Hartford's Health: New Legislation Seeks Environmental Justice

by Mike DeRosa

The CT Coalition For Environmental Justice is proposing new environmental justice legislation for the 2003 CT legislative session. This legislation would require the state of CT and eight of its agencies to identify environmental hazards in low income communities and communities of color and would require these agencies to create plans to reduce the environmental hazards in these areas.

A recent study at the University of Hartford shows that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately burdened with environmental hazards. The study indicates that the greatest predictor of where environmental hazards exist is the percentage of people of color in a city or a town. Many people call such a situation environmental racism. The opposite of environmental racism is environmental justice.

An ongoing study by the CT Children's Medical Center and the University of CT says that 41% of the children in Hartford have asthma. This study has so far tested over 11,000 children in the city of Hartford and has found the asthma rate among Latino children is even higher at 48%. The national average for asthma for children is approximately 7.5%.

What in Hartford is causing these extremely high asthma levels?

If you speak to certain representatives in the legislature (like Sen. John Fonfara) or some state officials, they will point to indoor pollution as the sole cause of asthma and will point to dust mites and cockroach parts as the major culprit in the development of this disease. Dr. Mark Mitchell, the president of the CT Coalition for Environmental Justice says that dust mites are mostly found in carpeting and plush bedding. Dr. Mark Mitchell says "my question is why has the number of people with asthma doubled in the last twenty years, and why have the number of people who die from asthma tripled in the last twenty years? Are there more carpeting and plush bedding in low-income communities than in affluent communities? There were cockroaches before 1982 and the cockroach population in Hartford has not doubled in the last twenty years. We have also noted that other cities have about the same number of cockroaches as Hartford but studies show lower asthma rates." Also some Scandinavian countries have few cockroaches because of their climate but still have significant asthma rates.

What Hartford does have is seven trash plants and many buses and trucks that push out diesel fumes into our environment. Medicine and science tell us that outdoor air pollution and diesel fuel are known triggers for asthma.

One of the biggest burners of trash in Hartford is the quasi-public (and very political) CT Resources Recovery Authority's (CRRA) trash-to-energy plant located next to the CT River. Seventy or more communities in CT send their trash to be incinerated in Hartford. Hundreds of trucks that use diesel fuel bring approximately 400 tons (800,000 pounds) of trash every day to be burned in this plant. According to the web site of the energy company (Covanta Energy) that runs this plant, the "rated refuse capacity" of this facility is 2000 tons (4,000,000 pounds) per day. What ever the true amount burned, it is obviously a very large amount. This plant also burns approximately 35 tons of low-sulfur coal per year.

Mitchell says, "that the only [causal factor] that makes sense to me is chemicals in the air…that significantly impact the high asthma rates."

According to Dr. Mitchell, there are approximately 1000 to 1500 new chemicals that are created each year that have never existed before. The Federal government, Mitchell said, only tests about 85% of these new chemicals for their effect on health. In reality many of these new chemicals and other older untested chemicals ultimately end up in consumer products and are dumped in the trash. He also points out that Connecticut burns more trash (85% of all Connecticut trash is NOT recycled) than any other state in the U.S. Trash is being burned at the large CRRA plants in Hartford and Bridgeport. Mitchell says that he believes that "the pattern of asthma reflects the pattern of chemicals."

He says that pollution reducing devices at many of these plants lower pollution but do not eliminate it. Real time monitoring at the Hartford CRRA plant tests for four substances but does not test for other chemicals on a real time basis that are in the trash or may be formed because of the incineration process. (Dr. Mark Mitchell has been sued in the past by CRRA for things he has said. CRRA has never won a judgment against him and has dropped their most recent suit.)

Dr. Mitchell and his group are petitioning CRRA for the establishment of a community advisory committee that would allow people of color and others to have some say in the environmental and health issues related to the burning of trash in Hartford and would allow some community oversight over the five facilities owned by CRRA.

Mitchell believes that the city of Hartford has a never-ending contract with CRRA and he believes this contract "prohibits the city from commenting or having any legal authority over CRRA's trash-to-energy plant."

While the city of Hartford is responsible for responding to emergency and other calls at the Hartford plant (approximately 96 calls per year) and putting out the fires that break out at the CRRA facility, many people believe that the city has no legal authority over this plant to reduce risks or prevent fires.

Dr Mitchell points out that Hartford has more waste facilities within its borders than any other city or town in CT. He says, "Trash facilities are potentially dangerous. It seems to me that if you are going to locate facilities that are potentially dangerous that you would want to locate them away from as many people as possible and away from the populations that are most vulnerable."

Since the Enron-CRRA debacle, which created a $220 million loss for CRRA, a new board and chairman of the quasi-public CRRA has been appointed. Only time will tell whether these new personnel at the trash authority will negotiate in good faith with Dr. Mitchell and the CT Coalition for Environmental Justice to find a real solution and an alternative and safer way to dispose of waste in 2003.

For more information on the CT. Coalition for Environmental Justice call 860-548-1133 or visit their website at www.environmental-justice.org.

Mike DeRosa is the producer of the weekly New Focus radio show on WWUH (91.3FM; Fri. 12 Noon) and ran for CT State Senate on the Green Party line in 2002. A similar version of this article was recently published in issue two of the community newspaper The Hartford Undercurrent. This article is protected by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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