Cancer Victim Condemns Hazardous Waste Racism

EPA says it will consider impact of Bush rule on low-income communities

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Twenty-one citizens and experts testified June 30 at an Environmental Protection Agency public hearing about the impacts of living near hazardous waste sites. Among them was Sheila Holt-Orsted, a cancer survivor who’s seen her mother, father, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles suffer from cancer and other illnesses believed to be caused by contamination from a Dixon County, Tennessee landfill.

Her father died in January 2007, stricken by prostrate and bone cancer, diabetes and hypertension. In 2003, Holt-Orsted was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. After several surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, she began looking for answers and didn’t have to look far. Her family’s farm was adjacent to the town landfill where toxic chemicals were dumped for years. Among the chemicals was trichloroethylene—a cancer-causing chemical and one of the most toxic agents known to man.

"No other community should have to experience a toxic legacy that has plagued my community," Holt-Orsted testified. "I urge EPA to protect the public’s health and environment as RCRA intended it and to say no to this new rule. Get it right this time."

Also testifying was Aaron Mair, a resident of Arbor Hill—a historically black community—in Albany. His family lived near a waste-to-energy recycling incinerator which caused all of them to endure serious bouts of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"We now have an administration that says we’re going to respect the law," Mair testified. "And the law fundamentally says before you proceed with any rule, law, and action, all American citizens deserve equal rights and equal protections."

Mair called EPA’s previous failure to consider the impacts of hazardous waste on low-income and communities of color, "environmental racism."

"Moving forward on this rule … is a fundamental violation of the civil rights of residents who pay in blood, disease, and burden," he testified.

In its waning days, the Bush administration hastily passed and put into effect the rule, which stripped federal oversight of recyclers who handle 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste generated by steel, chemical and pharmaceutical companies each year.

But in an unprecedented move, the EPA announced Tuesday that it would analyze the impact the Bush-era rule has on low-income and communities of color—a momentous step forward in reinstating government oversight on hazardous waste recycling and protecting communities most impacted by this contamination.

Earthjustice attorneys Abigail Dillen and Lisa Evans—who have been pushing the administration to reconsider those rules, which they also have challenged in court—commend EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and her staff for responding to the outcry from disadvantaged communities living near hazardous sites.

Now we wait for a final rule that will have the strongest safeguards possible to protect public health and the environment.

Raviya was a press secretary at Earthjustice in the Washington, D.C. office from 2008 to 2014, working on issues including federal rulemakings, energy efficiency laws and coal ash pollution.