More Blacks Overburdened with Dangerous Pollution:
AP Study of EPA Risk Scores Confirms Two Decades of EJ Findings

By Robert D. Bullard
The Environmental Justice Resource Center
Monday, December 19, 2005

ATLANTA – This past week the Associated Press released results from its analysis of an EPA research project showing African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. Using EPA's own data and government scientists, the AP More Blacks Live With Pollution study revealed that in 19 states, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution seems to pose the greatest health danger.

The Associated Press analyzed the health risk posed by industrial air pollution using toxic chemical air releases reported by factories to calculate a health risk score for each square kilometer of the United States. The scores can be used to compare risks from long-term exposure to factory pollution from one area to another. The scores are based on the amount of toxic pollution released by each factory, the path the pollution takes as it spreads through the air, the level of danger to humans posed by each different chemical released, and the number of males and females of different ages who live in the exposure paths.

Having the Facts is Not Enough

Although the AP findings are important headline-grabbing news, they are not news to millions of black residents and activists who have labored on the frontline for equal enforcement of the nation's environmental laws. The AP study results confirm a long string of reports that show race maps closely with the geography of pollution and unequal protection.

Historically, African American and other people of color communities have borne a disproportionate burden of pollution from incinerators, smelters, sewage treatment plants, chemical industries, and a host of other polluting facilities. And for over a decade these findings have been chronicled in ground breaking books, including Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (1990), Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (1993), Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color (1996), and The Quest For Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (2005). Environmental racism has rendered millions of blacks "invisible" to government regulations and enforcement.

The risk scores also don't include risks from other types of air pollution, such as automobile exhaust. However, numerous studies show blacks and other people of color concentrated in nonattainment areas that failed to meet EPA ground level ozone standards—pollution mainly from cars, trucks, and buses.

Environmental "Sacrifice Zones"

Pollution and dirty industries have followed the "path of least resistance" allowing many black communities to become environmental "sacrifice zones." This is not a matter of rocket science, but political science—a question of "who gets what, when, why, and how much?" (6)

Slow Government Response

In the real world, all communities are not created equal. If a community happens to be poor, black, or a community of color, it receives less protection than affluent white communities. Government scientists and contractors have spent millions of dollars creating these health risk measures. Now that they have this latest study—and dozens of previous studies—the question is what are they going to do with this information? In the past, government has been slow to respond when the victims are mostly black.

In 1992, after mounting scientific evidence and much prodding from environmental justice advocates, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced its own study, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities, finally acknowledging the fact that some populations shouldered greater environmental health risks than others. The report found "clear differences between racial groups in terms of disease and death rates; racial minority and low-income populations experience higher than average exposures to selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish and agricultural pesticides in the workplace; and great opportunities exist for EPA and other government agencies to improve communication about environmental problems with members of low-income and racial minority groups." (11)

And on February 11, 1994, environmental justice reached the White House when President William J. Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. The Order mandated federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice into all of their works and programs (12).

It is ironic that environmental justice at the U.S. EPA was initiated under the George H. Bush Administration. However, environmental justice has faltered and all but become invisible at the EPA under the George W. Bush Administration. In a 2003 report, Not in My Backyard: Executive Order 12,898 and Title VI as Tools for Achieving Environmental Justice, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that "Minority and low-income communities are most often exposed to multiple pollutants and from multiple sources. . . . There is no presumption of adverse health risk from multiple exposures, and no policy on cumulative risk assessment that considers the roles of social, economic, and behavioral factors when assessing risk." (13)

A March 2004 EPA Office of Inspector General report, EPA Needs to Consistently Implement the Intent of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, sums up the treatment of environmental justice under the Bush administration. After a decade, EPA "has not developed a clear vision or a comprehensive strategic plan, and has not established values, goals, expectations, and performance measurements" for integrating environmental justice into its day-to-day operations (14).

A July 2005 U.S. General Accountability Office report, Environmental Justice: EPA Should Devote More Attention to Environmental Justice When Developing Clean When Developing Clean Air Rules, also criticized EPA for its handling of environmental justice issues when drafting clean air rules (15). And this past July, the EPA was met with a firestorm of public resistance when it proposed eliminating race and income from its Environmental Justice Strategic Plan. The proposal was described as "a giant step backward" and "a road map for other federal agencies to do nothing." (16)

One must ask what would the government response be if the "victims" of environmental injustice were disproportionately white and affluent? A case in point is childhood lead poisoning, a preventable disease, that continues to be the number one environmental health threat to children of color in the United States, especially poor children, children of color, and children living in inner cities (17). Having four decades of lead studies and not acting on them is tantamount to environmental racism. Removing lead from gasoline is hailed as a national environmental and health victory. However, allowing lead-paint in older housing to poison children is a national disgrace.

Environmental Justice for All

The environmental protection apparatus is broken and needs to be fixed. The environmental justice movement has set clear goals of "fixing" this broken system, by eliminating unequal enforcement of environmental and public health laws. Environmental justice leaders have made a difference in the lives of people and the physical environment. They have assisted public decision makers in identifying "at risk" populations, toxic "hot spots," research gaps, and action models to correct existing imbalances and prevent future threats.
Blacks and other impacted communities are not waiting for the government or industry to get their acts together. Waiting for government to respond can be as hazardous as the pollution or threat itself. We all witnessed this in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Grassroots groups have taken the offensive to ensure that government and industry do the right thing. They have formed their own environmental justice movement to hold government and industry accountable. In the end, no community, black or white, rich or poor, should be exposed to unnecessary environmental health risks. Environmental justice is a basic human right.
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Robert D. Bullard directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

 

End Notes

(1) Dee R. Wernette and Leslie A. Nieves, "Breathing polluted air: Minorities are disproportionately exposed," EPA Journal 18 (March/April, 1992): 16-17.
(2) American Lung Association, "Fact Sheet: Children and Air Pollution," (September 2000) found at http://www.lungusa.org/air/children_factsheet99.html. Accessed December 1, 2002.
(3) American Lung Association. Lung Disease Data in Culturally Diverse Communities: 2005. Lung Disease Data at a Glance: Asthma, available at http://www.lungusa.org.
(4) Environmental Defense, "Clean Air for Life: Dirty Air & Your Health. Asthma and Air Pollution," available at http://www.environmentaldefense.org.
(5) "Asthma's At-A-Glance 1999." http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/asthma_old/ataglance/default.htm
(6) Robert D. Bullard, The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005.
(7) Commission for Racial Justice. Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. New York: New York: United Church of Christ, 1987.
(8) "Study: Public Housing is too Often Located Near Toxic Sites." The Dallas Morning News, October 3, 2000, available at http://www.cnn.com/2000/NATURE/10/03/toxicneighbors.ap/
(9) Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign. March 2001. Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions. Falls Church, VA: Center for Health, Environment and Justice; See also http:www.childproofing.org/mapindex.html.
(10) See the Air of Injustice report on the Clear the Air website at http://cta.policy.net/proactive/newsroom/release.vtml?id=23901.
(11) U.S. EPA, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities. Washington, DC: EPA, 1992, p. 1.
(12) William J. Clinton, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, Exec. Order No. 12898," Federal Register, 59, No. 32, February 11, 1994, available at http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/policies/ej/exec_order_12898.pdf#search='executive%20order%2012898'.
(13) U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Not in My Backyard: Executive Order 12898 and Title VI as Tools for Achieving Environmental Justice. Washington, DC: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2003, p. 27.
(14) U.S. EPA Office of Inspector General, EPA Needs to Consistently Implement the Intent of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice: Evaluation Report. Washington, DC: EPA, March 1, 2004, p. 1.
(15) U.S. General Accountability Office, Environmental Justice: EPA Should Devote More Attention to Environmental Justice When Developing Clean Air Rules. Washington, DC: GAO-05-289, July, 2005.
(16) See Robert D. Bullard, "EPA's Draft Environmental Justice Strategic Plan -- A Giant Step Backward" (July 15, 2005), available at http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/BullardDraftEJStrat.html.
(17) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Environmental Diseases from A to Z. NIH Publication No. 96-4145. http://www.nieehs.nih.gov
(18) Alliance for Healthy Homes. "Children at Risk, Disparities in Risk: Childhood Lead Poisoning." www.afhh.org/chil_ar_disparities.htm .
(19) Trust for America's Health, "Browse by Topic: Health Disparities – Lead," http://healthyamericans.org.
(20) See U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2000). MMWR, 49 (RR-14): 1-13; also National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Health Disparities Research (www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/factsheets/disparity/home.htm).
(21) Peter Montague, "Pediatricians Urge a Precautionary Approach to Toxic Lead," September 29, 2005, Rachel's Democracy and Health News, #827 (September 2005), http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/bulletin.cfm?Issue_ID=2513.