LOS ANGELES -- Black residents in a middle-income Los Angeles neighborhood stormed into a California Energy Commission hearing and angrily demanded that a power plant planned for their community be scrapped.

The Commission, which had been on the verge of approving the project, strongly hinted that it would reject the plant. The power company quickly withdrew its construction bid.

Some environmentalists and reporters were shocked by the fury of the residents' protest. They assumed that blacks get aroused only over racially-charged issues such as discrimination, police abuse and reparations for slavery -- and that only white, middle-class homeowners and conservationists scream about hacked up parkland, toxic dump site incinerators, garbage dumps, recycling centers, contaminated sewage sites, and power plants in their backyard.

This is a huge myth.

Blacks have repeatedly denounced corporate polluters and public officials for dumping environmentally risky plants and waste sites in their neighborhoods. They label this racially-warped policy, "PIBBY" or Put It In Blacks' Backyards.

In 1979, when Houston city officials tried to dump yet another toxic waste site in a black neighborhood, homeowners and residents fought back. They filed -- and won -- the first major lawsuit against the siting of a waste facility in an urban neighborhood.

That action transformed the fight for environmental justice into a health and a civil rights issue. Since then blacks have marched, demonstrated, filed lawsuits, been jailed, and held local and national conferences, to denounce environmental degradation of their neighborhoods.

In a milestone report issued in 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice, a church-based civil rights advocacy group, revealed that blacks are far more likely than whites to live near abandoned toxic waste sites, waste landfills, and sewer treatment plants.

Not much has changed. Last year, the Government Accounting Office reported that all offsite hazardous waste landfills in nine Southern states were in or near mostly black communities. The GAO also found that in the cities with the most abandoned toxic waste sites -- Memphis, St. Louis, Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta -- most were situated in or very near black neighborhoods.

Outraged black environmental activists prodded former President Clinton in 1994 to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to intensify efforts to determine the harm done to urban communities by toxic waste plants and sites.

That damage has been severe. Toxic eyesores not only disfigure black neighborhoods, they degrade property values and discourage public and private investment.

Toxic wastes also pose grave health risks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly warned that blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods with higher air pollution levels, and suffer higher rates of respiratory and blood ailments, than whites.

Corporate and industrial polluters get away with their toxic assault on low-income, black neighborhoods by skillfully twisting the jobs-versus-environment issue. They claim the choice is between creating more jobs through business growth and economic stagnation.

Their threats work because few politicians will risk being tagged as anti-business. They bet that the poor blacks and Latinos, many of the not homeowners and non-voters, are less likely to squawk about a toxic waste site in the neighborhood than politically connected white, middle-class homeowners. Many officials eagerly waive requirements for environmental reports, provide special tax breaks, and even alter zoning requirements to allow them to set up shop in these underserved neighborhoods.

The planned power plant in that Los Angeles neighborhood is a near textbook example of how political and corporate insensitivity to environmental dangers can imperil a minority community.

The plant was one of several small megawatt power plants that California Gov. Gray Davis ordered the Energy Commission to put on a fast track to help the state bail out of its energy crisis. But this was the only one of the proposed plants sited near public parkland, and in a densely populated, urban neighborhood.

The area is already top-heavy with active oil wells, power lines, sewer lines -- and more freeways than any other part of the city. Since Davis' order suspended any need for an environmental impact report for these small plants, there was no way to fully assess the plant's potential to harm the community.

Those black residents scored a solid victory for their neighborhood. But they scored an even bigger victory by demonstrating again that blacks will storm the barricades as fast as anyone else when environmental pillage threatens their backyard. Copyright PNS

Editor's note: Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and the President of the National Alliance for Positive Action.

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