Pollution Distinguishes Between Rich and Poor

But what is missing from the cliche, yet present in reality, is the success that the well-off of every nation have enjoyed in distancing themselves from pollution - or in distancing it from their places of residence.

According to the cliche known to every environmental activist, pollution knows no borders. It does not distinguish between rich and poor, between nations or races. But what is missing from the cliche, yet present in reality, is the success that the well-off of every nation have enjoyed in distancing themselves from pollution - or in distancing it from their places of residence.

Israel's "green" organizations have recently become more involved in the connection between social justice and environmental problems, between pollution and those who profit from it while simultaneously keeping their distance from it. Today, their umbrella organization, Life and Environment, will give the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee its report on environmental justice.

This document describes how private or sectorial interests have exacted a health and welfare price from the poor. This occurs when factory owners seek to increase their profits by not treating pollution, when local minorities are stinted to provide more land for Jews, or when inequality is perpetuated through an unequal distribution of land within the Jewish sector.

The principal victims include workers in many factories where government health and employment agencies do not suitably monitor environmental risks or perform the necessary tests. The list of industrial victims cited in the report, which is also familiar from other publications, is growing constantly. It includes workers in battery factories, who are exposed to lead, and employees of gem polishers, who are exposed to carcinogenic silicon dust. Many are new immigrants and residents of Druze and Arab towns. The list also includes foreign workers, who are required to handle a variety of poisonous materials without protective equipment.

The causal connection between control over land and quality of life is presented by Badria Biromi of the Galilee-based Arab Center for Alternative Planning. She states that Jewish communities have 90 times as much commercial and industrial space as do Arab communities, and in rural areas, the ratio increases to 150.

The Arab city of Nazareth, for instance, has 58,000 residents, but only 150 dunams (37.5 acres) of commercial and industrial space. Yet neighboring Upper Nazareth, with 43,000 residents, has more than 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) zoned for these purposes. The towns of Sakhnin, Arrabe and Dir Hana have 44,000 residents, yet no commercial or industrial zones at all, while nearby Karmiel, with 40,000 residents, has 1,550 dunams (387.5 acres) so zoned.

Anyone who enters an Arab town sees the results of this lack of commercial and industrial space. In the heart of residential areas, right next door to houses, are locksmiths and carpentry shops, slaughterhouses and cement-block factories. Due to accelerated urbanization, there are sheepfolds and cowsheds between the houses. The result is a severe reduction in the quality of life, manifested in polluted land and water, annoying smells and noises, and accumulations of waste of various types.

There is also extreme inequality of land distribution among Jewish communities, which has clear economic ramifications. The environmental justice report notes that in the south, the regional councils control 86 percent of the land, yet their population numbers only 40,000, or less than 10 percent of the region's total population. These councils control commercial and industrial zones, which yield hefty municipal taxes, as well as revenue-producing natural resources and tourist sites.

The well-off also have better access to information and to means of opposing plans that threaten their welfare. Thus while many interchanges and overpasses have been built in Gush Dan in recent years, the distribution is clear: In northern Gush Dan, residents pushed for the construction of interchanges dug deep into the earth, to reduce noise. But in the poorer neighborhoods of the south, interchanges and overpasses were built near residential areas, testimony to the residents' lack of power.

Only after the green organizations came to their aid did the planning boards and the road planners begin to consider solutions that would reduce environmental irritants. The lesson is that the only way to obtain at least a bit of environmental justice is by means of an alliance between the greens and the poor.