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Pollution in Poverty

February 19, 1998
By: Colleen McMillen
MDN Columbia Bureau

Edna May Miller grew up south of St. Louis in Iron County until the late seventies, when she fled her hometown of Glover. She believes lead and sulfuric dioxide pollution caused by a local smelting and refinery company shut down the town. All that is left now is the refinery and two churches. Very few residents.

Miller, who is 68 years old, says she has lost friends, family, and neighbors due to cancer from the chemicals released by the refinery.

"Glover was chosen for this refinery because the people are so innocent. They acted like it wouldn't hurt anybody. And then the company wouldn't try to protect the people it was hurting."

State Representative Joan Bray is sponsoring House Bill 994 which calls for a commission to study pollution in minority and low income neighborhoods.

Glover fits this category. Almost a quarter of the community's residents are below the poverty level. This is ten percent more than the state average poverty level.

Bray, a St. Louis Democrat, says, "We've had some situations arise in Missouri where we find the environment is damaged and potentially harmful to health. It occurs in these areas because this is where people tend to be uneducated and unable to defend themselves."

The state lawmaker, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations feel that these communities are victims of industries using the cheapest techniques that are often not the best for the environment.

Miller says, "People have to give up lives so other people can have jobs. Companies like (these) are protected by the D-N-R (state Department of Natural Resources), E-P-A (federal Environmental Protection Agency) and the Health Department."

If the measure is passed pollution would not automatically end. The bill would allow research to show a need to protect the environment and the residents living in communities that seem to be the target of this pollution.

Bill Walsh, the director of the national toxins campaign at Greenpeace, knows of five studies done that point to a relationship between pollution, low income and minority neighborhoods.

However, not everyone sees this bill as the solution to pollution. Norb Plassneyer represents the Associated Industries of Missouri. He sees the study the bill calls for as a waste of money.

Plassneyer explains, "Numerous studies on this have been done. There is no need to study what has been restudied."

Plassneyer points to research done by Washington University in St. Louis that shows pollution does not move into low income or minority neighborhoods. Rather, he says the study suggests that people locate in neighborhoods where the industrial operations have been set up.

However, Greenpeace's Walsh disagrees, "These industries are going into territories that have already been established with residents."

He sees a real correlation between race and social class... and pollution in neighborhoods.

"Let's face it. These industries are not doing this in Beverly Hills and West Manhattan."

The fiscal report for the bill estimates it's effect on state funding at nearly one-hundred-18-thousand dollars. The local government's funds are not expected to be affected.

Meanwhile, Edna May Miller continues to suffer various health problems she claims are caused from plant pollutioon. In her opinion, governmental health agencies have lied to the people of Glover and she doesn't trust them because too many of her friends have died.

Until environmental policies are changed Miller will stick to her own health care program.

" A dozen oranges a day is all that's saved my life."

For now all Miller and other former residents can do is watch and hope other communities don't have to go through the same ordeal.