Targeted Environmental Justice Enforcement Needed in EPA Region 4

It has been little over two weeks since environmental justice leaders in the South delivered an eleven-point “Call to Action” plan for reform of EPA Region 4— eight states in the southern United States (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee).  Leaders from all across the region called for targeted enforcement to address environmental racism and pollution “hot spots” that pose disproportionate environmental health threats to low-income communities and communities of color.

Clearly, healthy places and healthy people are highly correlated, with the poorest of the poor within the region having the worst health and the most degraded environments. Race and class map closely with vulnerability. One of the best indicators of an individual’s health is one’s street address, Zip Code, or neighborhood. More than 100 studies now link racism to worse health. More than 200 environmental studies have shown race and class disparities.  It is no accident that six of Forbes’ “Top 10 Unhealthiest States” in 2009 were found in Region 4. Mississippi was ranked the 50th unhealthiest state in 2009.  Above Mississippi were Oklahoma (49th), Alabama (48th), Louisiana (47th), and South Carolina (46th), Nevada (45th), Tennessee (44th), Georgia (43rd), West Virginia (42nd), and Kentucky (41st).

A 2005 Associated Press investigative study found that people of color and poor people live with more pollution than the rest of the nation. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. African Americans in 19 states are more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods with high pollution, and a similar pattern was discovered for Hispanics in 12 states and Asians in 7 states.

A 2008 study, “Race, Income, and Environmental Inequality in the United States” found that blacks experience such high pollution burden that black households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are, on average, more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $10,000 live.

Americans are paying a high price for air pollution.  Air pollution accounts for over three-quarters of the total pollution-related public health costs and could be as high as $182 billion annually. Asthma alone costs Americans nearly $18 billion each year. Asthma hospitalization rate for African Americans and Latinos is 3 to 4 times the rate for whites.  According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 13 cities in the top 25 of this year’s rankings of  “Asthma Capitals” are located in the south.  Five of the top 10 asthma capitals are located in Region 4:   Richmond, VA (1st), St. Louis, MO (2nd), Chattanooga, TN (3rd), Knoxville, TN (4th), Milwaukee, WI (5th), Memphis, TN (6th),  Tulsa, OK (7th), Philadelphia, PA (8th), Augusta, GA (9th), and Atlanta, GA (10th).

Nearly four decades of EPA Region 4 harmful and discriminatory decisions have turned too many low-income and people of color communities into the dumping grounds for the most dangerous toxic chemicals, lowering nearby residents’ property values, stealing their wealth, and exposing them to unnecessary environmental health risks. Landfill sitings have turned vulnerable low-income communities and communities of color into Sacrifice Zones and toxic wastelands.

As early as 1983, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report, “Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Race and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities”, documented the disparate hazardous waste siting pattern in EPA Region 4.  The GAO found that three-fourths of the hazardous waste facilities in the region are located in majority African American communities even though African Americans made up only one-fifth of the region’s population.

The GAO report was requested by District of Columbia Congressman, Walter E. Fauntroy, after 1982 protests and arrests over the siting of a PCB landfill in predominately black and poor Warren County, North Carolina. The events set in motion the national environmental justice movement and put environmental racism on the map.  In 1982, more than 60,000 tons of soil contaminated with PCBs were cleaned up along 210 miles of North Carolina roadside shoulders and later disposed in a state-owned landfill in Warren County.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice published “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” and the 1994 updated “Toxic Wastes and Race Revisited” report found race was the most potent factor in predicting the location of  commercial hazardous waste facilities — more powerful than poverty, land and property values, and home ownership.  The 1994 report found that people of color were 47 percent more likely to live near a hazardous waste facility than white Americans.

In 1990, “Dumping in Dixie”, the first environmental justice book, graphically illustrated that all communities in the South are not created equal. The book clearly illustrated that to be poor, working-class, or a person of color in the United States often means bearing a disproportionate share of the country’s environmental problems. It also chronicled the efforts of five African American communities, empowered by the civil rights movement, to link environmentalism with issues of social justice.

The 2007 United Church of Christ “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty” report found race continues to be the most important independent predictor of the location of commercial hazardous waste facility locations when socio-economic and other non-racial factors are taken into account. People of color make up the majority (56%) of those living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%). People of color make up a much larger (over two-thirds) majority (69%) in neighborhoods with clustered facilities. People of color in 2007 are more concentrated in areas with commercial hazardous sites than in 1987.

The 2007 UCC report also found that commercial hazardous waste facilities in EPA Region 4 states have been disproportionately located within two miles or less of communities of color: Alabama (66.3%), Florida (52.7%), Georgia (55.6%), Kentucky (51.5%), Mississippi (50.6%), North Carolina (55.9%), South Carolina (43.9%), and Tennessee (53.8%). People of color comprise 28.5 percent of EPA Region 4 population.

African Americans are also more likely than whites to live near dirty coal fired power plants.  The Clean Air Task 2002 “Air of Injustice: African Americans and Power Plant Pollution” report found more than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a dirty coal-fired power plant compared with just 56 percent of whites. In 2007, the Environmental Integrity Project identified the “Dirty Dozen”, twelve states with the heaviest concentrations of the dirtiest power plants—in terms of total tons of carbon dioxide emitted.  They include:  Texas (five, including two of the top 10 dirtiest plants); Pennsylvania (four); Indiana (four, including two of the top 10 dirtiest plants); Alabama (three); Georgia (three, including two of the top three dirtiest plants); North Carolina (three); Ohio (three); West Virginia (three); Wyoming (two); Florida (two); Kentucky (two); and New Mexico (two). Five of the “Dirty Dozen” are located in Region 4.

While movement to clean and renewable energy sources is viewed as the preferred energy strategy and is touted as the wave of our nation’s green energy future, Georgia appears to moving in the opposite direction.  For example, three coal-fired power plants are seeking permits in Georgia. All three of these coal-fired power plants are proposed in environmental justice communities. The plants include: Greenleaf Coal Power Plant in Early County, GA (50.2 % black); Fitzgerald Power Plant in Ben Hill County (32.6 % black) near Fitzgerald, GA (49.5% black in 2000); and the Washington County Plant (53.2% black).

Recent proposals to jump-start the nuclear power industry have sparked debate and environmental justice concerns among African Americans. Georgia’s mostly African American and poor communities are also being targeted for risky nuclear power plants. For example, the first nuclear power plants to be built in decades are being proposed in Region 4 with an $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee. The loan guarantee will help the Atlanta-based Southern Company build two more nuclear reactors in the mostly African American Shell Bluff community in Burke County, GA. The county is 51.1 percent black. The two new reactors would each produce 1,000 megawatts, and would work with two existing reactors at a site near Waynesboro, GA (62.5% black). The next three nuclear power plants in the queue are projects in southern Maryland, San Antonio, and Fairfield County, South Carolina.

Two recent high profile manmade disasters raise environmental justice concern and call into question EPA’s semi-autonomous region decision-making apparatus.  For examples, the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) toxic coal ash spill waste disposal and the 2010 British Petroleum (BP) oil spill waste disposal sent toxic wastes to environmental justice communities.

On December 22, 2008, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel power plant broke, spilling more than 525 million gallons of toxic coal ash over a dozen homes and up to 400 acres of the surrounding landscape, endangering aquatic life and the water supply for more than 25,000 residents. EPA Region 4 approved the TVA decision to ship 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash sludge 300 miles south by rail car from the mostly white east Tennessee Roane County to a landfill located in Perry County (69 percent African-American with more than 32 percent of its residents living in poverty).

The mostly African American residents of Uniontown questioned TVA and EPA officials why spilled coal ash was too toxic to stay in East Tennessee but was approved for dumping in their Alabama “Black Belt” community. EPA is currently considering regulating coal ash as hazardous material. Alabama is one of the states with no regulations for coal ash.  The state also has a poor track record in enforcing clean water standards.

This legacy of neglect and lax enforcement prompted a coalition of fourteen Alabama environmental groups in January 2010 to petition the EPA to withdraw the state’s authority over Alabama’s water pollution permitting program because it does not meet the minimum requirements of the Clean Water Act. The coalition contends that the water pollution permitting program administered by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is fundamentally broken and does not meet minimum federal standards and the failures of the current system leave the citizens and environment of Alabama unprotected.  EPA has threatened to take over enforcing part of the Clean Water Act if ADEM doesn’t force cities to comply with higher standards for keeping waterways clean.  EPA intervention is long overdue.

A September 2010 report from Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice, “Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to Our Health and Environment”, found coal ash “linked to cancer and other maladies.”  This report follows a study issued in August 2010 by Earthjustice and other environmental groups, “In Harms Way:  Lack of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans and Their Environment“, that revealed 39 contaminated coal ash sites in 21 states where toxic coal waste has contaminated ground water or surface water with toxic metals and other contaminants. Currently, more than 137 cases of coal ash contamination have been found in 34 states.  This total is a threefold increase in the number of damage cases EPA identified in its 2000 Regulatory Determination on the Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels.

Damage cases are disproportionately located in environmental justice communities. Several environmental agencies in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee in Region 4 require no monitoring of waters near toxic coal ash sites.  The report found that nearly 70 percent of the toxic coal ash generated nationwide is dumped in states that don’t require monitoring to see if toxic contamination is leaking from coal ash sites.

A 2009 EPA report, “Regulatory Impact Analysis for EPA’s Proposed RCRA Regulation of Coal Combustion Residues Generated by the Electric Utility Industry”, found that throughout EPA Region 4, coal-fired utility plants are sited in areas with disproportionately high poverty and minority populations, particularly when compared to national averages, but also when compared to state averages. Vulnerable populations are therefore unfairly impacted by the production and storage of toxic coal ash.

This environmental justice trend for coal ash presents itself nationally to some degree, but is magnified in Region 4. For example, Mississippi and Alabama are the two states in the nation with the worst disproportionate impact for populations living below the poverty line and Tennessee is among the top 5 with the worst disproportionate impact to minorities.

The greatest disparity in Region 4 as compared to the nation as a whole is in regards to minority populations. Nationally, at 21.7 percent the minority population surrounding coal-fired utility plants is 13 percent lower than the national average percent minority population of 24.9 percent. In EPA Region 4, the minority population near coal plants, 30.0 percent, is 21 percent higher than the national average. The minority populations near coal plants in Region 4 also cumulatively exceed their respective state averages by 19 percent. In a few particular states, this metric soars far higher than 19 percent. In Alabama, the minority population near coal plants is 46 percent higher than in the state as a whole; in Mississippi it is 34 percent higher; and in Tennessee there is nearly twice as high a share of non-white individuals living near coal plants as would be expected given the state average (an 89%  exceedance).

The burden of coal ash storage and, ultimately, the threat of contamination, is also borne unequally by poverty populations nationwide, with a more dramatic disproportionate impact in Region 4. The national average percent poverty population is 11.9 percent.  Near coal plants nationwide, the poverty rate is 12.9 percent, or 8 percent higher than the national average.

In Region 4, the poverty rate near coal plants is 14.9 percent, a figure which exceeds the national average by 25 percent. As with the minority population, the poverty population is particularly concentrated near coal plants in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. In Alabama and Mississippi, the poverty rate near coal plants is more than twice the national average. At 24.5 percent near coal plants in Alabama, the poverty rate is 106 percent higher than the national average; at 26.5 percent in Mississippi, it is 115% higher than the national average. The poverty rate near coal plants in Tennessee exceeds the national average by 41 percent. Federal regulation of coal ash is necessary in part because, under the path-work of current state regulations, minority and low-income populations face unfair exposure to the risks of coal ash.

The April 20, 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster killed eleven workers and leaked more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days — making it the worst offshore oil disaster in U.S. history.  While much media attention was devoted to covering the BP oil gusher and attempts to halt the oil flow, not much attention has been given to which communities were selected as the final resting place for BP’s oil-spill garbage. It was not until communities of color raised the charge of environmental racism and environmental injustice that government officials began to pay attention to BP’s Recovered Oil/Waste Management Plan and it equity implications.

Although people of color make up 26 percent of the coastal counties in AL, FL, LA, and MS, six of the nine (80 percent) EPA approved landfills are located in areas where the percentage of people of color is larger than the people of color percent in the corresponding county. At the end of August, 55.4 percent of the BP oil spill waste was disposed in landfills located in people of color communities.  More than 80 percent of the oil waste was disposed in communities where the percent people of color exceeded the percent in the county.

As of August 29, 2010, more than 55,319 million tons of BP oil spill solid waste had been disposed in nine Subtitle D landfills in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Of this total, more than 20,760 tons of BP wastes (38%) went to one lone landfill — the Spring Hill Regional Landfill in Campbellton, FL (Jackson County). More than 76 percent of the residents who live within a one-mile radius of the Spring Hill Landfill are people of color. People of color make up 29.8 percent of Jackson County.

As of November 7, 2010, the approved landfills had received a total of 82,589 tons of waste from the BP oil spill. Landfills in areas where people of color make up a majority of the population received 33,259 tons or 40.3 percent of the waste from the BP spill.  Landfills in areas where the percent people of color was larger than the county’s people of color population received 62,017 tons or 75.1 percent of the waste from the BP oil disaster.

It appears that community leaders’ raising the environmental justice red flag is paying off.  The proportion of BP oil spill waste disposed in environmental justice communities declined from a high of 55.4 percent in August to 40.3 percent in November.  Nevertheless, people of color continue to be over-represented in communities receiving BP oil waste. More than 75 percent of the waste went to environmental justice communities in November, down from 80 percent in August. Tracking BP oil waste disposal has now become a long-term environmental justice partnership project between impacted communities, academics, and civil rights leaders.

In tracking pollution from individual companies to specific communities, researchers at the University of Massachusetts developed the Toxic 100 Air Polluters index. The index relies heavily on EPA toxic release inventory (TRI) the Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) data which assesses the chronic human health risk from industrial toxic releases. The 2010 “Top 100” index included Environmental Justice Report Cards — information on the disproportionate risk burden from industrial air toxics for people of color and low-income communities.  The Environmental Justice Report Cards reveal that the most polluted places tend to have significantly higher-than-average percentages of people of color. Of the “Top 10” companies on the “Toxic 100” list, people of color bear more than half of the human health impacts from the companies’ toxic air releases.

A year earlier, a 2009 UMass report, “Justice in the Air: Tracking Pollution from America’s Industries and Companies to Our States, Cities, and Neighborhoods”, found that pollution from Fortune 500 and other industrial companies are not equal opportunity polluters and that people of color and poor people generally live on the “wrong side of the environmental tracks.” Pollution is unevenly distributed within states, as well as between states.  Some of the most dramatic differences between the share of people of color in the total human health risk from industrial air toxics and their share in the state’s population are found in the South.  Tennessee, for example, has the highest disparities in exposure where the people of color share of the health risk is 43 percent, while the people of color share of the state’s population is 21 percent.  Other Region 4 states with larger than average disparities included Alabama and South Carolina.

Large discrepancies exist between the share of people of color in the health risk from industrial pollution and their share in the population in U.S. metropolitan areas. For example, Birmingham, Alabama tops the list of the Top Ten Metropolitan Areas with the greatest disproportionate impact on people of color. People color in the Birmingham metro area account for 65 percent of the health risk as compared to 34 percent of the population, a discrepancy of 31 percentage points.  Other metropolitan areas in Region 4 states that made the Top Ten list include Memphis, Tennessee (people of color account for 70 percent of the health risks as compared to 48.1 percent of the population, a discrepancy of 22.5 percentage points) and Louisville, Kentucky (people of color account for 36.5 percent of the health risk as compared to 18.0 percent of the population, a discrepancy of 18.8 percentage points).

Finally, as detailed in the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law 2010 report, “Now is the Time: Environmental Injustice in the U.S. and Recommendation for Eliminating Disparities”, current circumstances amount to a slow-moving disaster and necessitate immediate attention to environmental health threats to low-income and people of color communities.  The report was presented to the Obama Administration and its various agencies, including the EPA and the Department of Justice and outlines recommendations on how the Administration can effectively utilize existing law to eliminate disparities in environmental protection and the agencies can fulfill their responsibilities under Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice In Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” signed some 16 years ago.

In January 2010, EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, released a memorandum announcing “working for environmental justice” as one of the “Seven Priorities for EPA’s Future.”  Nine months later, in September 2010, administrator Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, Nancy Sutley, reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG) in a historic meeting, the first such gathering in more than a decade, held at the White House. The meeting, attended by five cabinet members, highlight the federal government’s dedication to ensuring all Americans have strong federal protection from environmental and health hazards.

The EJ IWG agreed to hold monthly EJ IWG meetings, including assigning senior officials from each Agency to coordinate EJ activities; organize regional listening sessions in early 2011; hold follow-up EJ IWG Principals Meetings in April and September 2011; each Agency will be tasked to develop or update their EJ strategy by September 2011; and plan a White House forum for EJ leaders and stakeholders on Environmental Justice.

The White House EJ Forum is set for December 15, 2010 at 10:00 am until 4:00 pm in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.  The event will bring together environmental justice community leaders, state, local and tribal government officials, Cabinet members, and other senior Federal officials for a discussion on creating a healthy and sustainable environment for all Americans.  The Forum also will offer an opportunity for the environmental justice community to speak with officials from Federal departments and agencies who are engaged in this effort. While these federal EJ initiatives emanate from Washington, it is unclear how they will be implemented in EPA Region 4 and the other nine EPA regions.

Robert D. Bullard is the Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable and Livable Communities (APHA Press 2011). He can be reached at: drrobertbullard@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert D., or visit Robert D.'s website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 29th, 2010 at 10:23am #

    one of the causes for such situations is the fact that u.s may be called a region; and, i may add, a lawless region, and not a lawful country.
    such regions– its inhabitants deemed as regionals or provincials– are treated as a nuisance and as example of sloth, negligence, backwardness, etc., i.e., exemplifying unamericanism.

    blacks and latinos in such a region appear to supremacists as ‘aliens'; mar on greatness of america, insult to god bless america, and a blot on u.s constitution, a set of interpretative sayings, fables, saws, adages.
    and interpretations of such fables can be reinterpreted, reexplained forever.
    and yet, each at a point of time, very pleasing to eyes of every administration! tnx

  2. SECorBust said on November 29th, 2010 at 12:26pm #

    This article is pure political garbage. The relationship between poverty and pollution is real but it has nothing to do with Environmenal Justice and Race. In fact the Union Town city council comprised of minority politicians approved the dumping of Coal Ash in their landfill. It wasn’t because they were a minority, it was because the town is poor and they wanted the money. Landfills are big business especially to poor communities.

    Arrowhead landfill; the optimal final rewsting place for coal ash geologically is one of many landfills that are located in poor areas with little or no zoning laws. In each case representatives of the community vote to accept the landfill for the obvious incentative of monetary gain. Most are operated by a private individual and the goal is to make money. “Minority Communitys” should consider themselves lucky to recieve the money (read BP waste). The article makes it sound like the waste is running down the streets where children play, however the waste is continually monitored and engineering controls are used to ensure that the waste stays where it was put.

    The point is that the article uses misleading statistics and sensationalism to make a point that just isn’t true.

  3. Don Hawkins said on November 29th, 2010 at 12:38pm #

    “Minority Communitys” should consider themselves lucky to recieve the money (read BP waste).

    Just maybe the unminority communtity’s that’s new speak need to be made a little more minority shocking isn’t it.

  4. SECorBust said on November 29th, 2010 at 12:48pm #

    Speak english Don, maybe I will be able to understand your POV. Seriously it has a capital letter at the start and a period at the end. While it appears to be a sentence it has yet to convey any semblence of a thought.

  5. Don Hawkins said on November 29th, 2010 at 1:09pm #

    So you did find it shocking.