Thursday, February 15, 2001
When LeVonne Stone walked into the third annual "Swords to Plowshares" Open House last month showcasing the cleanup of Fort Ord, she was greeted at the door by federal police and a handful of plainclothes officers. They welcomed her to the public event by blocking her passage into the building, and one officer attempted to snatch some literature she carried. Another cop searched a camera bag belonging to a member of her group.
"This was supposed to be an open house?" questions Stone, still in disbelief.
Stone and five other members of the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network had reserved a table at the open house to publicize their conviction that people of color have no voice in the base cleanup and reuse process. Eventually the cops allowed Stone''s group to enter. Nevertheless, in Stone''s mind, the incident served as one more example of the Army''s contempt for public participation and yet another obstacle to people of color having a say in the process.
Stone created the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network in 1996 in an effort to include minorities in the Fort Ord cleanup and reuse effort. The idea stemmed from her days as a Fort Ord Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) member, a citizens advisory group disbanded by the Army two years ago. Of the 17 original RAB members, Stone was the only minority. Yet the two closest communities to Fort Ord, and the ones most affected by its reuse and cleanup--Marina and Seaside--both contain large minority populations.
"I refused to sit there and be the token," Stone says. So, in 1995, she rounded up 14 African-Americans, seven Asian-Americans and seven Latinos to join the expanded RAB board. But four years later, the Army, citing the group''s ineffectiveness due to procedural problems and internal disputes, dissolved the board.
"That was a low blow," Stone says. "The RAB was really the only avenue of participation the community had."
The timing deflated Stone''s hopes and angered the community--some former RAB members plan to sue, claiming the Army had no legal right to disband the group. But Stone''s struggle for an open reuse process continues. She has turned her attention to her fledgling environmental organization, and last October, the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network got a kick start from a $10,000 environmental justice grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The group was one of seven grant recipients out of 60 Western U.S. applicants.
Stone says some of the money will be used to stage an environmental justice forum planned for April in Seaside. The rest of the money is going to a newsletter currently in development and to sustain the network, which has no other funding source.
The environmental justice movement has caught fire over the past decade as research has shown that a disproportionate number of refineries, landfills, power plants and other pollution-spurting facilities exist near neighborhoods populated by minorities.
"One of the main points of environmental justice as a concept is to create an enduring and meaningful engagement with those whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by these activities," says Romel Pascual, the EPA''s environmental justice coordinator for the Western U.S. "It''s not just about the trees, the water and the soil--it''s really about the impact on people."
Stone says "meaningful engagement" is all but nil when it comes to Fort Ord. A lack of open communication between the Army and the community concerning the burns, unexploded ordnance cleanup and groundwater contamination has disenfranchised the entire community, especially low-income minorities who lack the resources to shape policy.
"All we see is a bunch of government agencies in-fighting," she says, "There is no community input, except from developers running in and wanting to build high-income housing."
Case in point: When the Army ignited its first test burn to clear unexploded ordnance, even members of the RAB were not informed until after the fire spread out of control and visible billows of smoke had sent community members into a panic.
"The first thing I thought about when I saw the smoke was my house and my child at school," Stone says. "I was so angry. They didn''t even have the gumption to let people in the process know.
"My thing is, they need to clean this place up," she finishes. "I want to see more people involved, and I want those areas cleaned up."