Sunday, March 29, 2009

Environmental inequality has been the focus of many recent studies. However its nature is very complex, beginning earlier in the 1970s with a small group of people looking for a relationship between economic status to greater exposure to polluted air. Later in the 1970s there was an issue of creating a landfill in Warren county of North Carolina. There were protests and actions that caused some people to be arrested. Here environmental inequality began to play a part in civil rights and a new movement.

From here, three important studies influenced the outlook on environmental inequality. First the GAO examined some communities near landfills in some of the southeastern states, finding that most of the people were African American. Then the United Church of Christ compared zip codes of places located near landfills and or some type of treatment facility to those that didn't and found that there was a significant minority population in the areas with the landfills etc. The studies indicated that race has been a big factor in where some of the waste treatment facilities have been placed.

The 1990s included the Michigan conference, which was a fusion of researchers and activists looking at the issues of environmental hazard and race. Also, Mohai and Bryant did a review of 15 studies that all said that where race existed there was pollution. This time period included a boom of environmental studies focusing a lot on waste sites and pollutants emitted by plants.

The Anderton studies were then used by businessmen to battle environmental racism. By reexamining the earlier zip code study, Anderton was able to show that there wasn't a correlation between areas with landfills and minorities. In 1986 there was a push for the community right to know what community members were coming into contact with. There were also TRI studies that requires some waste facilities to post all the pollutants they were putting out. Unfortunately, not all companies were required to participate and info could easily be skewed due to difficulties in measuring pollution. The weather is unpredictable and can cause pollution to exist in different areas than anticipated, making it difficult to measure in the first place.

One major debate is whether or not the people affected greatly by pollutants are mostly minorities or people of lower economic status. These classifications are not always separate, so how does one performing a study take this into account. Some things to consider are whether or not a waste site was in an area before the people. If so, the land and housing around a polluted area would be cheaper and therefore more readily accessible by poorer people. Also, if the poor were living in an area first, would a company choose to put a waste facility in their area assuming that people don't have the financial capabilities or education to fight it. What are the motivations if any? Unfortunately, the issue of environmental injustice and racism is only looked at in one place in time. The history of an area, the geography, and race relations all play into this complex issue.

I felt that this article lacked information concerning how, based on historical political and economic reasons, an inordinate percentage of lower income people also happen to be ethnic minorities. I think that going into more detail about this issue would perhaps show that regardless of which side of the argument you take (only targeted at minorities vs only low-income people) a lot of the same people are being harmed by the waste facilities and plant pollutants. The fact that people are being harmed needs to be the bigger focus


  1. I agree with Rebecka, that more consideration should have been given to why minorities are disproportionately members of the poor in the first place. Regardless of whether the overriding characteristic is race or income, members of society with less social power than wealthy whites are being subjected to higher levels of pollution, and this is unfair. This article reminds me of Planet of Slums, with impoverished urban dwellers living amongst highly polluting factories. With the evidence this article presents, it is as though minorities and the poor often live in slums in that respect regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas.

    I found especially interesting the research done by Anderton et al, who found that “evidence of racial and ethnic inequity in location of hazardous waste facilities is almost nonexistent” (p. 5). There are always going to be such a wide range of scientific studies that those in power (in this case, the businessmen and owners of TSDFs) can pick and choose which studies will allow them to continue business as usual. It reminds me of back when we read the IPCC report, which provided multiple scenarios, from best case to catastrophic; big corporations that benefit from current economic practices chose the best case scenario to claim that their current practices were not in fact harmful and to justify their actions. Studies such as Anderton et al’s will likely have a negative impact on the environmental inequality movement, as they probably already have.

  2. After reading the article and this blog, I became interested in finding related comparative statistics to illustrate environmental inequality at national, state and local levels.

    I found a website,, which allows you to look up all sorts of U.S. pollution information. It offers numerous statistics and detailed information that can be incredibly narrowed down by topic and location. Here are just a few in relation to the article:

    According to this website, New Jersey ranks #1 for the most superfund sites in the U.S. with 116 sites. Michigan comes in at #5 with 69 superfund sites. Dissecting Michigan superfund sites by county, Kent and Muskegon rank #1 with 8, Kalamazoo #2 (5), Oakland #3 (4). Isabella and Wayne share the #6 ranking with 20 other MI counties that have only 1 superfund site. Wayne, Oakland and Macomb consistently rank as the top 3 counties in Michigan according to various measures of toxin and pollution emissions and subsequent health risks. These counties are top locations for industry and also have some of the highest populations in the state. As we know, Wayne Co. has one of the highest minority concentrations in the U.S.