Those of us living in relative comfort may never have had to consider whether environmental problems are heaped disproportionately on those who are poor, or racial minorities, or disenfranchised immigrants. But it is still the case today, and was even more so the case during the 1960s.
Rev. Martin Luther King became focused on this issue after he saw strong successes in his original goal of breaking down color lines. It became clear to him that simply allowing minority children to attend integrated schools, and forcing public places such as lunch counters in stores to be integrated, did not solve a series of other problems.
One of these unsolved problems was the placement of toxic substances and treatment facilities in poor, ethnic, and minority neighborhoods, and giving the dirty work of the entire population to the poor without regard for their safety and well-being. Probably not so well understood at that time, but typical of the issue and something I still hear about frequently here in New York City, are the lower standards by builders and city planners that have resulted in the dangerous problems of asthma and lead poisoning affecting minority and poor families disproportionately. Here in New York City the minority asthma rate continues to be exacerbated by siting of bus terminals and major bus routes, and of waste treatment facilities, near the neighborhoods of those populations.
Suffice it to say that Dr. King and his fellow activists were aware of the overall problem and its many expressions back in the 1960s. Dr. King was asked to help improve the working conditions of the garbage collection employees, all African-American (or I imagine there might have been one or two exceptions), who had terrible working conditions that often led to maiming and had recently killed two of the workers who were crushed inside their trucks.
Two of the excellent articles on this topic that I will point out here are in Daily Kos and in the National Archives (yes, from our US government).
We should remember that those small news items that appear from time to time in the middle class or wealthy world, represent an entire way of life for those who are forced to live near toxic dumps, breathing toxic air or drinking tainted water. The health and human rights of each individual is a precious principle that our country, and all countries, should strive on a daily basis to attain.
As a final word I would like to expand the consideration here to include ALL the people of the United States and the planet. We are all subjected to toxic or planet-damaging means of producing energy, such as coal and nuclear energy, all in the name of economic progress. The best answer to the energy squeeze that is perceived and experienced can be debated, but the existence of a problem that affects ALL of us can not be denied.
This is not advocating that we freeze in winter rather than burn coal, but are we properly prioritizing such vital issues as developing alternative energy with a determination unmatched since the Manhattan Project of World War II? Can we not focus our collective minds on solving our pollution and energy problems, while controlling population growth using whatever means are deemed suitable, so that we can all share a beautiful, compassionate, and healthful planet far into the future?