Environmental Racism & Toxic Waste Sites

Emily Reed



          This paper explores the role that environmental racism plays a defining where toxic waste sites are located. Minorities are more likely to be living in areas that host hazardous waste facilities. In an era where newer and stronger chemicals are ever evolving, the concern of those living close to these sites is more than justified. It would seem, hazardous waste facilities are a key factor in the disparities that divide America’s upper and lower class. Minority communities are less likely to have the scientific, technical, and legal resources that are necessary to fight these facilities in their communities. It is lack of resources, rather than the lack of motivation of these underprivileged communities to fight back has created the state of environmental racism that we live with today.


The racial and economic divide between America’s upper class and lower class continues to grow. Most visibly, minorities face disadvantages in terms of poverty (black children are three times as likely to be poor as white children), family structure (black children are four times more likely to be in foster care and seven times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children), education (poor black children experience the least qualified teachers, worst education facilities, and fewest resources; in addition black males over 18 represent five percent of the college population and 36 percent of the prison population),employment (black youth have the highest unemployment rate, one in three black high school graduates are employed), income (the gap between black and white males with a master’s degree is $20,000), violence (the number of black children and teens killed by gunfire since 1979 is more than 10 times the number of blacks of all ages lynched in American history), incarceration (in 2008, black adults were incarcerated in state and federal facilities at 6.5 times the rate of white adults) and in health care (black children are 63 percent more likely than white children to be uninsured)(Children’s Defense Fund, 2011). What was once a pyramid of economic distribution has now morphed into an hourglass of inequality (Goldman, 1996). Adding to this vast imbalance is the lesser acknowledged environmental racism, placing minorities at the bottom of yet another grave injustice.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The EPA further defines fair treatment to “mean that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies;” and break down meaningful involvement as:

a)    people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health;

b)    the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision;

c)    their concerns will be considered in the decision making process; and

d)    the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected (Environmental Protection Agency, 2012).

It is also critical to define racism, and more specifically institutional racism. In their initial 1987 study the United Church for Christ Commission for Racial Justice & Public Data Access, Inc. (UCCCRJ & PDA) used the following definition:

Racism is racial prejudice plus power. Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. This use of power is based on a belief in superior racial origin, identity or supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn sustains and perpetuates racism. Both consciously and unconsciously, racism is enforced and maintained by the legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political, environmental and military institutions of societies. Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of that attitude (UCCCRJ & PDA, 1987, p. ix-x).


If in fact minorities (more specifically blacks minorities) are subjected to living near these landfills that could be the reason for the decline in the black life expectancy rate that began to occur during the 1980’s (Goldman, 1996). Lending even more credibility to the claim of environmental racism are data collected by the Children’s Defense Fund (2011), where it was found that more than one in five black children has asthma. A 2007 article in the New York Amsterdam News by Poirier reported that in places like the South Bronx, 25 percent of the children have asthma despite trees and gardens being wide spread in the area, this is where most of New York City’s waste is deposited and incinerated.  The ill effects of toxic waste exposure go beyond respiratory conditions to include cancer, heart disease, and more.

Warren County, North Carolina 1982

          In protest to the government’s proposal to create a polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) dump site, civil rights leaders from across the country united with local activists in the autumn of 1982. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals. Warren County has the highest percentage of African Americans and some of the poorest residents of any other county in the state. Warren County was a poor choice for a dump site due to the fact that water table is just five feet below the ground at some points, and the majority of residents drink well water. In protest to this injustice, over 500 people were arrested, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) requested an injunction to stop the delivery of PCBs to the site on the basis of racial discrimination. Despite their best efforts the truckloads of PCBs could not be stopped. This demonstration marked the beginning of a grassroots movement directed toward environmental justice. Not long after being arrested, Warren County Congressman Walter Fauntroy, requested a report from the General Accounting Office on the demographics of southern communities with toxic waste sites (Goldman, 1991).

Initial Studies

          In 1983 a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report requested by Congressman Fauntroy was published. The review was focused on offsite landfills, those not part of or adjoining to an industrial facility, and was completed using 1980 census data.  It was found that three of the four commercial toxic waste landfills in the in the Southeastern United States were located in primarily black communities. In addition in all four of the landfills, 26 percent or more of the population have income below the poverty level, the majority of which is black. The report also noted that federal legislation requires public participation in the permitting process. The requirement however does not apply to PCBs, which are regulated under separate legislation. It is also revealed that due to delays in issuing final regulations three of the four landfills have not undergone the final permit process which requires public participation. The fourth landfill is a PCB landfill which is not required to be subjected to public participation, although that facility did (United States General Accounting Office, 1983).

          The 1983 GAO report looked at each of the four sites specifically. One of which was the Warren County case above. The federal government created a special provision in the Toxic Substances Control Act due to the potential for environmental harm, which requires PCB land fill locations to be: (a) with silt and clay soils, (b) in terrain of low to moderate relief, (c) above the historical groundwater table, and (d) protected from floods (United States General Accounting Office, 1983, p. 4). The Warren County landfill was created to dispose of PCBs that were illegally dumped during 1978 along 241 miles of North Carolina roads. In addition to the federal guidelines, the state asked that the waste site be: (a) bounded by the counties where the PCB spills had occurred, (b) with a minimum area of 16 acres, (c) isolated from highly populated areas, and (d) accessible by road with deeded right of way floods (United States General Accounting Office, 1983, p. 9). Of the 90 proposed sites it was ultimately placed in Warren County. The landfill is located on 5 acres in the middle of a 142 acre area, which acts as a buffer zone. According to the state prepared Environmental Impact Statement, the site meets the requirements for federal topography, hydrology, and soil conditions as well as the state requirements. It is because of these specific criteria which were evaluated for the 90 proposed sites and fulfilled by one that the courts were able to reject the claim from the local NAACP on the basis of racial discrimination. The court stated that “race was not an issue because throughout all the Federal and State hearings, and the private party suits, it was never suggested that race was a motivating factor in the location of the landfill. . . . Various criteria and standards were used in selecting the sites, and Warren County was chosen mainly because of site availability” (United States General Accounting Office, 1983).

Following the GAO study the UCCCRJ & PDA (1987), conducted the first study into “environmental racism”. Unlike the 1983 GAO study, this study was performed on a national scale. This study revealed five major findings with regards to the demographic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste facilities:

a)    Race was found to be the most significant variable in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities; this finding was a consistent national pattern.


b)    Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents. Those communities with two or more facilities or one of the five largest facilities have a minority population three times that of communities without facilities.


c)    In communities with one commercial hazardous waste facility the minority population two times that of communities without facilities.


d)    Socioeconomic status appears to play a major role in the location of facilities, race was still more significant. Incomes and home values were substantially lower in communities with facilities compared to those without.

Three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste facilities were located in predominantly Black or Hispanic communities (UCCCRJ & PDA, 1987).

An update to the 1983 study was performed in 1994 by Goldman and Fitton finding that people of color were now even more likely than whites to live in communities with commercial toxic waste facilities than 10 years prior.

Opposing Studies

          These findings have been questioned over the years by different researchers using various methods, comparing the areas by ZIP code or by census tract, and through different methodology’s and definitions used to define “racial minorities” (United States General Accounting Office, 1995). A major problem with the study of hazardous waste sites and environmental justice is that it has yet to be determined how much potential risk is generated by these facilities nor has a relationship been established between this risk and the distance from the site (Anderton et al, 1994). A 1994 study by Anderton et al, concluded with three major findings in regards to the location of Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities (TSDFs). First, the appearance of equity in the location of TSDFs is dependent heavily on how the impacted areas are defined. Secondly, that when using census tract areas TSDFs are no more likely to be located in tracts with higher percentages of minorities than other tracts. And finally the most constant and significant factors related to the location of TSDFs is their being located in areas with larger proportions of workers employed in industrial activities. Anderton et al did find that Hispanics, rather than Blacks, do have larger proportions found near TSDFs in a variety of geographic comparisons. Only when looking at single regions in the country where the Blacks and Hispanics are most well represented, do they find evidence that TSDFs are more likely to be placed in tracts with greater proportions of minorities. Within the metropolitan areas containing TSDFs there were no nationally consistent and convincing evidence of environmental inequity (Anderton et al, 1994).

Geography Locations & Monetary Influence

          Krieg (1998) argues that two dominant factors work together and are strongly associated with the geographic locations of toxic waste sites; community tax structures and the socioeconomic standing of the community. Communities that are welcoming to commercial and industrial businesses are more productive because they recruit, have room for, and are in need of economic development. Communities of working-class and lower-class individuals tend to offer cheaper land and less political challenges. These communities may be dependent on maintaining commercial and industrial sources of monies; this has an enormous impact on how industrial businesses in particular view the community’s potential for investment. This tax structure creates an atmosphere where capital can shift the costs onto a third party. Economic activities often occur at the expense of the environmental quality of these communities. Poor communities and communities of color, lack the control capacity to provide social conditions conducive to cost externalization (Krieg, 1998).

          Krieg’s 1998 study of the Boston area and the surrounding 128 area provided more insight into the role that money plays in the divide of environmental justice. The 128 area was developed after the Boston area and provided lower class land for industrial businesses causing businesses to relocate from the Boston area. The Boston area creates one waste site for every 18,500 residents, while the 128 area contains one site for every 7,406 residents. The 128 area has highly concentrated “production” towns where the waste sites are located. Krieg finds that the toxic waste crisis is becoming suburbanized, and working-class towns are at a greater risk than middle-class towns. Overall toxic waste sites are more likely to be found in communities that rely on commercial and industrial sources for a large percentage of their total tax base (Krieg, 1998).

Minority Health

          The 1980’s marked an astounding decline in the health conditions of African-Americans and other minorities in the United States. Setterberg and Shavelson (1993) in their book Toxic Nation, which documents multiple case studies of hazardous waste sites across the U.S., write that “diseases considered on the verge of eradication on five years earlier [1970’s] were staging a huge return among the inner-city and rural poor: Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities faced skyrocketing rates of tuberculosis, hepatitis A, syphilis, gonorrhea, measles, mumps, whooping cough, complicated ear infections, and AIDS (p. 224).” A previous study in 1990 by McCord and Freeman, on the pronounced mortality rates in Harlem, New York gives a more in depth analysis of the problem. Harlem is 96 percent black and has been consistently so since before World War I. The largest group of the Harlem population at the time of the study lives in substandard housing, much of this in abandoned or partially occupied buildings. Since 1950 Central Harlem had consistently had the highest infant mortality rate and one of the highest crude mortality rates in the city.  This study made an interesting comparison between the African-Americans of Harlem and the residents of an area in rural Bangladesh, categorized by the World Bank as one of the lowest income countries in the world. For men, the survival rate beyond 40 years is lower in Harlem than in Bangladesh; for women survival to 65 years is slightly higher in Harlem due to the extremely high death rate of girls under the age of 5 in Bangladesh. Overall the death rates for individuals between the ages of 5 and 65 were worse in Harlem than Bangladesh (McCord & Freeman, 1990). For many, the national decline in African-American health and the multitude of toxic dump sites and incinerators in minority communities was an association that could not be ignored (Setterberg & Shavelson, 1993).

          A more recent study by Williams (1999) provides a newer, but much the same insight. Within the United States race and ethnicity predict variations in health. African-Americans have an overall death rate 1.6 times higher than the White population; while the overall mortality rate for African-Americans has declined over time, the morality rates for cancer, diabetes, suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, and homicide is higher in 1995 than it was in 1950. Williams notes that redlining by banks results in the “disproportionate representation of undesirable land uses, such as deserted factories, warehouses, and landfills in segregated areas. Persons who reside in segregated neighborhoods may also be disproportionately exposed to environmental toxins and poor-quality housing. (p. 183).”

Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty

          In 2007 the UCCCRJ commissioned a follow-up from their 1987 study, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty. Just as the original study cited Warren County’s battle with the PCB dump site, this report refers to two events that bring environmental justice to the larger community’s attention again. One of which was the Danvers, Massachusetts explosion of a small factory where ink and paint were made.  Although the community of Danvers is primarily white, it paints a picture of the danger that TSDF’s pose even when operated according to accepted specifications.

          On November 22, 2006 the small factory which housed two companies (CAI Inc. and Arnel Co.) exploded damaging 270 homes and commercial buildings, 16 of which were destroyed and caused the evacuation of 300 people. The explosion was caused by a buildup of chemical vapors inside the plant because a worker had turned off the ventilation system while a vat of chemicals was being heated. Although the worker was adamant that he turned off the heat when he left, the factory exploded at 2:46am. The factory was in violation of safety regulations for handling flammable chemicals, and was not properly inspected by state and federal agencies. The final report of the explosion produced recommendations to improve agencies. The final report of the explosion produced recommendations to improve the governing of the storage of flammable chemicals in communities across the country (Ellement, 2008; McCabe, 2008).

          Since the original study, empirical studies have found there to be adverse health, property values, and quality of life impacts within a three kilometer (1.8 miles) around hazardous waste sites. This has provided a more standardized measure of an impact area than was previously available. On a national scale, Bullard, Mohai, Saha, & Wright (2008) finds that 3.3% of the U.S. population (over 9 million people) live within this three kilometer radius. Using the 2000 census, 56% of those neighborhoods within the radius are people of color although the non-host areas are 30% people of color, making it 1.9 times more likely for people of color to live in host neighborhoods. Other disparities in host neighborhoods include: 1.5 times higher poverty rates; mean annual household income that is 15% lower; mean owner occupied housing values that are disproportionality lower; and the percentage of persons 25 years and over with a four year college degree are much lower than in non-host neighborhoods (Bullard et al, 2008). It is important to note that these disparities correspond with the racial and economic divide of America’s upper and lower class cited in the introduction. Neighborhoods with clustered facilities are at an even greater risk of racial disparities. People of color have an even higher percentage of residents in clustered facility areas (69%) than with non-clustered facility areas (51%); the percentage of African Americans (29% vs. 16%) and Hispanics (33% vs. 25%). The same is true of the previously noted socioeconomic factors as well: poverty rates (22% vs. 17%); mean household income (10% lower); and mean housing values (14% lower) (Bullard et al, 2008).

          When analyzed by state, the disparities continue. Fifty-three percent of the TSDF’s 220 facilities are located in ten states: California (45); Texas (33); Pennsylvania (23); Ohio (21); Michigan (19); New York (18); Illinois (16), Indiana (16); Missouri (15); and New Jersey (14). In both California and Nevada, a shocking high in the differences in percentages of people of color in host and non-host areas is about 80%. Previous studies have suggested the need for an analysis of metropolitan area disparities dues to the fact that the statewide disparities may in part echo the fact that most hazardous waste facilities are located in metropolitan areas where people of color generally reside. Nationwide it is found that 98% of the total population living in host neighborhoods resides in metropolitan areas. To compare these metropolitan areas are compared against non-host areas in all 331 U.S. metropolitan areas that lie beyond the three kilometer circular area around host neighborhoods. Using these measures people of color are more likely to be in host neighborhoods (57%) than in non-host neighborhoods (33%). In terms of socioeconomic factors poverty rates are higher (18% vs. 12%) and mean household incomes and housing values are roughly 20% lower in host neighborhoods. Six of these metropolitan areas hold half of all people of color living in close proximity to all of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities: Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, and Orange County, CA (Bullard et al, 2008).

          The true effects of race can only be determined when statistically controlling for the socioeconomic factors believed to be associated with it. When this is done, it was found that the higher the people of color percentages the more likely a census tract is to be within the three kilometer radius of a hazardous waste facility. Mean income and percentage of people employed in blue collar occupations are found to be independently associated with hazardous waste facility locations. The conclusions reached by this study using more advanced methods than previously available, are much the same as they were in 1987. People of color were found to be more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously found (Bullard et al, 2008).


The threat that is posed to communities containing toxic waste facilities and to those greater problems the facilities are producing in our atmosphere are more well-known now than when the struggles of Warren County began in 1982. However, long terms effects and technological advancements producing newer and stronger toxins make this a continuously evolving problem. It can be argued that no person should be living in a community housing one of these facilities as the full effects have yet to be realized.

Minorities are in fact more likely to be living in areas within neighborhoods that host hazardous waste facilities. It does also seem probable that the hazardous waste facilities are a key factor in the disparities that divide America’s upper and lower class. Minority communities are less likely to have the scientific, technical, and legal resources that are necessary to fight these facilities in their communities. Until a greater balance of resources can be achieved between America’s upper and lower class, it is unlikely that balance of environmental or any other kind of justice to be achieved.


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