…And Environmental Justice for All?

Christopher H. Foreman, Jr
Chris Foreman
Christopher H. Foreman, Jr Former Brookings Expert, Former Professor and Director of the Social Policy Program - University of Maryland (College Park) School of Public Policy

December 1, 1997

On February 11, 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order titled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority and Low Income Populations.” The administration therewith announced that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal programs would begin “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects…on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States.”

Described thus, “environmental justice” (also called “environmental equity”) certainly seems a reasonable concern. After all, minorities and low-income persons suffer disproportionately from many illnesses and often cannot obtain adequate health care. And because lack of money or education can seriously limit residential and employment options, such persons might have more difficulty avoiding polluted localities. Moreover, communities populated largely by minorities or low-income persons might be politically weak and thus more susceptible than affluent neighborhoods to becoming locales for dumps, waste-treatment plants, and other land uses unwanted by residents in the vicinity. And if pollution causes disease, such susceptibility could be very important.

A Movement Is Born

But some troubling misconceptions accompany these plausible arguments. The executive order and related EPA policy innovations stemmed from allegations by the “environmental justice” (EJ) movement of institutionalized “environmental racism.”

The EJ movement is a diverse coalition of “people of color” grassroots organizations and their allies. EJ activism, like most other forms of grassroots environmentalism, differs somewhat from traditional—”hiking, biking, and spotted owls”—environmentalism. Escalating public concern about toxic pollutants (especially hazardous waste) in the wake of the Love Canal scare of 1980, and the costly congressional overreaction to that scare (Superfund), heightened the visibility and credibility of appeals based on purported environmental hazards in minority communities.

Suddenly, environmentalism wasn’t just a “middle-class white folks” issue. The EJ movement made its first splash in 1982, with a protest against a proposed landfill for PCB-contaminated soil in Warren County, North Carolina. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested in the failed endeavor to prevent the landfill. District of Columbia Congressional delegate Walter Fauntroy returned from Warren County to spur the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress, to pursue an inquiry.

Shallow Evidence

The GAO found that predominately Black communities were the sites of three of the four “offsite” (i.e., not adjacent to or part of an industrial facility) hazardous-waste landfills in a region comprising eight southeastern states. That the GAO could not address whether these landfills would affect the health of the populations living near them did not deter the activists from using the GAO’s findings as evidence of significant pollution-burden disparities between races and between income groups.

In 1987, a few years after the release of the GAO report, the United Church of Christ (UCC)’s Commis-sion for Racial Justice unveiled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites—a classic of advocacy research (research influenced by outcome preference and a policy agenda)—at the National Press Club, in Washington, DC. The UCC report—which had not undergone prepublication peer review—suggested a correlation between race and the likelihood of living near either a commercial hazardous-waste facility or an “uncontrolled” toxic-waste site: “Residential ZIP code areas with the highest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities also had the highest mean percentage” of minority residents. According to the report, minorities averaged 24 percent of the total population in ZIP Code (postal-delivery) areas with a commercial hazardous-waste facility, but in ZIP Code areas without such a facility minorities averaged only 12 percent.

But the UCC report also stated, in passing, that more than half the population of the United States lived in ZIP Code areas with a commercial hazardous-waste facility. In any case, such facilities process only a small fraction (perhaps 4 percent) of all hazardous waste in the United States. The UCC report did not provide a comprehensive picture of the distribution of hazardous waste in the U.S., much less evidence of social disparity in that distribution. Moreover, the report did not provide any information on exposure, much less on the possible health consequences thereof.

The UCC report also suggested that minorities were disproportionately endangered by “uncontrolled” toxic-waste sites—i.e., any site specified in the EPA’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liabilities Information System (CERCLIS)—stating that “three out of every five Black and Hispanic Americans” lived in communities with such sites. But since the 1987 release of the UCC report, the EPA has pronounced 27,000 of what originally were 40,000 “uncontrolled” toxic-waste sites clean or of little or no risk.

The cry of “environmental racism,” buoyed by misleading research, is belied by more careful studies. For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts based their study not on ZIP Code areas, but on census tracts. Census tracts are both smaller and more definable as neighborhoods than ZIP Code areas. The researchers found that commercial hazardous-waste facilities “are no more likely to be located in tracts with higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics than in other tracts.”

In 1992 several partisan EJ papers were published as a group in The National Law Journal without prepublication peer review. The articles purported to show racial discrimination in the environmental enforcement process, claiming: (a) that hazardous-waste sites in nonminority communities became members of the National Priorities List of Superfund sites more quickly than did those in minority communities, and (b) that penalties imposed for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act were lighter in minority communities.

But this study had “serious statistical methodological problems,” according to Bernard R. Siskin, Ph.D., a statistician retained by the EPA. These problems included the presentation of statistically insignificant findings. Dr. Siskin ascribed the aforementioned time-lag claim to a “failure . . . to account for the correct date on which the site is first discovered.”

Even the GAO, whose 1983 report had provided EJ partisans with ammunition, concluded in a much more elaborate (and widely ignored) 1995 study: “The percentage of minorities and low-income people living within one mile of nonhazardous municipal landfills was more often lower than the percentage in the rest of the country. When the data from our sample were used to make estimates about all nonhazardous municipal landfills in the nation, neither minorities nor low-income people were overrepresented in any consistent manner.”

Color Them Egalitarian

Unsettling as the attachment of EJ activists to dubious empirical findings may be, such attachment is not the movement’s only serious shortcoming. Another serious, but more subtle, defect is its very nature as a diverse coalition of grassroots groups seeking “redress” of an unlimited number of grievances. For example, Native American activists are often spurred by tribal-culture and sovereignty concerns, while others focus on occupational exposure to chemicals among migrant farmworkers. All such constituencies have been encouraged to vent their claims to the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) and to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), the activist-dominated federal advisory committee with which the OEJ closely collaborates.

This diverse “people of color” coalition could not be maintained without faith in the illusion that priorities and tradeoffs are unnecessary. In the world of EJ activism (as in grassroots environmentalism generally), all environmental concerns—childhood lead poisoning, global climate change, nuclear waste, pesticide use, Superfund sites, urban air pollution, and so forth—have equal rank. Of course, prioritization of these concerns would result in neglect of some of them and contention among members of the coalition.

Prioritization of environmental issues is at variance with what makes the EJ movement tick: egalitarianism. In the realm of such activism, the downgrading of any concern amounts to something intolerable to many activists: victimization. The only priority shared by grassroots activists of all ethnicities is citizen involvement. It seems never to have occurred to many activists that the attention they demand for minor, unsubstantiated, or nonexistent problems might distract attention from serious real-life problems, such as lead exposure among urban minority children.

In the final analysis, EJ activism is not a public health movement but a loose aggregation of advocates for grassroots democracy and social justice—including, at an extreme, some who oppose industrial capitalism. Its major political aims include unifying residents and increasing their collective profiles in policy debates and governmental decision-making. Its ultimate aim is to reallocate society’s resources. Because of these aims, the movement can ill afford pursuing a health-centered agenda; alleged health hazards that do not readily outrage the public have little utility in mobilizing citizens. Personal danger due to personal behavior—such as smoking—tends not to outrage the public and thus lacks such utility. More useful for mobilization purposes are alleged hazards perceivable as having been imposed on communities by corporations (especially those considered intrusive) or by governmental entities that appear distant, unaccountable, or racist.

An understanding of the fundamental ideals of the EJ movement (and of grassroots environmentalism overall)—democratization and wealth redistribution—facilitates comprehension of the activists’ persistent emphasis on such minor or weakly documented hazards as dioxin, environmental “hormone disrupters,” or most toxic-waste sites. These ideals also account for the movement’s acceptance of intuition as a means of perceiving risk. This is exemplified by the longevity of the thoroughly debunked folklore that the concentration of petrochemical facilities in Louisiana created a “cancer alley.”

On the other hand, because smoking is both voluntary and common, tobacco use is not an EJ issue. The approximately 47,000 annual tobacco-related deaths in the African-American community elicit little outrage among EJ activists, partly because these deaths are perceived as proportionate. Even the remarkably high smoking rates among low-income and Native-American citizens provoke little activist concern.

Urban Tobacco Roads

In a change of pace, minority activists tackled a worthy issue in 1990 when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company proposed to pitch “Uptown,” a then-forthcoming cigarette brand, to the African-American market. This issue had all the elements most useful for mobilizing a community: A distinct, formidable, outside entity explicitly announced that it would target an ethnic group for the marketing of a new and tangible source of harm. Once Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, an African-American, publicly denounced R.J. Reynolds for fostering a “culture of cancer” in the Black community, the company canceled test-marketing of “Uptown.”

If only corporations would propose to burn tobacco in urban incinerators, or to bury it in minority-neighborhood landfills. Now that would be an environmental justice issue!