Recycling events, neighborhood cleanups, awareness festivals, lectures series, and other activities are slated throughout the nation to mark the 37th anniversary of Earth Day April 22. While there is much to celebrate, there is also good reason to raise the red flag that all is not well in America. This is especially true for the physical environments where people of color live, work, play, worship, and attend school.
Let us all celebrate Earth Day 2007, but let’s not forget that there is still much work to be done to ensure that the environment of all Americans is protected -- without regard to race, ethnicity, income, or the ability of individuals to hire lawyers, technical experts, and “vote with their feet” to escape unhealthy environments. Some communities have the wrong complexion for protection. A 2005 Associated Press analysis found that Africans Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the United Church of Christ landmark 1987 Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States report. As part of the celebration, the UCC commissioned a new study, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States, led by the nation’s leading environmental justice scholars from Clark Atlanta University, and Paul Mohai (University of Michigan), Robin Saha (University of Montana), and Beverly Wright (Dillard University of Louisiana).
The new report is the first to use 2000 census data, a current national database of commercial hazardous waste facilities, and Geographic Information Systems to count persons living nearby to assess nationally the extent of racial and socioeconomic disparities in facility locations. It also examines racial disparities by region and state, and for metropolitan areas, where most hazardous waste facilities are located.
The new report gives more than three dozen recommendations for action at the Congressional, state and local levels to help eliminate the disparities. It also makes recommendations for nongovernmental agencies and the commercial hazardous waste industry. It also includes testimonials on the progress of the environmental justice movement by some of its founders and key leaders. There are also two detailed case studies: one on race, place, and environmental cleanup in post-Katrina New Orleans and the other on toxic contamination of an African American community and the poisoning of the Harry Holt family in Dixon, Tennessee, the “poster child” for environmental racism.
People of color make up the majority (56%) of those living in neighborhoods within three kilometers (1.8 miles) of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond 3 kilometers (30%).
People of color make up a much larger (over two-thirds) majority (69%) in neighborhoods with clustered facilities.
Percentages of African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asians/Pacific Islanders in host neighborhoods are 1.7, 2.3, and 1.8 times greater in host neighborhoods than non-host areas (20% vs. 12%, 27% vs. 12%, and 6.7% vs. 3.6%), respectively.
9 out of 10 EPA regions have racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste sites.
Forty of 44 states (90%) with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color in host neighborhoods -- on average about two times greater than the percentages in non-host areas (44% vs. 23%).
Host neighborhoods in an overwhelming majority of the 44 states with hazardous waste sites have disproportionately high percentages of Hispanics (35 states), African Americans (38 states), and Asians/Pacific Islanders (27 states).
Host neighborhoods of 105 of 149 metropolitan areas with hazardous waste sites (70%) have disproportionately high percentages of people of color, and 46 of these metro areas (31%) have majority people of color host neighborhoods.
Racial and socioeconomic disparities in the location of the nation’s hazardous waste facilities are geographically widespread throughout the country.
People of color are concentrated in neighborhoods and communities with the greatest number of facilities; and people of color, in 2007, are more concentrated in areas with commercial hazardous sites than in 1987.
Race continues to be a significant independent predictor of commercial hazardous waste facility locations when socioeconomic and other non-racial factors are taken into account.
Recent Attempts to Dismantle Environmental Justice
The 1987 UCC report provided the impetus for the EPA creating its Office on Environmental Equity in the early 1991 and its 1992 Environmental Equity report, and the 1994 presidential EJ Executive Order 12898 that mandated federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice into all of their work and programs.
Many environmental justice initiatives implemented in the 1990s stalled, beginning in 2000 under the George W. Bush administration. A March 2004 EPA Inspector General report concluded that the agency "has not developed a clear vision or a comprehensive strategic plan, and has not established values, goals, expectations, and performance measurements" for integrating environmental justice into its day-to-day operations.
In July 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized EPA for its handling of environmental justice issues when drafting clean air rules. That same month, the EPA met a firestorm of public resistance when it proposed dropping race from its draft Environmental Justice Strategic Plan.
The agency then attacked community right-to-know by announcing plans to modify the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program -- widely credited with reducing toxic chemical releases by 65 percent. In July 2006, EPA’s Science Advisory Board Committee opposed these changes in a harsh letter to EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson. In December 2006, the EPA announced final rules that undermine this critical program by eliminating detailed reports from more than 5,000 facilities that release up to 2,000 pounds of chemicals every year; and eliminating detailed reports from nearly 2,000 facilities that manage up to 500 pounds of chemicals known to pose some of the worst threats to human health, including lead and mercury.
In September 2006, EPA’s Inspector General issued another report chastising the agency for falling to “conduct environmental justice reviews of its programs, policies, and activities.” A month later, EPA’s Region 10 in Seattle announced the elimination of its environmental justice office.
The Bush Administration FY08 budget recommends a 28.4 percent cut to the budget of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (proposing $4.58 million, down from $6.34 million). Critics claim EPA budget reductions could expose more minorities and the poor to pollution. The steep budget cuts will result in fewer EPA grants for communities and will no doubt hinder environmental justice implementation.
Reversing the Tide
Amid these attacks, the authors of Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty and a chorus of environmental justice activists and civil rights leaders are calling for steps to reverse the dismantling of federal environmental justice initiatives. In addition to calling for reinstating the TRI report requirements, EJ leaders are pushing for Congressional oversight along with a clear legislative mandate for the EPA. Related measures include:
* Hold Congressional Oversight Hearings on EPA’s dismantling of environmental justice policies and programs and its willful neglect of Executive Order 12898 and its own Inspector General’s reports.
* Implement EPA Office of Inspector General’s Recommendations to develop a clear vision and a comprehensive strategic plan to establish goals and performance measures for integrating environmental justice into the agency’s day-to-day operations as required under Executive Order 12898.
* Enact New Legislation Codifying the EJ Executive Order to strengthen compliance and enforcement of environmental justice objectives at the federal level, ensure discriminatory agency decisions and actions are addressed, provide leadership to the states, and establish an unequivocal legal mandate requiring federal responsibility to advance equal protection under law in minority and low-income communities.
Robert D. Bullard directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. His most recent books include, The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (Sierra Club Books, 2005) and Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity (MIT Press, 2007). His website is at: www.ejrc.cau.edu.