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Environmental Racism

Environmental racism

The term environmental racism was coined in a 1987 study conducted by the United Church of Christ that examined the location of hazardous waste dumps and found an "insidious form of racism." Concern had surfaced five years before, when opposition to a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill prompted Congress to examine the location of hazardous waste sites in the Southeast, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Region IV. They found that three of the four facilities in the area were in communities primarily inhabited by people of color. Subsequent studies, such as Ben Goldman's The Truth about Where You Live, have contended that exposure to environmental risks is significantly greater for racial and ethnic minorities than for nonminority populations. However, an EPA study contends that there is not enough data to draw such broad conclusions.

The National Law Journal found that official response to environmental problems may be racially biased. According to their study, penalties for environmental crimes were higher in white communities. They also found that the EPA takes 20% longer to place a hazardous waste site in a minority community on the Superfund's National Priorities List (NPL). And, once assigned to the NPL, these clean ups are more likely to be delayed.

Advocates also contend that environmentalists and regulators have tried to solve environmental problems without regard for the social impact of the solutions. For example, the Los Angeles Air Quality Management District wanted to require businesses to set up programs that would discourage their employees from driving to work. As initially conceived, employers could have simply charged fees for parking spaces without helping workers set up car pools. The Labor-Community Strategy Center, a local activist group, pointed out that this would have disproportionately affected people who could not afford to pay for parking spaces. As a compromise, regulators will now review employers' plans and only approve those that mitigate the any unequal effects on poor and minority populations.

In response to the concern that traditional environmentalism does not recognize the social and economic components of environmental problems and solutions, a national movement for "environmental and economic justice" has spread across the country. Groups like the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice attempt to frame the environment as part of the fight against racism and other inequalities.

In addition, the federal government has begun to address the debate over environmental racism. In 1992, the EPA established an Environmental Equity office. In addition, several bills that advocate environmental justice have been introduced.

See also Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA); Environmental economics; Environmental law; Hazardous waste siting; South

[Alair MacLean ]



Alston, D., ed. We Speak for Ourselves: Social Justice, Race and Environment. Washington, DC: The Panos Institute, 1990.

Goldman, B. A. The Truth About Where You Live: An Atlas for Action on Toxins and Mortality. New York: Times Books, 1991.

Lee, C. Toxic Wastes ad Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. New York: United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial Justice, 1987.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk for All Communities: Report to the Administrator from the EPA Environmental Equity Workgroup. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.

U.S. General Accounting Office. Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983.


Russell, D. "Environmental Racism." Amicus Journal 11 (Spring 1989): 2232.

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