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May 12, 1998

Superfund Relocation Racism

A White Community in Pennsylvania
An African-American Community in Florida

by Frances Dunham

Residents being relocated from neighborhoods around the Escambia Treating Company Superfund site in Pensacola, Florida, reacted with shock and outrage to news that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) custom-built lavish replacement homes for residents of another Superfund relocation community in Pennsylvania. A March 30, 1998, report by the EPA Inspector General reveals that "At the Austin Avenue Radiation Site, [EPA] Region 3 spent an average of $651,700 each to custom-build 10 new houses. The appraised value of the old houses averaged only $147,000 each." The report states that EPA spent $911,411 on a customized replica to replace one home appraised at a market value of $200,000.

Apparently political pressure was very effectively wielded by the all-white Pennsylvania residents: "The Austin Avenue Radiation Site presented novel challenges to Region 3 and the US Army Corps of Engineers. This particular project was extremely difficult to manage because of its direct impact on a very concerned community. In addition, EPA and USACE personnel had to address the concerns of Local, State and Federal elected officials as well as those of the individual property owners." The report also describes EPA Region 3 personnel's commitment to "make the owners whole again" by replacing "like for like" and accommodating owners' demands for custom features.

The permanent relocation in Pensacola is the first for an African-American community under the federal Superfund program. "We never asked for anything but homes that are 'decent, safe and sanitary,' as EPA promised," stated Margaret Williams, President of Citizens Against Toxic Exposure (CATE), "but many of EPA's buyout offers here in Pensacola are so low that people can't even purchase a home with safe wiring, working plumbing, and an intact roof. We're shocked to learn that EPA shelled out more than four times market value to build fine new homes with luxury features for the Pennsylvania community while we're having to fight for the bare minimum."

The EPA Inspector General's report on the Austin Avenue relocation is putting pressure on the agency to define "equivalent housing" for Superfund relocations. The agency expects to finalize the policy by September 1999.

"Where does that leave us?" Williams asked. "In order to escape 'Mt. Dioxin,' our residents are accepting shabby houses in rundown neighborhoods -- or going into debt to buy a livable home. Is this just more of EPA's environmental racism? The white Austin Avenue community receives 'replacement value' custom-built homes; our black neighborhoods get the much lower 'market value' with which we have to try to find some sort of acceptable place to live. EPA said our relocation 'pilot program' was going to set a precedent for future Superfund relocations; maybe it's only a precedent for African Americans. "

According to the Pensacola News Journal and the Pensacola Association of Realtors, the average cost of a single-family home in the Pensacola area has increased by almost 30 percent since 1994 in what an April 22, 1998, PNJ editorial describes as "today's overheated housing market." Most of EPA's buyout offers to residents near the Escambia Treating Superfund site fall near the low end of a range from $27,000 to $54,000, which equals 26 percent to 51 percent of the current average price of a single-family home.

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