Claims that the poor and minorities are exposed to higher-than-average
levels of pollution because they are more likely to live near industrial and waste disposal sites have sparked charges of “environmental racism.” These communities allegedly bear the brunt of industrial development while reaping few of its benefits. The Clinton administration has taken this misguided notion and built policy on it, but do not expect this to lead to greater environmental protection.
One of the first studies to allege a correlation among risk, race, and income was the government’s own Council of Environmental Quality’s 1971 Annual Report to the President. It stated that racial discrimination adversely affected the ability of urban poor to improve the quality of their environment. In 1979, Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard described the futile attempt of a black neighborhood in Houston, Texas, to block the nearby siting of a hazardous waste landfill. He provided evidence that race, not just income status, was a probable factor in this local land-use decision.
“Environmental justice” became a nationally-recognized issue in 1982, when 500 demonstrators protested the siting of a landfill for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) in a black, low-income neighborhood in Warren County, North Carolina. In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice released a study which looked at all Enivronmental Protection Agency regions in the country and concluded that race, not income status, was the factor most strongly correlated to residence near a hazardous waste site. In addition, two major conferences on environmental justice were held in the early 1990s.
In response to these charges, the Office of Environmental Equity was officially established in late 1992, with a specific directive to deal with environmental impacts affecting minority and low-income communities. In Congress, nine environmental justice bills were introduced in the 103rd Congress. Twenty bills were also introduced in fourteen states during the 1993-94 legislative sessions, with bills signed into law in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.
Linking environmental and racial problems, however, turns the concept of environmental protection on its head. A recent study of the St. Louis (Missouri) area over the past twenty years conducted by Washington University researchers Thomas Lambert and Christopher Boenrner found that the location of low-cost housing, as opposed to outright racial discrimination, was the root cause of claims of environmental racism. They note that “[r]acism may have been a factor in the subsequent migration of these residents to communities hosting polluting facilities,” but judge the problem to be rooted in economics rather than racial prejudice. To resolve the problem, they suggest that the community and local industries pay reparations to residents and provide more community amenities like parks and playgrounds.
The Clinton administration, on the other hand, choses to view the problem as a one-dimensional racial issue. As it has acted on previous issues relating to race, it has embarked on an extensive program aimed at achieving only a statistical balance. Executive Order 12898, issued in February of 1994, mandates that all federal agencies “make environmental justice a part of all they do.” Agencies were required to have environmental justice strategies in place within a year to “collect, maintain, and analyze information that assesses and compares environmental and human health risks borne by populations indentified by race, national origin, or income.” Each agency was additionally ordered to determine whether its programs have a “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations.” As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency now boasts an Office on Environmental Justice, complete with a 24-hour hotline to record any cases of environmental racism.
But neither of these proposals will lead to the environmental goals they seek. The whole premise that environmental hazards are purposely located in minority and low-income communities, through either economics or racism, is misguided at its core. And reliance on bean-couting measures — which create a quick-fix in areas like employment practices and voting-rights — will not be effective in promoting environmental protection. Environmental harm is color-blind, and pays no heed to financial status. Proposed actions to provide only this statistical balance instead of the strong, informed decisionmaking on health and safety issues that is needed just will not cut it.
“Environmental racism” can be more properly understood as a multi-dimensional problem commanding the understanding of a variety of environmental, social, and economic factors. The one unifying concern, however, is the health and safety of the residents of affected communities.
For example, problems with pollution affect groups as diverse as Hispanic farm workers handling pesticides, Asian immigrants working with toxic chemicals in Silicon Valley, Native Americans living near nuclear waste facilities, or urban Blacks who assert that their neighborhoods serve as dumps for polluting industries. No one plan can handle the needs of all of these people and still be effective.
Due to the local community nature of these issues, broad federal solutions are clearly inappropriate. Fundamentally, the decision of where best to place industrial projects should be left with the industry, and should not be turned into a federal racial or social policy issue. Private industry has itself recognized the need to address these issues recognizing that, if ignored, they can lead to increased inspections, restrictive operating conditions, and increased community pressure. The Chemical Manufacturers Association, for example, has developed specific proposals to address “environmental justice” concerns, and now advocates a program called “Responsible Care.” They and others businesses believe that open dialogue between a community and the industries located ther can better respond to concerns of safety, health, and the environment than can the federal government.
Combining “racism” and “pollution” creates a political hand grenade. Attempting to address environmental risks on racial versus environmental grounds misses the point entirely. Toxins do not discriminate, and combatting their spread cannot be equated with a racial issue. Threats to public health must be resolved by any means necessary. Policies that are driven solely by statistics are doomed to failure because they will not address the underlying concerns over health and safety.
Whenever the threat of pollution affecting public health is found, we should address that problem head on. If there is a threat to human health or safety, neither the income nor the race of the neighborhood should matter.
It should never be acceptable to suggest that environmental hazards or toxic risks be addressed on the basis of someone’s race.
Nancie G. Marzulla is the president and chief legal counsel of Defenders of Property Rights.