Researchers Find More Hazardous Waste Facilities Located in Minority Areas

Environmental justice scholars have claimed that hazardous waste facilities are disproportionately placed in poor, minority neighborhoods. New research from the University of Michigan (U-M) supports these arguments.

One assertion is that the hazardous waste facilities came first, which causes the neighborhood demographics to change. As that argument goes, the more affluent white people move out, and poorer minority people are forced to stay or move in, said Paul Mohai, a professor in the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment.

However, the study concluded that minorities were living in the areas where hazardous waste facilities decided to locate before the facilities arrived. Mohai -- who conducted the research in collaboration with Robin Saha, a former U-M Ph.D. student and post-doctoral scholar, now an assistant professor at University of Montana -- also found that the demographics in the neighborhoods were already changing and that white residents had already started to move out when the facility was sited.

"What we discovered is that there are demographic changes after the siting but they started before the siting," Mohai said. "Our argument is that what's likely happening is the area is going through a demographic shift, and it lowers the social capital and political clout of the neighborhood so it becomes the path of least resistance."

Mohai presented the findings during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held Feb. 15-19. The discussion was part of a panel he co-organized, called Environmental Justice 20 years After "Toxic Waste and Race," which was the name of the groundbreaking study of environmental justice that put the movement on the map 20 years ago.

The most basic interpretation of the findings, Mohai said, is that they verify what the environmental justice movement has argued for decades, that poorer minority neighborhoods are more often chosen for hazardous waste facilities than more affluent white neighborhoods. Therefore, policies that intervene in the siting process are very important, Mohai said.

"Policies to deal with environmental injustice by managing the siting and permitting process could be a waste of time and money if the demographic changes after siting explain why the disparity occurs," Mohai said. However, based on this study, such policies are exactly what's needed.

Mohai and Saha arrived at the numbers using a different way of analyzing the data that more accurately reflects the populations that live within a certain radius of the waste facility. Historically, such studies have relied on census tract data, which doesn't always accurately reflect who is impacted by the facility, the researchers said.

Using the new method, researchers have found that racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities are much greater than previous studies have shown. Furthermore, the disparities persist even when controlling for economic and sociopolitical variables, suggesting that racial targeting, housing discrimination and other factors uniquely associated with race influence the location of the nations' hazardous waste facilities.

Between 1966 and 1975, 81 facilities were sited nationally. These were located disproportionately where minorities were concentrated, Mohai's study found. Furthermore, using 1970 census data, Mohai found that whites moved out in large numbers after a waste disposal siting in the community. In 1970, 1.5 million whites lived within a 3-kilometer radius of a waste facility, but in 2000, numbers had dropped to 1.1 million. By contrast, the African American population in the same areas remained flat.

Between 1976 and 1985, 156 facilities were sited nationally, also located disproportionately where minorities were concentrated. Although the number of whites dropped from 2.3 million when sited to about 1.9 million in 2000, while African American numbers remained flat, it was found that whites were already moving out before the facilities were sited. In that same time period, the number of Hispanics in the areas around the sites rose from 300,000 to 900,000, but again their numbers were already changing before the facilities were sited.

From 1986 to 1995, the findings were a bit different, but there were still demographic changes happening that foreshadowed the changing demographic. Again, the facilities were located disproportionately where minorities were concentrated. The number of whites living within 3 kilometers of 84 waste facilities stayed flat at about 975,000 until the facility moved in, then the white population fell to about 900,000. Hispanic, black and Asian populations all were rising sharply before and after the facilities moved in.

Also during the AAAS meeting, Mohai, Bullard, (Robin) Saha, and Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, released a report serving as a 20th anniversary follow-up to the original report on toxic waste and race in the United States. The new report measures what has happened in the last 20 years in terms of environmental injustice. The report uses the new methods in Mohai's AAAS presentation to do a better job of matching where people and hazardous sites are located. The report also takes stock of the environmental justice movement itself, presents a timeline and assessments of the movement, and gives testimonials from key people about the impact of the original 1987 report. The title of the report is "Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty 1987-2007, Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States."

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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