Sunday, March 29, 2009

Environmental Inequalities

Szasz and Meuser’s article “Environmental Inequalities: Literature Review and Proposals for New Directions in Research and Theory” discusses the issue of “environmental racism” and inequalities, the relationship between the resulting movement and research, and some ignored issues within the environmental inequality problem. The article begins with the building of a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, NC in 1978 that receive huge amounts of industrial waste. Warren happened to be the poorest county in North Carolina, and was 65% African-American. Its citizens gathered together to try to defeat this proposed landfill, and the opposition became quite violent. The protester's tactics became a synthesis of Civil Rights and environmental issues. This led to the development of the “environmental racism” phrase and the Movement for Environmental Justice. Researchers then began to examine how “environmental risks are unequally distributed in society”.
Three studies in particular fueled and defined environmental racism research. All are directly related to previous examples of African-American group opposition to waste facility sites. In the first case, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) observed the demographics of communities by four big commercial hazardous waste landfills in SE United States. Three of them were found to be in mainly African-American communities. The United Church of Christ led a study that compared ZIP codes with no TSDFs to ZIP codes with TSDFs. Those with none were 12.3% minority population, those with one TSDF had double that, and those with more than that had the highest amount of minorities. This study found that 3 out of 5 African and Hispanic Americans lived in areas with uncontrolled toxic waste sites. The third study discovered that 21 of 25 solid waste facilities in Houston were found in African-American communities.

Earlier work on environmental racism research began during the 1970s when a group of researcher analyzed EPA air quality data to see if there was a relationship between economic status and exposure to polluted air. These studies showed that poorer neighborhoods do have more polluted air. However, in Chicago it was shown that different pollutants affected different social groups. It depended on where the people worked or lived, no matter what race. Overall, the exposure depended on residential patterns, like living closer to factories versus highways. The pattern of all the studies was consistent, because all across America it was found that the urban poor, who were generally African American, were more exposed to polluted air. The Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards held at U of M further cemented the idea that race is “more strongly related to the incidence of pollution”. Studies grew even more in the 1990s, and most of the work was centered on the quantitative and geographic analysis of waste sites and operating plant pollutants.

The type of waste sites discussed next were sold waste sites (dumps/sanitary landfills), hazardous waste sites or TSDFs that deal with hazardous industrial wastes, and uncontrolled hazardous waste sites which deal with improperly disposed hazardous materials. National and local studies were done involving solid waste sites; nationally no consistent trends were found, but locally more African-Americans were found to live nearer to solid waste sites. There are about 378,000 uncontrolled waste sites in America. None of the studies done involving these are reasonably representative. For TSDFs, some research hasn’t shown any racial environmental inequalities, but some has. Overall the research is like a double-edged sword: TSDF owners can use the research against it to contest charges, but it also suggests the need for a better analysis of social geography.

The main two issues that have been ignored in environmental inequality are the upper social class’s position in this whole issue and its global history. It’s still unknown if this is a result of race or social standing, and researchers tend to focus on the bottom classes. The upper class has basically been ignored. The wealthy are most likely found in the pricier neighborhoods found further from waste facilities, because they can afford those properties. Since this is a general assumption, the topic is most likely not considered researchable. Historically, the literature on environmental inequality has been American. The few articles that aren’t American show the economic development and resource extraction related to indigenous peoples. These do show that the issue is global, though, and that it’s generated by the international political economy.

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