Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Black Church Doesn't Care About The Environment???

Environmental Awareness: Activist Bemoans Lack Of Concern By African-American Churches

By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell

A trio of North Memphis girls participate in an environmental protest. (Courtesy photo)

Toxic waste and contaminants are destroying minority communities “while the black church stands by and does nothing,” says a local activist.

Rita Harris, executive director of the Sierra Club, says toxic waste emissions and the unsafe dumping of deadly chemicals are killing people of color while environmental protection remains a non-issue for African-American congregations. The Sierra Club, established in 1892, is the nation’s oldest conservation entity or “green organization.”

In Douglass Park, these children are learning to link environmental awareness with action. (Courtesy photo)

Repeated attempts to reach out to African-American pastors have come up empty, says Harris.

“We are in the business of educating. That’s what I do – educate and make people aware of what is going on. Our people are being subjected to high levels of contaminants in the environment. It’s making us sick, just killing us,” says Harris.

“But we just haven’t stirred the kind of interest and support from pastors like I hoped.”

The historic role of the African-American church as a mobilizing force makes it ideal for organizing whole communities in some plan of action, says Harris

“The black church was so vital during civil rights. Today, our people are in a fight they don’t really understand. But, our message did get through to one pastor – Rev. Ralph White of Bloomfield Baptist Church,” says Harris.

Tennessee’s only oil refinery is located in the Riverview Community near McKellar Lake. (Courtesy photo)

“The chemical plants and toxic waste sites on President’s Island are extremely hazardous to that south Memphis community. It’s one of the most toxic in the city, and he is the only pastor who is taking on environmental protection issues.”

Rev. White considers himself a civil rights and environmental activist. He led daily pickets against hazardous waste expansion several years ago.

“We felt as a church that it was important to raise concerns about toxic contamination and the health of community residents, especially on behalf of our seniors and children,” he says. “People must be educated about the correlation between a high toxic environment and the illnesses that develop in those living near hazardous sites.”

Rita Harris
Harris says people are suffering the effects of “environmental injustice.”

The term “environmental justice,” according to a national study, refers to ‘race being the most predominant variable in where landfills, chemical plants, and toxic waste sites are located.” That is, “people of color in disproportionately large numbers live in hazardous waste host communities, and therefore, people of color are not equally protected by environmental law.”

Harris says the United Church of Christ “Toxic Waste and Race: 1987-2007” research project found that minorities on all socio-economic levels are at-risk.

“Most people of color populate contaminated areas near polluting sources,” said Harris. “The church doesn’t see it as a big deal because people aren’t dying in great numbers. But illnesses from contamination are manifested as we grow older: liver, kidney, and colon diseases – cancer – the effects are seen in our elderly.”

Jim Deming, director of the environmental group Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light in Nashville, also is working with churches in conservation projects. More than 100 congregations across the state have established “green teams,” but African-American churches are noticeably absent.

“We have a common bond in that all of us as people of faith are called to creation care and to be good stewards of our environment,” said Deming.

“Many things separate us, but we all live on one planet. There is so much benefit in working together. I would love to meet with African-American congregations. The Sierra Club is doing a great job, but we need all the churches to get involved.”

Deming says he was impressed with a group of Muslims from Memphis who showed a deep concern and sense of responsibility toward the environment in a recent meeting. But, as with Harris, he says efforts to attract a significant number of African-American churches have come up short.

Fishing in troubled waters

Harris says every body of water in Memphis and Shelby County is contaminated, and fishing in them puts people at great risk.

“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) says that a person can safely eat 12 ounces of contaminated food each week and still be healthy,” she says. “But we say no amount is safe. Contaminated food in measured doses is fatal over time. Many people of color fish to supplement their food budget, and they feed it to their children.”

Terry Templeton, director of the Tennessee Water Pollution Control Memphis Division, gives a measured response.

Activists say this night time scene does not bode well for the environment in this North Memphis community. (Courtesy photo)

“I am not saying that the bodies of water in Memphis are all contaminated. There are certain standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and we have to comply with those to maintain a level of safety in our water. I won’t really get into specifics, but you can look at a full report online.”

The division’s Web site includes a report called “The Status of Water Quality in Tennessee.” It identifies seven rivers across the state posted for dangerous levels of organic pollutants in fish. The Mississippi River, Nonconnah Creek, and the Wolf River are among those listed. The report indicates that they are contaminated with chlordane and dioxins.

The report also states: “When the fish tissue contaminant levels exceed risk-based criteria, it is the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Conservation to post warning signs so that people will be aware of the potential threat to their health. In Tennessee, the most common reasons for a stream or river to be posted is the presence of high levels of bacteria. In lakes and reservoirs, the most common reason is accumulated PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, or mercury in fish tissue.”

Harris says the contaminate that she is most concerned about is chlordane, a chemical pesticide used on crops and lawns from 1948 to 1988 before it was banned. She says dumping methods were inadequate and unsafe during that time and that extreme contamination still lingers.

The water pollution report indicates that when chemicals and other contaminants get embedded in the soil and sediment of a lake or river, reducing contamination becomes difficult.

For more specifics on water safety, quality control, and water treatment in Memphis and Shelby County, call the Water Pollution Control office at (901) 368-7939, or go to the Web site at:

For additional information on locally identified toxic sites, or to find out how to get involved, call the Sierra Club office at: (901) 324-7757.

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