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Toxic Wastes and Race

In 1987, the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice issued Toxic Wastes and Race, a report documenting the disproportionate number of people of color living near toxic facilities. The report played a key role in catalyzing the environmental justice movement and bringing national attention to the issue. The UCC recently produced a follow-up report, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty (pdf), that uses improved GIS methodology and 2000 census data to update the 1987 report's conclusions. It's a long report, but it's worth reading at least the executive summary to get a picture of the grim situation facing our country.

Key points of the new report are:

1. Race is a strong predictor of the location of toxic waste sites, and it remains highly significant after class variables (income, education, blue vs white collar) are controlled for. Nationwide, there are nearly two times as many people of color living within 3 km of a toxic waste facility as living farther out. Racial disparities are highest for Latinos, but not statistically significant for Native Americans. We should be careful, though, not to take that result as indicating that Native Americans are not the victims of environmental injustices. The report dealt only with toxic waste facilities, which are disproportionately located in urban areas, while it did not consider such environmental harms as water-borne pollution that travels more than 5 km. Also, environmentally destructive activities often impact Native lands (official or traditional/culturally significant) without necessarily being within a few kilometers of Native houses. (Indeed, this raises a larger methodological issue, in that impacts on a person are typically judged strictly by where that person sleeps at night, rather than other places they may occupy, such as work sites, or other locations that are important to them even if they're not physically present, like a sacred mountain.)

2. The situation is worse than the original Toxic Wastes and Race report indicated. The original report simply said that if you lived in the same ZIP code as a toxic facility, you are affected, and if not, you're not. The new report uses more sophisticated GIS techniques to include anyone living within a specified distance of a facility, regardless of where the census tract boundaries fall. This methodological change significantly increases the measured racial and class disparities.

3. Environmental justice has improved only a negligible amount between 1990 and 2000. During the 1990s there was an enormous increase in environmental justice activism, and numerous significant victories in places like Kettleman City and West Harlem. So the lack of nationwide improvement suggests the scale of the forces pressing toward environmentally unjust outcomes. Further, it's likely that the situation has worsened even more since 2000. The report describes a number of recent federal-level setbacks. These include the 2001 SCOTUS decision in Alexander v Sandoval striking down the key EJ legal argument that unintentional disparate impacts violate the Civil Rights Act, and the Bush EPA's persistent failure to implement the environmental justice policies called for in Clinton's Executive Order 12898.

4. Churches are key players in the fight for environmental justice. The report doesn't address this issue explicitly, but its very existence as a publication of the United Church of Christ testifies to the importance of the church. The (deserved) praise heaped on white evangelicals for their newfound interest in addressing climate change can sometimes obscure the long history of black and Latino churches providing organizational skills, resources, and inspiration for environmental justice struggles.


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