Obama's Georgia Nukes Selectively Penalize Black Communities. Is That Environmental Racism?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixonobamas

Can a black president be guilty of environmental racism? President Obama's new proposed nukes are in one of the poorest areas east of the Mississippi. Burke County Georgia is majority black, the home of existing commercial nuclear reactors and directly across the river from the Savannah River nuclear weapons facility. Its river is the 4th most polluted in the nation, and its residents are suffering a veritable epidemic of unexplained cancers, with no local, federal, public or private funds available to test their air, soil, water or environment for its causes.  But Burke County's residents are neither silent nor powerless.

Obama's Georgia Nukes Selectively Penalize Black Communities. Is That Environmental Racism?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

President Obama's proposal to place a pair of new reactors in a majority black Georgia town a mere 4 miles from the existing nuclear weapons site at Savannah River and next door to Georgia Power's existing nukes at Vogtle selectively penalizes and endangers poor black communities and will cost black lives. When the president and his nuclear industry donors try to pass off these new Georgia nukes as a job creation measure for one of the poorest counties east of the Mississippi, their hypocrisy and cynicism are transparent and inescapable.

The Savannah River, which flows between the nuclear weapons site on the South Carolina side, and the existing and proposed electric utility reactors on the Georgia side is already a SuperFund site and the 4th most toxic river in the nation, according to the EPA. Until 2003 the federal government funded limited testing of the air, water and wildlife on the South Carolina side adjacent to the weapons plant, but this funding was discontinued during the Bush administration. As far as we know, nobody tests the air, ground water, wildlife or humans living on the Georgia side of the river, or near Georgia Power's existing reactors. But local residents do say there is a cancer epidemic in Waynesboro.

I lost a brother, a cousin, a sister to cancer, and my daddy... My mother had cancer when she died in her old age.” said Claude Howard, assistant pastor at Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church to the Georgia Green Party's Hugh Esco at a public meeting called by Georgia WAND in Waynesboro Monday. Rev. Howard's deceased brother worked at nuclear Plant Vogtle. “I'm here now, concerned about the environment, about nuclear waste from Plant Vogtle by the riverside, about the amount of tritium and whatever other chemical agents are getting in our water supply.” Rev. Howard's family, like many others in Burke County, depend on wells fed by ground water which may have been contaminated by leaks of radioactive tritium from the area's multiple nukes.

But Waynesboro, with a population of about 6,000, cannot afford to test  the air and water.  So far, no help is coming from Burke County or the state of Georgia either. The utility companies who make millions off their existing reactors at Vogtle, and to whom the Obama Administration wants to give $8 billion in free money for more nukes are under little or no obligation to test the air, the ground water, the local environment or the local population. Their only obligations are to their stockholders and the gods of profit.

We're just caught in the middle of it,” declared Annie Laura Stephens, another Waynesboro resident. “We don't have a lot of money for legal (expenses) but we have put out a lot... But they have more money and expertise than we have. All we have is just Jesus.”

In truth, Burke County residents do have a little more.  They have each other, and neighbors outside the county.  Georgia WAND is assisting Burke County residents in mounting legal challenges to the construction permits for the new nukes. If these fail, WAND's Bobbie Paul assured us, they will fight the operating permits in court.  Stephens is active in WAND.

President Obama notes that these will be the first new U.S. nuclear reactors in decades, but he never says why. In the 70s and 80s the dangers of nuclear reactors and the fraudulent claims the nuclear industry became obvious to the insurance industry, to Wall Street and to the American public. Private sector insurers looked at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and saw infinitely large potential liabilities. Wall Street, even without catastrophic accidents and without environmental testing that might hint at the existence and causes of cancer clusters in local populations, balked at construction costs which often doubled or tripled in the few cases that public outcries allowed construction to proceed at all. The bottom line is that nukes are inherently dangerous and ridiculously expensive. Even when there are are no accidents and no studies to detect local contamination, nuclear plants produce radioactive wastes that remain lethal for tens of thousands of years. With the pyramids less than 5,000 years old, it's hard to take seriously the notion that government and the nuclear industry can safely contain them.

There is a general principle of capitalist economics called “externalizing” your costs. When you're Nike and you pay your Vietnamese workforce twenty-five cents an hour, you've profitably “externalized” or shifted your costs onto the families of those workers. When you're a factory owner spewing your waste into the environment for someone else to clean up or suffer from you've “externalized” or transferred a piece of your cost onto the local public in the case, for example, of downstream water pollution, or onto the people in another country entirely as in the case of global climate change.

Environmental racism occurs when the powers that be single out poor nonwhite communities to bear the human and environmental costs that make their super profits possible. It's not as though the president and the nuclear industry don't know they've targeted a majority black and very poor community. The presidential announcement last month and his appearances at places like Savannah State University this week are replete with references to jobs, jobs and more jobs, as if the nuclear industry were in the business of creating employment opportunities in places like Burke County GA.

The truth is that most of the local jobs at nuke plants occur during construction, and bitter experience tells us that building something in a black community is no guarantee that the construction workers will be black. The only guarantee, if Obama's new nukes are built in Burke County Georgia, is that local black residents will pay a high price in sickness and early deaths from cancer, in their inability to drink from their own wells, fish from their own streams or eat the food from their own gardens. Black Agenda Report asked Hugh Esco, a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party whether this was environmental racism.

"It is hard to avoid concluding that racism is at the center when you're confronted with the economic and health statistics endured by those living in sacrifice zones like Shell Bluff. Obama would not be the first black face who has fronted for white supremacy and white privilege, nor would this be the first time he has done so. The president has proven whose side he is on."

"We're grateful to Georgia WAND, for calling us together today," said Esco. "The Shell Bluff community has already formed a concerned citizens group, and I hope the Green Party of Georgia can find ways to support this local organizing by Burke County residents to get their air and water tested, to trace this apparent cancer cluster in the midst of all these nuclear weapons and power installations back to its source, and to stop the president's new nukes. The residents of Burke County have been penalized enough. It's high time the nuclear industry met the fate the markets long ago determined was appropriate, to cut off their corporate welfare and not prop them up for another generation."

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor of Black Agenda Report, and a member of the GA Green Party state committee. Thanks to Hugh Esco for interviewing Rev. Howard and Ms. Stephens.