BP’s Waste Management Plan Raises Environmental Justice Concerns

Much attention the past three months has been focused on the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill disaster and clean up efforts. Government officials estimate that the ruptured well leaked between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. However, not much attention has been given to which communities were selected as the final resting place for BP’s oil-spill garbage.

A large segment of the African American community was skeptical of BP, the oil and gas industry, and the government long before the disastrous Gulf oil disaster, since black communities too often have been on the receiving end of polluting industries without the benefit of jobs and have been used as a repository for other people’s rubbish. 

Given the sad history of waste disposal in the southern United States, it should be no surprise to anyone that the BP waste disposal plan looks a lot like “Dumping in Dixie,” and has become a core environmental justice concern, especially among low-income and people of color communities in the Gulf Coast — communities whose residents have historically borne more than their fair share of solid waste landfills and hazardous waste facilities before and after natural and man-made disasters. 

For decades, African American and Latino communities in the South became the dumping grounds for all kind of wastes — making them “sacrifice zones.” Nowhere is this scenario more apparent than in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi from Baton Rough to New Orleans. Gulf Coast residents, who have for decades lived on the fenceline with landfills and waste sites, are asking why their communities are being asked again to shoulder the waste disposal burden for the giant BP oil spill. They are demanding answers from BP and the EPA in Washington, DC and the EPA Region 4 office in Atlanta and EPA Region 6 office in Dallas — two EPA regions that have a legacy of unequal protection, racial discrimination, and bad decisions that have exacerbated environmental and health disparities. 

Today we are seeing a disturbing pattern re-emerge in the disposal of the BP oil-spill waste.  Because of the haphazard handling and disposal of the wastes from the busted well, the U.S Coast Guard and the U.S. EPA leaned on BP and increased their oversight of the company’s waste management plan.  BP’s waste plan, “Recovered Oil/Waste Management Plan Houma Incident Command,” was approved on June 13, 2010.

BP hired private contractors to cart away and dispose of thousands of tons of polluted sand, crude-coated boom and refuse that washed ashore.  The nine approved Gulf Coast solid waste landfills, amount of waste disposed, and the percent minority residents living within a one-mile radius of the facilities are listed below:


Chastang Landfill, Mount Vernon, AL, 6008 tons (56.2%) Magnolia Landfill, Summerdale, AL, 5,966 tons (11.5%)


Springhill Regional Landfill, Campbellton, FL, 14,228 ton (76.0%)


Colonial Landfill, Ascension Parish, LA, 7,729 (34.7%) Jefferson Parish Sanitary Landfill, Avondale, LA, 225 tons (51.7%) Jefferson Davis Parish Landfill, Welsh, LA, 182 tons (19.2%) River Birch Landfill, Avondale, LA, 1,406 (53.2%) Tide Water Landfill, Venice, LA, 2,204 tons (93.6%)


Pecan Grove Landfill, Harrison, MS, 1,509 tons (12.5%)

According to BP’s Oil Spill Waste Summary, as of of July 15, more than 39,448 tons of oil garbage had been disposed at nine approved landfills in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. More than half (five out of nine) of the landfills receiving BP oil-spill solid waste are located in communities where people of color comprise a majority of residents living within near the waste facilities. 

In addition, a significantly large share of the BP oil-spill waste, 24,071 tons out of 39,448 tons (61 percent), is dumped in people of color communities.  This is not a small point since African Americans make up just 22 percent of the coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, while people of color comprise about 26 percent of the population in coastal counties. 

Clearly, the flow of BP oil-spill waste to Gulf Coast communities is not random.  The mix of waste and race was the impetus behind the Environmental Justice Movement in Warren County, North Carolina more than twenty-five years ago. In 1982, toxic PCBs were cleaned up from North Carolina roadways and later dumped in a landfill in mostly black and poor Warren County. We also saw the pattern in 2009 when 3.9 million tons of toxic coal ash from the massive Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant spill in East Tennessee was cleaned up and shipped more than 300 miles south by train and disposed in a landfill in rural and mostly black Perry County, Alabama.  

The largest amount of BP oil-spill solid waste (14,228 tons) was sent to a landfill in a Florida community where three-fourths of the nearby residents are people of color.  Although African Americans make up about 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, three of the five approved landfills (60 percent) in the state that  received BP oil-spill waste are located in mostly black communities.  African American communities in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and have experienced the toughest challenge to rebuild and recover after five years.  Dumping more disaster waste on them is not a pathway to recovery and long-term sustainability. 

Clearly, Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” signed by President William J. Clinton in 1994, requires the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard to do a better job monitoring where BP oil-spill waste ends up to ensure that minority and low-income populations do not bear an adverse and disproportionate share of the burdens and negative impacts associated with the disastrous BP oil spill. Allowing BP, Gulf Coast states, and the private disposal industry to select where the oil-spill waste is dumped only adds to the legacy of environmental racism and unequal protection.

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.