January 10, 2008

Estabrook Cleanup

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

As many of you know, there are some significant pollution problems in our lakes and streams.  In my hometown of Milwaukee, the Estabrook Impoundment has become so polluted that it actually poses a health risk to the community. 

For years now, Estabrook has been contaminated with PCB, a manmade chemical that causes cancer, as well as reproductive and developmental problems in people and animals.  PCB-tinged river sediment affects fish, wildlife, and people as it rises through the food chain.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recognized the danger of the high PCB concentrations at Estabrook years ago, but only recently took real strides toward doing something about it.  Under new Secretary Matt Frank, a cleanup effort was organized and community hearings were held.  A company was hired for phase one of the process and everything is set to get going in mid-March.

Even so, there’s still a lot to do.  The first phase of the cleanup will only eliminate 10% of the pollution, and only from a small part of the Impoundment.  The operation will require a lot of public funding, particularly if federal funding isn’t made available.  Because of the project’s immense scope and ecological significance, it’s imperative that community members remain involved and ensure that progress meets their needs.

The Hmong community has a particular stake in the cleanup.  Of the many people who fish around Estabrook, a majority are from the Hmong community.  Fishing is a part of their culture.  For many of them, it is also an invaluable means of putting food on the table.  Pollution in Estabrook impacts the Hmong community to an inordinate degree.

During the cleanup process, though, surprisingly little concern has been paid to the needs of Milwaukee’s Hmong residents.  Hmong translators weren’t made available during public hearings, leaving many recent immigrants without a voice in the process.  Although signs have been posted around Estabrook warning of the dangerous fishing conditions, none of the signs are printed or subtitled in Hmong.

My office is in dialogue with the DNR to remedy the situation at Estabrook.  Furthermore, I hope that this article will convince citizens throughout Milwaukee to get involved in the cleanup.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, all of us have a stake in preserving Milwaukee’s fragile ecosystems, so it is up to each of us to interject ourselves into the cleanup process.

There are long-term lessons to be learned from Estabrook, as well.  One is that administrative agencies must take a more proactive approach to involving minority groups in the decision-making process.  Where they don’t, then they fail in their duty to adequately represent the interests of all Wisconsinites.  Moreover, they risk slighting important segments of our community.

Wisconsin is an increasingly diverse state.  Now, more than ever, racial and cultural sensitivity is vital to our collective interests.  On that note, I hope that all of us—politicians, bureaucrats, and regular citizens—can come away from the Estabrook cleanup supporting increased awareness of various communities’ unique cultural needs.  If we can, then what has happened at Estabrook might at least serve some purpose.