EcoWellness: Race and hazardous waste
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EcoWellness: Race and hazardous waste

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March 26, 2007

EcoWellness: Race and hazardous waste
By Christine dell’amore, UPI
March 22, 2007

WASHINGTON, March 22 (UPI) — Twenty years after a landmark study proved a link between hazardous-waste sites and minority neighborhoods, the phenomenon has only settled deeper into U.S. towns and cities, a new report says.

What’s more, the racial differences are much greater than previously thought, according to “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty,” a preliminary anniversary report released today. The full report will be made public on April 22, Earth Day.

The updated report found more than 9 million Americans live in neighborhoods within about 2 miles of the 413 commercial hazardous-waste facilities in the United States.

“When we think of the U.S. in the 21st century, we think we’ve made a great deal of progress in environmental protection and civil rights,” said David Pellow, a sociologist and professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. “This suggests the opposite, and it’s quite disheartening.”

The original 1987 report, sponsored by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, is widely considered by experts as the smoking gun that shows people of color do indeed bear the brunt of living in areas of hazardous waste.

In recent decades, the UCC document has also spurred a homegrown revolution of non-profits, community organizers and lawyers who have taken up the cause of environmental justice. Broadly defined, environmental justice means the fair treatment of all races, cultures and incomes in environmental legislation.

In the anniversary report, study leader Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, and colleagues employed new, distance-based techniques using 2000 census data. They parsed out racial and income disparities near hazardous-waste facilities, examining data by region, state and metropolitan area. Big cities contain the most facilities.

The researchers found more than 5.1 million people of color, including 2.5 million Hispanics or Latinos and 1.8 million blacks, live in neighborhoods with at least one hazardous-waste facility. Overall, more minorities reside near hazardous-waste sites than in 1987.

However, it’s possible more efficient methods of tracking these racial differences may account, at least in part, for the increase, said Paul Mohai, a study author and professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Mohai has just completed research — still unpublished — on what environmental-justice experts call “the chicken or the egg question”: whether minorities move into neighborhoods with hazardous-waste sites, or vice versa.

Mohai and colleagues examined data of hundreds of facilities sited between 1966 and 1995, and used a new method of analysis focusing more on populations within a certain radius of a waste facility, instead of just census data.

He found businesses move into communities first, and that whites would move out but minorities tended to stay put.

The study is a “breakthrough” that lays to rest the chicken-or-egg dilemma, Pellow said. With this knowledge, better policies can be crafted to avoid these environmental disparities.

But regardless of what came first, the hazardous-waste dilemma is real and detrimental to community health and quality of life, Mohai said. Such communities are plagued by putrid smells, trucks rumbling noisily down streets all day, plummeting property values and the health impacts from living near hazardous waste, which could range from respiratory ailments to cancer.

Those living near hazardous-waste sites can also feel abandoned and powerless — like “the dumping grounds of the country,” Mohai said.

The UCC report was released in an era of weakened government oversight of industry actions, said Albert Huang, an environmental-justice attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For instance, President Bush issued an executive order in January exempting federal facilities from reporting their waste to the Toxic Release Inventory, a public Environmental Protection Agency database containing information on toxic chemical releases.

“These studies come at a time when it’s clear at least the federal government is not taking environmental justice seriously,” Huang said.

Even so, the environmental-justice movement has made progressive inroads, ushering in a “blossoming of environmental activity” among diverse sets of communities, said Rachel Morello-Frosch, an assistant professor of community health and environmental studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

The movement’s visibility and clout, for one, has prompted the EPA to open an office on environmental justice. Among other initiatives, the office runs a grant program for leaders in the field.

In 1994 President Clinton issued an executive order asking all federal agencies to consider environmental justice in their decisions. Some states, such as California, have taken the lead and put in place their own environmental-justice legislation, Morello-Frosch said.

The anniversary report laid out several solutions, from grassroots action to sweeping federal law. Some examples include requiring state “report cards” on environmental justice, increasing private foundations’ funding support of environmental-justice groups and establishing community land trusts, which would allow communities to purchase abandoned plots of land at below-market rates and redevelop them.

Yet the problem is so pervasive and endemic, Pellow said, no one can reach a solution by thinking in solely environmental or social terms.

“That’s the beauty of environmental justice as a field: We have to think of things as completely intertwined,” Pellow said.


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