Book Review: “Sacrifice Zones”

Steve Lerner, the Research Director of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute, is the author of Sacrifice Zones, a new book about the siting of toxic polluters in the U.S.

In the words of Ken Cook, President of Environmental Working Group, “Lerner travels to a dozen low-income mostly minority communities where the pressure to protect good-paying jobs takes a grim and painful toll on human health. Lerner lets the people living, working, and in too many cases, dying from pollution in these “fenceline communities” do the storytelling. What the reader will be left with is shame and outrage that the richest country in the world has allowed entire communities to be sacrificed to pollution. But I believe you will also come away from this book with fresh resolve that our fellow citizens will not continue to be forgotten casualties of commerce.”

Lerner’s use of the term sacrifice zones is different from the context where I’d heard it. In my region, sacrifice zones are about resource extraction. A plains sacrifice zone might be the site of oil extraction that destroys groundwater resources, or strip mining that removes an aquifer along with the coal. The victims are less numerous at these sacrifice zones, but perhaps even more powerless and voiceless than those in fenceline communities, where at least the fenceline and those near it are fairly easy to identify. The ranchers displaced by resource extraction, the small towns emptied out, the downstream communities sickened and the way of life permanently ended are all but invisible. Telling all these stories has never been more urgent.

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