Chalk one up for the little guy. After four months of pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency and garbage giant Waste Management Inc., environmentalists in Arizona and California have scored a major victory.
DDT-contaminated mud from a San Francisco Bay Superfund site are no
longer headed to Waste Management's landfill in Mobile, Ariz., a
tiny town just 30 miles southwest of Phoenix.
Some 60,000 tons of waste from the cleanup job
did land in Mobile, but the last 20,000 are going instead to a
landfill in East Carbon City, Utah, 100 miles southeast of Salt
Lake City. The waste is considered hazardous under California's
stringent environmental laws, but non-hazardous in most other
states, including Colorado, Arizona and
Working-class people in two largely
minority communities - Richmond, Calif., where the waste
originated, and Mobile, where the waste was headed - stopped the
"This is pretty significant," said
Manuel Pastor Jr., chairman of the Latin American Studies
Department at University of California-Santa Cruz. "There have been
attempts to build these kinds of alliances between two communities.
This is one of the few times I've heard of people actually linking
at both the source and the destination and actually having an
impact on public policy."
The protests also
awakened Arizonans to the need for stricter waste laws. EPA and
dump officials still insist the Butterfield landfill in Mobile was
a proper destination for the material. The EPA said it ordered the
change to keep a promise to Arizona residents that shipments would
end after Dec. 1. The project should have been completed by then,
but dredging operations at the defunct pesticide plant had fallen
The West County Toxics
Coalition, a primarily minority organization based in industrial
Richmond, Calif., had been pushing for cleanup of the site, which
was placed on the federal government's Superfund list of most toxic
places in 1990. But the effort blew up last fall when EPA and Waste
Management officials could not find a dump for the dredgings. They
retreated from their first disposal choice, a dump outside Colorado
Springs, Colo., after residents there
So Waste Management turned to Mobile,
where it already owned a landfill and where most households live on
less than $19,000 a year. Some houses in the town of 70 people have
no running water, heat or air conditioning.
Arizona landfill is state-of-the-art and well suited for the waste,
said Don Cassano, a Waste Management spokesman. The dry climate,
deep aquifer and sparsely populated community make it an excellent
location for a landfill, he said.
But some Mobile
residents cried foul. "We don't know what our overall exposure is,"
said Sharon Scroggins, a landfill critic. "When they got the
Superfund contract, that was the final straw."
They fought back with the assistance of San
Francisco-based Greenpeace organizer Bradley Angel, who had earlier
helped defeat a hazardous waste incinerator proposed for Mobile by
another company. He and others made the case that the area, which
is home to many Indians and Hispanics, was becoming an
environmental sacrifice zone: It already has two landfills and a
third one is coming. So is an oil refinery.
"You'll never see this stuff in the gated
communities where the rich people live," Angel said.
A few residents had also threatened to sue for
breach of contract, claiming that neither Waste Management nor the
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality consulted the community
before accepting "special wastes' other than household debris. "I
don't know about you, but DDT isn't on my kitchen counter," says
Steve Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona, an environmental group. State
and company officials contend they did follow proper notice and
In September, some West
County Toxics members from Richmond, Calif., took the unusual step
of flying to Phoenix to support their Arizona counterparts. Don't
dump on another poor, minority community, said members from the
gritty city by the bay. "This was pretty unique," said Keith
Takata, the EPA's regional Superfund program director in San
Francisco. "Most people are usually pretty glad to get it out of
As a result of the combined
pressure, Felicia Marcus, the EPA's regional administrator in San
Francisco, has agreed to tour Mobile and look into residents'
complaints. The EPA is also considering new policies that require
public hearings at both ends of the Superfund waste stream, Takata
And in Arizona, some legislators will
likely push for stronger environmental laws like the one that
protected California from the DDT-laden dirt, said Sandra
Kotzambasis, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of
"Arizona citizens are
saying, "Time out; let's re-evaluate what you are doing here to our
communities," " said EPA spokeswoman Paula
Meanwhile, there's little controversy in
Utah. State officials say the East Carbon City dump has direct
railroad access and was built to handle large quantities of
Some East Carbon residents have
complained, but few have organized: Phyllis Johnson, who fought
against the local landfill before it opened in 1992, said the
political climate in Utah simply doesn't support environmental
activism. "Nobody cares. My friends are upset, but they say,
"What's the use?" "
As for the environmentalists,
they insist they are not celebrating because the mud now goes to a
white, working-class community.
concerned about people, period," said Henry Clark, executive
director of the West County Toxics Coalition. "We can't hide our
heads in the sand and pretend this waste isn't going to go
For more information, contact
Bradley Angel of Greenpeace, 415/512-9025; Don Cassano of Waste
Management Inc., at 602/470-0225; Nate Lau of the EPA at
415/744-2261; or Steve Camp of the Arizona Department of
Environmental Quality at 602/207-2300.
James Bruggers writes
from Oakland, Calif. Former HCN intern Katie Fesus contributed to