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The Hamilton Plastimet Fire: A Political Anatomy of an Environmental Disaster

Cheryl Lousley

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

The following paper was presented at Strategies of Critique XII: (in)justiced subjects, April 25, 1998, in the session entitled "Legislations and Emigrations." The conference was organized by students of the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University.

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On July 9th, 1997, a plastics fire broke out on an industrial site in Hamilton's North End, releasing dioxin and other toxic chemicals into the air and water as it burned for four days. The response from public agencies such as the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MOEE), Hamilton City Council and the Public Health Department were contradictory, defensive, evasive, and cautious. Rather than protective; as the story behind the fire unfolded, it became clear that many individuals and public bodies failed to take the appropriate preventative actions that were needed, and in fact, legislated. Residents were temporarily evacuated and warned not to eat their garden produce, which was covered in toxic black soot, but the ultimate health consequences of the fire remain unknown and contentious. The residents of this multiethnic, working class neighbourhood are left not only with these serious health concerns, but also with questions and anger about how and why this disaster was allowed to happen.

The literatures of environmental justice, political ecology and feminist political ecology argue that despite the seeming universality of modern environmental problems, environmental resources, risks, responsibilities, and decision-making power are not equally distributed. For example, the field of political ecology approaches environmental problems as outgrowths of, and in complex interaction with, the power structures of capitalism. Feminist political ecology adds an analysis of gendered relations of power. The literature of environmental justice consists of case studies of the activists and communities of colour which began naming and fighting environmental racism in the United States in the early 1980s. What these bodies of theory and practice/protest share is the premise that environmental problems can be read as social justice issues where class, race/ethnicity, and gender are significant factors in determining who experiences the effects of, and who controls the causes of environmental degradation. Drawing on this theoretical foundation, I question how and why were and are race/ethnicity, class, and gender significant factors in the creation and ongoing resolution of the Plastimet fire.

Hamilton, like many cities, has a highly class- and occupation-stratified geography. And the area known as the North End is considered "the most socially and economically disadvantaged community in the Hamilton-Wentworth Region" (Association of Agencies 1990). It has a relatively low socio-economic status and a high proportion of new immigrants to Canada in comparison with other areas of the city (Stats Can 1995). Developed as Hamilton's industrial centre in 1860, the neighbourhood of 3,000 people is still described today as "primarily an industrialized area with steel mills, shipping yards and innumerable industries, factories and warehouses. It offers an aesthetically bleak picture and is plagued by air and noise pollution presenting serious health and safety challenges to its residents" (Association of Agencies 1990).

When the fire broke out, the Plastimet facility had four of 11 fire code violations still outstanding since they were identified the previous October (Humphreys 1997a). The warehouse was filled with off-quality plastic auto parts slated for recycling. Plastimet Inc. is just one of 68 recycling plants in Hamilton's industrial zone. Recycling, according to the regional economic development commissioner, is the new economic growth sector for the city (McNeil and Pike 1997). Both Jack Lieberman, the owner of Plastimet Inc., and Frank Levy, owner of the property, have long been sources of neighbourhood complaints, legal action, and environmental violations. They are also neighbours in the posh Hamilton neighbourhood of Westdale which borders not on steel mills, but onto the Royal Botanical Gardens (Humphreys 1997c).

The fire at the Plastimet facility was the largest plastics fire in Canadian history, visible as far away as Guelph, Niagara Falls and Toronto. It was so spectacular from the Niagara Escarpment that suburban residents set up lawn chairs and beer coolers to watch the blaze down below (DeHart 1997a). North End residents, on the other hand, ran to close windows and rush inside as a "thick, black, gummy" soot carpeted the neighbourhood and made it difficult to even breathe (Wheeler 1997). Polyvinylchloride plastics are known to release hydrochloric acid, carbon monoxide gas, vinyl chloride, heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, and cancer-causing dioxin and furans when they burn; and elevated levels of all these substances were recorded by the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MOEE) during the fire and in soil and water samples from lawns, gardens, playgrounds and streams afterwards ("Hazardous;" Dyer and Esch 1976; Markowitz 1989; Fitzgerald et al. 1989; Bertazzi et al. 1989; MOEE 1997b). While short-term effects, such as headaches, nausea, and eye and throat irritations, were widely experienced, it remains uncertain as to whether there will be any long-term consequences, such as respiratory illness, cancer or reproductive problems.

Since July 1997, a core group of 15 self-described "pissed off" residents have been actively probing into the causes of the fire, making demands of the relevant public bodies, and holding regular public meetings (Gallagher, pers. com. 1997). They have successfully lobbied the City and the MOEE to clean-up the contaminated site, and they have elected new municipal representatives to City Council. They continue to lobby for a long-term health study and for a public inquiry (MOEE press rel. 1997a; Gallagher, pers. com. 1997). In addition, a $200 million class action suit has been launched against the City of Hamilton, the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth, the Ministry of Environment and Energy, Plastimet Inc. and Frank Levy as previous site occupant (Dunphy 1997). Claiming up to 4,000 people suffered physical, psychological, and financial damages from the fire, the lawsuit is based on the defendants' respective negligence by allowing "a dangerous and hazardous operation to continue at the property while knowing it contravened numerous provincial and municipal by-laws" (Dunphy 1997). It is probable that the air quality problems caused by the cumulative effects of the ongoing, daily operations of the nearby industries pose a greater risk to the health of North End residents than the fire does. Residents know this; they also know that there are many more potential Plastimets in their neighbourhood. Sometimes it takes a disaster to point out the injustice of "business as usual."

So what were the political conditions that led to this environmental disaster? It is my contention that the Plastimet fire was not some freak accident, but rather an environmental landmine, waiting to explode: I have identified three key patterns.

First, mixed residential-industrial land use implicitly provided residents with unequal protection. It was also used to rationalize and to disguise further unequal exposure to environmental risk. Land use planning and zoning by-laws play a significant role in determining who is exposed to risk and who is not. It may seem that placing new industry where industry already exists is just a good practice of "compatible land use." But when there are people living nearby, it means they are being burdened with additional risk. Given the cumulative and reactive nature of the health risks posed by toxins, such a combination of industry may take a community beyond the threshold of no health impacts to impacts ranging from asthma to reproductive problems to cancer (Head 1995). As one North End resident voiced the inequality of this situation: "I don't know why they allow this stuff in the city. I've questioned why it can be so close to houses. Just because we live in the North End doesn't mean we shouldn't have as safe an environment as anybody" (quoted in DeHart 1997a).

Zoning serves to protect property values, ensuring middle and upper class areas remain industry-free, pristine and healthy, while working class and lower-income areas, often already mixed-use, become "industrially strategic." While this situation arose historically, its maintenance is far from accidental. Rather, it serves to benefit those with power in the political economy of the city. Community members complained for years about the safety and pollution of various North End facilities to no avail (DeHart 1997a; Skelton 1997). One resident living near Lieberman's previous facility described how "when it was in operation, smoke and particles were so thick ‘it was like it was snowing out here sometimes. We screamed and hollered, but nothing ever got done" (quoted in Humphreys 1997c). Business elites have the power to decide, to influence, and to evade questions of environmental risks, costs and responsibility. Northenders, without power to enforce legislation such as fire code and environmental protection laws, without knowledge of what is happening within these facilities, and without voice within city and regional politics, were forced into being the sacrifice zone for the city's industrial growth and economic development.

A second pattern is the unequal exposure to environmental risk imposed on the residents and workers of the North End by corporate negligence which are sanctioned by racist and classist prejudices, and the capitalist logic of maximizing profit at the expense of worker, community, and environmental health. As plastics recycling is not inherently a highly hazardous activity, much of the risk posed by the Plastimet fire was the result of deliberate management decisions. While corporations are morally and legally responsible for their actions, the record shows that they often choose risk over expensive safety measures and deny, evade or fight responsibility rather than "pay out" where they have caused problems. Lieberman and Levy engaged in many common corporate evasion and cost-cutting tactics, including fire code violations (a sprinkler, for example, would have cost Plastimet $1 million to install), building code infractions, bankruptcy, careless storage of chemicals and other hazardous materials, repeated violation of environmental regulations, a three-year legal suit with the city over tax arrears, and possibly even deception about the nature of the activities going at the site to evade a Certificate of Approval (Humphreys 1997a; Humphreys 1997c; Slater, per. com. 1995; Poling 1993). Over the course of this turbulent history, the companies received a total fine of $10,000 for 10 EPA air pollution charges, which is quite insignificant when compared with the $1 million bill to clean up the site after Frank Levy's bankruptcy in 1993 and the millions required to clean it up now (Humphreys 1997c; Slater, per. com 1995).

This brings us to question the complicity of governmental bodies in permitting and condoning risk. Environmental protection policies exist to manage, regulate and distribute risk -- all very political, not technical, functions -- and thus government often serves to legitimize risk and to institutionalize unequal protection. The inaction of government agencies can be attributed to the racist and classist perception and long-established practice that such an environment was "acceptable" for Northenders, and that the residents would or could not resist or protest. A 1997 study on citizen participation in Hamilton found that "the stigma attached to receiving social assistance" and discrimination against those whose first language is not English are significant factors in "how a person is valued in the citizen participation process" (Social Planning 1997, 19). During public meetings after the fire, residents described being treated as if they were "poor, ignorant immigrants" who would not be able to understand the issues and thus make rational decisions about appropriate actions to take (Gallagher, per. com 1997). Citizen group organizer Ann Gallagher described being dismissed as a "stupid housewife" when she tried to get information from the City Hall lawyer about the fire. Countering this perception, she invoked the Freedom of Information Act (Gallagher, per. com 1997). By refusing to hold a public inquiry, the province is suggesting that the Plastimet fire was some freak accident and not the result of systematic negligence. Even City Council has evaded the issue by issuing a press release reassuring Hamiltonians that "none of the [other] plants store the exact mix of materials as the Wellington Street North Plastimet site" ("Another" 1997). The mix of materials was irrelevant compared to the political mixture of negligent corporate and government bodies. Discouraged and outraged by the discrimination the Plastimet situation revealed, Ann Gallagher has decided to raise sufficient resources to move her family away from the North End.

A third political condition is the management of information by the implicated companies and the public bodies, particularly the MOEE and the Public Health Department. From the outset, risks were minimized; and precautions such as air quality testing, evacuation, soil clean-ups, and garden vegetable warnings were implemented only with pressure from Greenpeace and from residents. The lab results, however, would not be not ready for weeks and were not released to the public until late August (Greenpeace, press rel. 1997b; MOEE 1997b). The insistence that risks are minimal really means that experts -- or others with the power to define and decide -- have decided that the risks are acceptable for the population involved. And the unequal power relations between decision-makers and Northenders was the source of fermenting tension and distrust within the neighbourhood. As one resident commented: "If things are so safe, if they have such great confidence in their tests, why don't they bring their kids down and have a garden party in my yard?" (quoted in Marr 1997).

Much of the official discourse and information distributed during the Plastimet fire was intended to calm and placate a potentially irate public. Science was used quite blatantly as a public relations strategy. The Vinyl Council of Canada, for example, suggested that "it doesn't matter what material was involved, anything including wood, paper, or plastic will cause compounds to be released into the air" (McNeil 1997e). Such misinformation is reminiscent of Bhopal where Union Carbide argued that the chemical MIC was "an irritant, not lethal" (Seager 1993). Science becomes a rationalization for political decisions, with an authority only to be countered by opposing scientific evidence, not equally accessible to laypeople. In my interview with Ann Gallagher, she insisted that while the residents were no "hippie environmentalists," the role of Greenpeace was instrumental in catalyzing the residents to action. Greenpeace provided counter-opinions and counter-evidence to the scientific tests. Residents brought this information to their encounters with the Public Health department. However, residents invited to sit on a committee looking into the health impacts of the fire quit after the first few rounds of meetings, concerned that they were not given equal opportunities to review the data, their input was not wanted, and their recommendations were not being acted upon. They concluded that their role on the committee was for purposes of cooptation and decided instead to seek funding to conduct their own health study (Gallagher, pers. com. 1997).

The mere correlation between a toxic fire and a multiethnic, working class community is not in and of itself evidence of discrimination. Rather, an analysis of the patterns of racism, classism, and sexism, both generally and specifically with regards to environmental risk and degradation provide theoretical framework for understanding the Plastimet fire. A political ecology analysis suggests that economic growth in late industrial capitalism is premised on unpaid environmental costs: profit comes both from the exploitation of labour and the exploitation of nature (Gould, Schnaiberg and Weinberg 1996). The displacement of these costs, or risks, onto certain communities is a "natural" component of this profit drive, serving to further increase and entrench social inequality by undermining the resources and opportunities lower income communities depend upon to survive and develop. Middle class and upper class families, and the First World (as opposed to the Two-Thirds World), do not bear most of our environmental burden. Research also shows that, in the United States, communities of colour, whether inner city, suburban, rural, or on Native American reserves, are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards such as hazardous waste incinerators, lead smelters, and military testing (Bryant and Mohai 1992; Bullard 1994; Goldman 1991). There is a racial divide in policy-making and enforcement. White communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics or other minorities live (Bullard 1994). While such sociodemographic geographical analysis has yet to be done in Canada, Hamilton's North End -- with its multiethnic working class and lower-income demographic profile -- fits this pattern well.

In situations of environmental risk, inequalities are largely due to spatial distribution. While communities may be segregated by race/ethnicity and/or by class, the social position of gender serves to distribute risks, responsibility, and power in a different way. The gendered nature of occupation means that men and women are often exposed to different forms of risks in their respective workplaces, whether within or outside of the home. Feminist scholars have also identified how women predominate in grassroots environmental organizing and may have a distinct environmental voice. This is because women are more often responsible for caring for and managing the safety, health, and basic food and shelter needs of their families and communities (Rocheleau et al. 1996; Seager 1993). Ann Gallagher certainly framed her political action against Plastimet in terms of her children and her concerns about protecting her family's health and well-being. Her experiences at City Hall reflect how women are often positioned on the periphery of local or state power.

Race/ethnicity, class and gender are social positions that determine relations of power in our society in complex and different ways. The increasing amounts of environmental risk in the late twentieth century add a new dimension to the structures of inequality. Sociologist Ulrick Beck (1992) suggests that we are now entering into a "risk society" because of the pervasiveness, imperceptible nature, and incalculable consequences of modern industrialization-produced risks. These include toxins, nuclear radiation, and ozone depletion. Beck does not subordinate the importance of social inequalities to rising environmental concerns; instead he suggests that there are now "social risk positions" as well as class positions and that these "risk positions" intersect with class positions such that the risk society tends to strengthen, not abolish, the class society. One way this occurs is through the deliberate spatial displacement of visible, experiential environmental costs from those who benefit and have decision-making power. Environmental risks need to be recognized as a key playing field in the politics of race/ethnicity, class and gender, both due to the seriousness of the consequences of environmental degradation and their exacerbation of relations of inequality. Over and over again the patterns show that environmental degradation and unsustainable use of resources increase social inequality; concentrating the resulting wealth in the hands of a few while further diminishing the potential of others to attain and sustain a healthy life. The Plastimet case is no exception.

I began my argument with a description of how the Plastimet fire in Hamilton's North End fits the well-documented trend that poor and minority communities assume a greater proportion of environmental risk than other communities. I argue this is primarily the case because these communities generally, and the North End specifically, enjoy less power within their municipality and within the global economy. I suggest that environmental protection, enforcement, and public consultation were applied unequally in the North End, due to land use zoning, long-term social inequities that give different groups differential access to resources and influence within the city, and institutional classism, racism, and sexism. In the end, it appears that it is not government or corporations, but communities -- and often women within these communities -- who assume responsibility for remedying the situation. The achievements, anger, and perseverance of the Northenders organizing for their due justice contrast sharply with the evasion, hesitancy, and denial of the relevant government bodies and corporations implicated in the fire. The environmental hazards and risks the Northenders must live with -- and breathe in -- everyday are not a mere inconvenience or acceptable trade-off for the trickle-down effects of economic growth. Rather, they undermine their inherent rights to health, quality of life, and a safe environment.


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