chicago River ran through there, known locally as “Bubbly Creek” because the decaying organic matter caused acid to bubble up in the water. The smell of this is unfathomable to modern Americans. Reformers continued battling companies over smoke. Finally, St. Louis passed a major smoke control ordinance in 1940 that forced all fuel consumers to clean the smoke from fuel before it was released into the air. But nationally, gains were limited, and many Americans equated pollution with progress. It would take another generation for sizable numbers of Americans to question this ideology.
Anger over the accumulated evidence of pollution combined with the greater political voice of the working and middle classes after World War II finally made pollution a major issue. The Donora Fog is only the most famous example in the United States (and the deadly London air pollution of 1952 served a similar function in Great Britain). The dumping of pollutants into Lake Erie, making the Cuyahoga River flammable, was emblematic of a general pollution problem throughout the nation’s waterways. Suburban developers installed improper septic tanks for the nation’s new middle class, and sewage and detergents leaked into the water supply. When home owners turned on their water, suds flowed out. By the 1950s, citizens across the nation had become increasingly concerned about what corporations were doing to the air and water. Even people in conservative areas such as rural central Florida began organizing against the fertilizer industry’s phosphate pollution, which sickened cows, poisoned orange groves, and made citizens worry about their health. States were reluctant to challenge business. Corporations stalled, challenged the science, and demanded more testing, all while continuing the same profitable polluting practices.
But Americans became increasingly angry about pollution. In 1966, 28 percent of Americans called air pollution a “somewhat serious” or “very serious” concern. By 1970, that number jumped to 69 percent. People began to demand meaningful federal action to control air pollution. Thomas True of New Iberia, Louisiana, asked Maine senator Edmund Muskie for help: “The black soot” from sugar factory emissions is “upon us in Southwest Louisiana. I have written my state and federal representatives, but have received no help.” Muskie became a national leader in the fight against pollution because citizens like True demanded change. Corporations felt pressure to change their ways, and politicians less brave than Muskie were moved to crack down in order to save their political hides.
Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring inspired the organizing against pollution. During World War II, chemical companies developed pesticides such as DDT to protect American troops from mosquitoes and other insects. After the war, chemical companies found ways to market these powerful pesticides at home. Between 1949 and 1968, pesticide use exploded by an average of 168 percent per year, despite an almost total lack of scientific research conducted on how the chemicals affected people, wildlife, or ecosystems. Our national bird, the bald eagle, became perilously close to extinction in the Lower 48 because DDT entered the water supply and became concentrated in fish and then in eagles’ bodies after they ate the fish. This caused the eagles’ eggshells to form too thin to hatch. Silent Spring brought this story to the American public. Showing how DDT and other pesticides moved up the food chain, Carson’s book had tremendous impact. If eagle populations were in peril after eating DDT-laden fish, were humans not also susceptible? The chemical industry contested Carson’s findings, using sexism to discredit her by calling her a hysterical woman who could not be a legitimate scientist because of her womanly emotions. But Silent Spring became a bestseller, motivating political figures such as President John F. Kennedy and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to spearhead investigations that eventually led to bans of DDT and several other chemicals in 1972.
Anti-nuclear-testing activists also brought air pollution into the national conversation during the 1960s. Atmospheric nuclear testing in the Soviet Union led to radioactive milk in Scandinavian cows, making people around the world worried about the effects of nuclear tests. Watching these tests became a tourist attraction in Las Vegas, with people viewing them from their hotel rooftops, but they also led to radiation spewed in the atmosphere to travel around the world, slowly falling on innocent people. In the United States, Women Strike for Peace led these protests, using their identity as mothers trying to raise healthy children and protect them from radioactive milk to fight against nuclear testing. They sent letters to Jackie Kennedy and Nina Khrushchev, urging them to pressure their husbands to stop the madness of nuclear testing. The American media were bemused—who were these women who appeared seemingly out of nowhere? Founded by Bella Abzug, later a leading progressive member of Congress, and children’s book illustrator Dagmar Wilson, Women Strike for Peace mobilized fifty thousand women to protest. They played an important role in pressuring the United States and Soviet Union to sign the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which ended atmospheric testing.
Continued anger over corporate pollution led to the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. Today, we don’t often think of Earth Day as a radical moment—our annual Earth Day celebrations now usually revolve around picking up trash along the river, if we do anything at all. But in 1970, the media saw it is a radical moment that could rival Vietnam as the center of protest in American life. Although its organizers wanted consensus and invited industry speakers, the audience did not care to listen to the people they blamed for the pollution crisis. At the University of Illinois, students disrupted a Commonwealth Edison speaker by coughing loudly so he could not be heard. Speakers talked of the “ecological catastrophe of the Vietnam War” thanks to chemicals such as napalm, made by American corporation Dow Chemical, and challenged corporate irresponsibility toward the earth and the people who relied on it to live.
This energy transformed the nation. Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970 by a nearly unanimous vote, establishing clear federal authority over the regulation of American air, creating federal standards on pollutants, and setting target dates for reducing or eliminating emissions. Congress followed by creating or amending other acts to crack down on corporate pollution such as the Resource Recovery Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act amendments of 1972. Each of these expanded government authority and resulted from Americans angry over their despoiled landscapes. These new laws and regulations required a brand-new federal agency to administer them, so the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970. The EPA was the symbol of the new federal power to regulate corporate emissions.
The 1970s saw an empowered American public demand more remediation from pollution. Citizen groups organized against pesticides, in favor of stricter clean air and water legislation, and in opposition to nuclear power plants. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 required registration of chemicals, albeit only those introduced after 1979. Residents in Cincinnati, Ohio, passed a right-to-know amendment to the city’s fire code after a newspaper series documented the city’s high cancer rates. Shortly after, residents successfully fought a Standard Oil of Ohio proposal to ship benzene out of a terminal on the Ohio River where floods could sweep away a barge.
The exposure of a cancer cluster at Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, New York, outraged Americans. In the 1940s, the Hooker Chemical Company had buried 21,000 tons of toxic waste there. In 1953, Niagara Falls bought the land and built low-income and working-class housing, schools, and other buildings of the American dream. By the 1970s, locals began to realize they suffered an unusual amount of birth defects, cancers, and other health problems in their community. Led by home owner and mother Lois Gibbs, the people of Love Canal demanded government intervention. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency and moved the residents out of Love Canal. Continued outrage over Love Canal; a similar situation in Times Beach, Missouri; and other incidents of industrial pollution led to the establishment of Superfund in 1980, a federal program for long-term remediation of toxic sites. At first, a polluter tax paid for the program, amassing a $3.8 billion surplus for the program by 1996 and creating a very successful agency. Unfortunately, in 1995 Congress did not extend that tax, meaning the rapid depletion of that surplus and an underfunded agency, a defeat of successful government that became ever more common in that decade.
The new environmental laws of the 1970s proved immediately effective. Between 1972 and 1978, presence of sulfur dioxide in the environment fell 17 percent, carbon monoxide by 35 percent, and lead by 26 percent. Americans lauded a future of jobs and health, prosperity and beautiful nature. Unions such as the United Steelworkers of America, who represented many Donora workers, the United Auto Workers, and the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers made alliances with environmentalists and promoted the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other core legislation that protected all Americans, whether members of the working class or wealthy, from the emissions and pollutants of industry. Environmentalists for Full Employment formed in 1975 to “publicize the fact that it is possible simultaneously to create jobs, conserve energy and natural resources and protect the environment.” When Ronald Reagan became president and cut OSHA and EPA funding, the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club created the OSHA/Environmental Network to organize resistance between the two movements. Environmentalists and a Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees local representing tannery workers in Fulton County, New York, overcame past differences and worked together on both the workplace environment of the tannery and tannery-created water pollution. By the late 1990s, workers reporting environmental violations and environmentalists helped the union develop plans to improve working conditions in the plants.
The potential for a strong labor-green coalition to fight for healthy workplaces and ecosystems clean enough for people to enjoy in their free time was a threat to corporations. Companies responded to environmentalism’s rise by taking advantage of a road the American government had already opened to them—moving their operations away from the people with the power to complain about pollution. They did this in two ways. Some industries scoured the nation, seeking the poorest communities to place the most toxic industries. They assumed those communities, usually dominated by people of color, would not or could not complain. The companies would work with corrupt local politicians to push through highly polluting projects before citizens knew what was entering their communities. Other industries went overseas, seeking to repeat their polluting ways in nations that lacked the ability or desire to enforce environmental legislation. Capital mobility moved toxicity from the middle class to the world’s poor.
In 1978, Chemical Waste Management, a company that specialized in handling toxic waste, chose the community of Emelle, in Sumter County, Alabama, as the site of its new toxic waste dump. Corporations contracted with Chem Waste to handle their toxic waste. Sumter County was over two-thirds African American and over one-third of the county’s residents lived in poverty, but whites made up the county political elite approving the decision. In Emelle, more than 90 percent of the residents were black. This is why Chem Waste chose Emelle. They worked with a local company led by the son-in-law of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace to acquire the site. No one told local residents what was to be built there. Local rumors suggested a brickmaking facility. The company dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic materials at the site. Despite claiming it was safe, the company racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Such activities were common for Chem Waste. It always chose communities like this to site its dumps—Port Arthur, Texas, in a neighborhood that was 80 percent people of color; Chicago’s South Side in a neighborhood 79 percent people of color; and Saguet, Illinois, a 95 percent African American area.
The racist actions of companies like Chemical Waste Management led to the environmental justice movement. By fighting for the environments where we live, work, and play, environmental justice has redefined environmentalism and connected capital mobility with environmentalism by focusing on how corporations make decisions about where to locate toxic exposure. Through the environmental justice movement, people of color began adapting the language of environmentalism to their struggles with toxicity and pollution. Scholars usually date the movement to an incident in 1982 when the state of North Carolina wanted to dump six thousand truckloads of toxic soil contaminated with PCBs in a predominantly African American section of Warren County. More than five hundred protesters were arrested. Civil rights leaders and community members began tying racism to environmentalism, noting how the Environmental Protection Agency in the Southeast had targeted African American communities for toxic waste dumping. A new social movement was born. Alabamians for a Clean Environment formed to fight the Emelle toxic waste site.
Chemical Waste Management had built a toxic waste dump in Kettleman City, California, a 95 percent Latino town in a white majority county. When the company planned to add a toxic waste incinerator, residents fought back, forcing Chem Waste to withdraw its application in 1993. Residents and the company still battle over environmental justice there today. African Americans in Anniston, Alabama, won a lawsuit against the chemical company Monsanto, which paid $390 million in 2003 for contaminating their neighborhood with PCBs, while residents of Norco, Louisiana, defeated Shell Oil in court, forcing it to pay for them to move away from the neighborhood the oil giant contaminated.
The environmental justice movement has not forced widespread changes in corporate strategies. Corporations still seek out the areas with the poorest people to dump toxic waste. The people of the Hyde Park neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia, have conducted a long campaign for environmental justice against a wood-preserving factory that dumped dioxin-laden wood-treatment chemicals into groundwater as well as against a ceramic factory that emitted dust across their yards, resulting in skin conditions, circulatory problems, and rare forms of cancer. The neighborhood near these factories is almost entirely African American, leading residents to believe their neighborhood was targeted for this exposure. African American neighborhoods are routinely zoned for garbage dumps and landfills, and petrochemical companies locate cancer-causing chemical plants in black communities along the Mississippi River. Poverty and race too often mean toxic exposure and cancer in the United States. In a 2014 report, researchers at the University of Minnesota demonstrated that people of color in the United States breathe in air 38 percent more polluted than whites. In the Los Angeles metro area, 91 percent of the 1.2 million people who live less than two miles from hazardous-waste treatment facilities are people of color. Environmental inequality is a systematic problem made worse by intentional corporate decisions to profit off of poisoning minority populations.
While some companies target sites within the United States to dump pollution, more commonly, corporations either move production overseas or ship waste abroad. Free trade agreements lack meaningful environmental standards. After NAFTA’s passage, the American and Mexican governments engaged in meetings to plan for environmental problems, but corporations remained off the hook for their actions in Mexico. Twenty years after NAFTA, nothing has changed. Corporate control over the American government continues to ensure that trade agreements do not include environmental restrictions on corporate actions.
Full footnotes can be found in the book.
Copyright (2015) of Erik Loomis. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, The New Press.