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Environmental Justice In New York

Pollution High Where Income Is Low

... Environmental activists say New York state isn't doing enough to protect minority communities like the South End neighborhood from being disproportionately saddled with sites that potentially pollute the environment.

The Citizens' Environmental Coalition released a report Thursday, finding that communities with a minority population of at least 70 percent have about 18 percent of the state's air pollution sites but only make up about .5 percent of the land area.

... By comparison, communities with a minority population of up to 10 percent have about 37 percent of both the state's air pollution sites and hazardous materials sites, but make up about 84 percent of the land area.

Distressing, but not surprising. It's odd, though, that the headline talks about poverty, but the report (pdf) doesn't analyze income directly. There may be a political element to that decision -- many environmental racism discussions get sidetracked into arguments over whether class or race is the stronger explanatory variable, so the CEC may be trying to keep the focus on race. But I do wonder about the influence of income in the context of New York state. While visual inspection of the maps* indicates that hazardous sites are predominantly concentrated in urban areas, it's not clear whether that's proportional to their population. It's also not clear how many of them are active sites versus old contamination that hasn't been cleaned up. My impression of New York hazardous materials politics suggests that due to land pressures in the city (the city being responsible for creating most of the toxins) there's a desire in many quarters to ship crap upstate, where the population is white but incredibly poor. It also makes me wonder about the differential impacts of environmental hazards on rural versus urban poor (or rural versus urban minorities, or black versus Native American communities) -- they're different forms of poverty, which would lead to different patterns of exposure and means of coping.

The report also contained this, which indicates that the "environmental justice for all" view is widespread in the Republican Party:
Governor Pataki said that his programs are ensuring that all children, regardless of where they live, can have access to clean air and water, and pristine open land. Our findings counter this statement. Clearly, people of color are more likely to bear the burden for pollution sources. The Governor did make a start by directing the Department of Environmental Conservation to develop an Environmental Justice plan to provide additional public participation and full environmental investigations in areas with high concentrations of people of color or low-income communities. But is increased public participation or are full investigations enough, if facilities continue to be sited in already overburdened areas?

*It's strangely entertaining to watch Adobe Reader slowly fill in all the symbols indicating toxic sites -- New York City has so many toxic sites that on the state-level map it seems to crawl and writhe as if it were full of beetles.


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