maria_cole_web.jpgEvery government and government-related agency will suggest that the Port of Palm Beach and Palm Beach County’s marine industry, located and headquartered in the City of Riviera Beach, are economic drivers for Florida. In fact, some in the marine industry boast that the port — an independent special taxing district of the state — is the second largest such industry in the entire state. The industry claims to have brought in billions of dollars over the years.

Beyond the contamination it introduces from industrial pollutants, however, one has to ask: Why has so much wealth been generated from the Port of Palm Beach for Lockheed Martin, Florida Power and Light, Viking, Rybovich, et al, and yet throughout Riviera Beach there is so much poverty, a disproportionately high unemployment rate and a foreclosure crisis brought on by subprime lending?

The vast majority of  Riviera Beach residents have not benefited from this revenue. The port estimates that it employs close to 5,000 people and about 100 come from the immediate area – a dismal one percent of the workforce. For all that the residents have accommodated, they have complained that their air, water and soil have been contaminated by industrial pollution.

What would, in other communities, come to the attention of a U.S. senator is often ignored in Riviera Beach. Cancer is common among neighbors. Honeywell and Solitron have left two Superfund sites. Industrial dumping in the water goes unchecked and overfishing has depleted the once abundant fish stock. Although the FPL power plant located at the foot of the waterfront is being modernized with high-efficiency natural gas units, residents and environmentalists have long complained that emissions from its smokestacks demolished last June helped make it one of the dirtiest in the state.

Often when we talk about environmental impact, we get lost in intangible concepts of carbon, ozone and global warming. The real impact of polluting the air and water by these industries that are concentrated on this small stretch of waterway and nearby can be seen in our friends and neighbors’ assertions that they have a disproportionately high incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Thousands of published scientific studies demonstrate a correlation between pollution and disease equal to that of secondhand smoke, affecting not only lungs but heart and blood vessels, as well.

A 2008 study published by the American College of Cardiology discusses the significant negative effects which eventually impact every organ system and lead to diseases such as high blood pressure. We need to get specific about what makes up pollution. The toxic chemical compounds include benzene, which is highly carcinogenic, methane and lead. If these ingredients were present at the same levels in our food, we would be outraged.

Leadership should insist on reparations, which is in order to repair the damage to communities and the disruption of lives. Monies that should have gone to the City of Riviera Beach have been spent elsewhere and funds from waterfront corporations should go to the city to provide for better affordable housing, accessible and affordable healthcare, senior services, job creation and job training, as well as to improve educational opportunity for the youngest residents.

We can no longer dismiss the plagues of our communities as a lack of opportunity that has led to a disproportionately high level of incarceration of residents and more prison beds. We have to insist on respect and regard for our communities, not to be the collective dumping ground for the benefit of an entire region. Excuses are no longer acceptable. What must be insisted upon is a clean, healthy and safe environment where our residents can thrive. We have the opportunity to set a “new normal.” Once we address the real causes of the epidemic levels of disease – asthma, autism, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease — and eliminate the environmental component, we can all breathe a little easier and improve the quality of life for future generations.

Maria Cole has spent her career as a health care professional and is dedicated to environmental and social justice including access to quality health care. She may be reached at

Photo: Maria Cole