by Alan Shihadeh
The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) recently released a study entitled Toxic Wastes and Race Revisited which revealed that commercial toxic waste facilities are even more likely to be located in minority communities now than ever before, despite grassroots activism and growing national attention to the issue. The CPA found that people of color are nearly 50 percent more likely than whites to live near a commercial toxic waste facility, and three times more likely than whites to live in communities with multiple toxic waste facilities. Furthermore, they found that from 1980 to 1993, the concentration of minorities in zip code areas with commercial toxic waste facilities grew from 25 to 31 percent. The CPA study is a follow-up to the 1987 United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice study which first quantified the national racial disparity in the siting of toxic waste facilities. The 1987 study investigated the relationship between the location of sites containing hazardous wastes and the racial and socio-economic characteristics of people living nearby. Using residential zip code areas as the units of analysis (what they term 'communities') the UCC compared five variables in all areas of the nation: 1. Minority percentage of the population; 2. Mean household income - to determine whether class was more important than race in the location of commercial facilities; 3. Mean value of owner-occupied homes - a proxy for determining the role of property values in facility location; 4. Number of uncontrolled toxic waste sites per 1,000 persons - to test whether geographic or historical factors not identified in the study such as land use zoning, transportation access, groundwater, or soil permeability could explain the location of commercial waste facilities; 5. Pounds of hazardous waste generated per person - to evaluate whether facility location can be explained by proximity to waste producers, i.e. commercial waste facility customers. The residential zip code areas were categorized into four mutually exclusive groups: 1. No commercial hazardous waste facilities; 2. One commercial hazardous waste facility that is not a landfill; 3. One commercial hazardous waste landfill that is not one of the five largest in the U.S.; 4. One of the five largest landfills, or more than one commercial hazardous waste facility. The UCC study found that the group of residential zip code areas with the highest number of facilities also had the highest mean percentage of minority residents (38%), while the group of zip code areas without any facilities had the lowest percentage of minority residents (12%). Groups 2 and 3 also had a significantly larger portion of minority residents than Group 1 (24% and 22%, respectively). Of the five variables tested, the most important predictor of the level of commercial waste activity was minority percentage of population; that is, as the number of a community's racial and ethnic residents increases, the probability that some form of hazardous waste activity will occur also increases. Household income and the mean value of owner occupied homes were also statistically significant predictors, but less so than minority percentage of population. Incomes and home values were an average of $2,745 and $17,301 lower, respectively, in communities with commercial waste facilities than their neighboring communities without such facilities. The other variables considered were not found to be statistically significant. The UCC study was not a single aberration from an otherwise unsuspect record of commercial hazardous waste facilities. Many researchers have studied the association between race, class, and exposure to environmental hazards with strikingly similar results. Table 1 summarizes the results of every published study, carried out in the U.S. through 1991, whose purpose was to assess this association. Across a range of hazards and study sample sizes, the results consistently indicated that environmental hazards were inequitably distributed; of the 22 studies, 21 found that environmental discrimination occurs along race or class lines. Among the nine studies which separated race from class, seven found that race was a better predictor of exposure to environmental hazards than income. Discrimination in Regulatory Enforcement? One possible reason for the higher incidence of environmental hazards in minority and poor communities is that regulatory enforcement is lax there, relative to that in white or affluent areas. In 1992, The National Law Journal (NLJ) published the results of a study commissioned to investigate this possibility. The study looked at all civil cases against violators of federal air, water, and waste laws concluded between March 1985 and March 1991, as well as the 929 Superfund cases concluded with penalties during the same period. Using a demographic analysis of zip code areas similar to that used in the UCC study, the NLJ found that environmental regulatory activity was significantly greater in areas which had the lowest proportion of minority residents: ¥ Penalties under hazardous waste laws in communities having the greatest white populations were on average 500% greater than in communities having the greatest number of minority residents ($335,566 vs. $55,318). ¥ The average penalty under hazardous waste laws in the lowest median income areas was 3% greater than in areas with the greatest income ($113,491 vs. $109,606), i.e. the discrepancy under these laws occurs by race alone. ¥ Penalties under all federal air, water, and waste laws were 46% higher in white areas than in minority areas. ¥ Abandoned hazardous waste sites in minority areas took 20% longer to be placed on the National Priority Action List than those in white areas. ¥ At hazardous waste sites in communities of color, the EPA chose containment of hazardous waste 7% more often than the preferred permanent treatment of the waste, while permanent treatment was chosen 20% more often than containment in areas with the greatest proportion of white residents. Working Towards Environmental Equity Activists in communities around the country have been forming a movement to remedy past injustices and promote fairness in local, national, and international environmental decision making. Among their demands are that communities be empowered with comprehensive, easily accessible information to help citizens become informed about the costs and benefits of sites; that the EPA be required to adopt toxic facility siting rules which explicitly take into account environmental equity; and that national standards be established on the issues of exposure and health monitoring procedures. In addition, members of the Black Congressional Caucus have pushed environmental equity legislation which would prevent toxic facility clustering in any community. So far, only Arkansas has passed legislation that directly addresses the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards in communities of color. In the face of heavy resistance from national and state legislatures, the NAACP has set ambitious goals for achieving environmental equity in the near term: "If this disturbing correlation still exists at the tenth anniversary of the original report, then the government, industry, and the environmental justice movement will have failed the impacted communities... We will work to ensure such an outcome is not the case in 1997." Resources for Activists Bryant Bunyan and Paul Mohai, editors. 1992. Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Bullard, Robert D., ed. 1993. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press. Bullard, Robert D. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Equity. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990. Center for Policy Alternatives. Toxic Wastes and Race Revisited. Washington, DC, 1994. (202) 387-6030 Commission for Racial Justice. United Church of Christ. 1987. Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. New York: Public Data Access.