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Tr-Ash Talk: Penn. Latinos Endure Toxic Neighbor

In northeast Pennsylvania, about an hour northwest of Allentown, lies Hazleton, a city with the dubious reputation of enacting ordinances that fueled ethnic tensions and anti-immigrant sentiment.

In northeast Pennsylvania, about an hour northwest of Allentown, lies Hazleton, a city with the dubious reputation of enacting ordinances that fueled ethnic tensions and anti-immigrant sentiment.

In 2008, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) pointed to Hazelton’s policies for fostering an environment conducive to hate after Luis Ramirez, a young father of two, was beaten to death in a town 17 miles away. The incident prompted the involvement of the U.S. Department of Justice and led to federal hate crime charges for the attackers along with indictments of extortion, misconduct and obstruction of justice for the police officers involved in the investigation.

Hazleton’s population is nearly 40-percent Latino; yet Rep. Lou Barletta, its congressman and former mayor, is notorious for championing anti-immigrant policies. Most recently, he is known for publicly dissuading the GOP from courting Latinos or providing a path to citizenship, alleging that the majority are undocumented, “low-skilled” and uneducated. Tell that to the more than 50 million Latinos in the U.S., 75 percent of whom are U.S. citizens.

Intolerance is toxic and fragmenting, undermining the integration and safety of immigrants looking to make America their home like generations before them. Community leaders and organizations such as the Hazleton Integration Project are working to foster tolerance and shed the city’s shameful past. But another toxic hazard looms over Hazleton, threatening the well-being of the burgeoning Latino population and the city as a whole.

Hazleton is surrounded by massive, unlined and uncovered toxic coal ash dumps. On windy days, mushroom clouds of toxic dust arise from these dumps, unloading heavy metals into surrounding communities. The Hazleton Latino community is most burdened by this toxic waste and does not know that they’re dealing with a toxic neighbor that is known to poison their air and water. Coal ash contains lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium and other hazardous chemicals that threaten vital organs, particularly in children. When airborne, these toxicants can aggravate asthma and other respiratory ailments, and even cause premature death:

Hazleton residents need not look too far to learn what coal ash exposure is doing to other residents. Proximity and exposure to coal ash poses many risks and Hazleton Latinos should be particularly concerned for their health, especially since the community is predominantly Puerto Rican. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Puerto Ricans have an asthma rate two times higher than the broader Latino population. Overall, Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Hispanic Whites.

Surveys show that for 61 percent of Latino voters, pollution of air and water is the top environmental concern, but you can expect Rep. Barletta to not be too concerned. Known for calling on his party to dismiss Latinos, Rep. Barletta is also on record for supporting a terrible bill that would deny Pennsylvania and many communities across the nation, critical protections from the toxic dust that blows over from coal ash dump sites and the chemicals that poison the drinking water in communities that rely on private wells. Lawmakers and their corporate polluter benefactors are continually trying to mask this toxic menace from citizens living near more than 1,400 coal ash dumps across the nation.

Formerly known as the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, a new version of this bill (H.R.2218) has reared its ugly head again in this Congress and after passing in the House of Representatives is looking for senators to take it across the finish line.

Sen. Casey and Sen. Toomey have a choice between protecting Pennsylvania residents from the health and safety threats posed by 98 coal ash dumps in the Commonwealth or to look the other way. If they choose the latter, they will allow the cases of water contamination to grow beyond the dozen that already exist, while any of the six high hazard dams in Shipping Port (4), Bangor (1) and Shamokin (1) could collapse, drowning and threatening neighboring and interstate communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Is it too much to ask for Congressional leaders to protect their constituents from harm rather than wait for a disaster to compel them to action? We don’t think so.

We're the lawyers for the environment, and the law is on our side.