Environmental racism: Is nuclear plant causing cancer for poor black residents of Shell Bluff, Ga.?

theGRIO REPORT - Since the late 1980s, Burke County residents have experienced a veritable cancer epidemic. Some link the higher rates to nearby nuclear reactors...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Environmental racism occurs when hazardous industries and facilities are placed in and near poor, minority communities. Because the resultant pollution from such installations is a cost usually paid by the immediate environment and community affected, the fall out of environmental racism is the localization of those costs in areas with the least political clout.

In 2010, President Obama supported the Department of Energy’s decision to grant $8.3 billion in conditional loan guarantees for the construction of twin nuclear reactors in Burke County, Ga. at the Vogtle plant. According to Southern Company (which is building the reactors), the creation of the nation’s first new nuclear reactors in 30 years will result in an emissions-free, jobs-creating bonanza for the poor and mostly black communities around Shell Bluff and other Burke County cities.

But some residents are asking, if nuclear reactors are really economic shots in the arm, why is Burke County still one of the poorest corners of the state a quarter century after Southern Company brought its first pair of local reactors online in 1987? They also want to know: If the old and new reactors will be safe, why won’t Southern Company or the federal government pay to monitor radiation levels in Burke County? And most of all, why are cancer rates more than 50 percent higher in communities near existing reactors, according to the Centers for Disease Control?

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Trading clean energy and jobs for the health of poor black citizens without investigating the long-term effects fits the definition of environmental racism precisely.

“Some people did get jobs,” former Shell Bluff resident Annie Laura Stephens told theGrio, “but a lot of us got something else. We got cancer. I lost sisters, brothers and cousins to cancer, and every family I know has lost somebody to cancer.” Ms. Stephens’ complaint is echoed by many local residents.

Since the early 1980s, Burke County residents have experienced a veritable cancer epidemic. Located along what is already the fourth most toxic waterway in the nation, Shell Bluff is across the Savannah River from a former nuclear weapons manufacturing plant. Nearby Waynesboro residents rely on wells for bathing and drinking water, which makes them highly vulnerable to the radioactive contamination of local ground water.

With the two existing reactors at Vogtle, in addition to the former weapons plant (which is a Superfund toxic site), when the new reactors are completed the number of potential sources of nuclear contamination in tiny Burke county will rise to five. But no one is closely monitoring their effects on residents. This has left Shell Bluff residents to rely on anecdotal evidence.

“We don’t have the best educations, but we can read and we can count,” continues Stephens regarding her observations. “We know that since 2004 there has been no testing of our water, soil or air for radiation. We drink the water, we bathe in it and wash dishes and clothes in it. We know every family has cancer… and that can’t be normal, that can’t be right. We know way too many are sick with cancer and we know why. But we can’t prove it absolutely, because nobody will test the local air or water or anything else for the radiation we know is there.

“We’ve had meetings and protests and lots of promises and more meetings,” Stephens said. “But it seems that nobody is listening, but Jesus.”At the end of 2003, when federal funding for radiation monitoring was slated to end in the area, Georgia WAND (Womens Action for New Directions) and local residents began pushing for the Department of Energy to resume radiation monitoring around the two existing nuclear plants at Shell Bluff. They met with state officials and members of Congress over several years, but got no results. Then in 2010, WAND discovered that the DOE had falsely reported to Congress that funds has been provided to Georgia for radiation monitoring since 2004. In fact the state had received no money for this purpose since 2003.

After CNN investigated these circumstances at Shell Bluff and aired an April 2010 report on the cancer epidemic, federal officials pledged to reinstate funds for radiation monitoring in the area. But by August of that year, DOE was refusing to fund any proposal for this work. Since then, according to WAND director Bobbie Paul, federal officials and their contractors have stalled and made empty promises about restoring the funds. In the meantime, Southern Company has implemented plans for the two new nuclear reactors.

“The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) just approved construction permits for two new reactors right next to the old ones,” lamented Rev. Willy Tomlin, also of Shell Bluff. “They are making billions off us, but can’t spare a nickel to tell us why our cancer rates are higher than everybody else’s, or even to count them. A lot of people are scared. They see we’ve been having meetings and fighting this for a long while now. They see we haven’t won yet.

“Georgia Power is (the source of) a lot of the few jobs in this area, and people don’t want to jeopardize the little they have,” Tomlin continued. “If you speak out, you can lose your job, or your relatives can lose theirs. It happens.” Southern Company is the parent company of Georgia Power.

“Many people really are resigned to the cancer as the price they have to pay to keep living here,” Paul confirmed.

The manipulation of the local population into accepting the terms presented by Southern Company to keep their jobs goes further.

In early January 2012, WAND and Shell Bluff residents invited Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples Agenda to Shell Bluff to hear the concerns of residents, and preach about the power of voting. Dr. Lowery, a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), confided to meeting participants that he had met with a representative from Southern Company. He did not mention that the SCLC, which he headed until 1997, has a special relationship with Georgia Power. A former Georgia Power CEO has headed a SCLC $3 million building fund drive.

Empty public meetings. Many broken promises. Bribing black communities with jobs in exchange for sickness and death. Is this what environmental racism looks like in the 21st century?

TheGrio asked Ms. Stephens why the election of a black president hasn’t protected the mostly black residents of Shell Bluff Georgia from such circumstances. Stephens answered: “We all vote. We have meetings and more meetings in between the elections. People are still getting sick and dying of cancer. This has been going on a long time. Right now, they [,Southern Company,] have the power.”

According to CNN, the NRC and Southern Company have stated that the plants in Burke County are safe. It is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission policy to allow plants to monitor themselves.

Atlanta Progressive News reports that the energy generated by the new reactors will not benefit Georgia residents, because it will be sold to Florida.