The Clash of Purposes: Environmental Justice and Risk Assessment

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

March 20, 1998

Ensuring that authorities effectively address any disproportionate risks borne by low-income and minority communities has been a central theme of advocates for “environmental justice.” Since the early 1980s the environmental justice movement, a diverse coalition of grassroots activist organizations and their allies, has charged that communities of color have too often been the “invisible man” of environmentalism—underrepresented in environmental organizations and policy processes. The result, say activists, is that communities of color have been unfairly victimized by polluted sites and inadequate environmental law enforcement. The most strident rhetoric goes even further, asserting that such communities have been routinely targeted for environmental poisons, leading to higher rates of chronic illness, including cancer. “Environmental racism” is the incendiary label often applied to such claims (Risk Policy Report, Oct. 17, 1997, p. 13.)

But when you clear away all the smoke blown over risk and racism in recent years, there turns out to be remarkably little good evidence demonstrating that low-income and minority citizens regularly bear a disproportionate share of society’s environmental risk, much less that they develop pollution-related illnesses more often than other citizens. Perhaps more interestingly, a close examination of environmental justice activism makes abundantly clear that, despite persistent rhetoric to the contrary, the movement is actually not terribly risk-driven after all. And anyone hoping for the day when EPA and state environmental authorities have a reliable analytic handle on disproportionate risk borne by environmental justice constituencies should receive fair warning: don’t hold your breath.

To be sure, we are more likely to find certain environmental risks in closer proximity to poor people than to wealthier ones. An EPA task force on environmental equity, created in July 1990 by administrator William Reilly in the wake of activist prodding, determined that one problem—lead exposure—stood out in the data as a particular threat among low-income black youngsters. There probably are other industrial substances having a greater cumulative adverse impact on minorities than on whites—toxic residue ingested via low-income and subsistence fisheries is often mentioned—but any resulting disproportionate disease incidence has thus far eluded science.

The lens of environmental justice can blind one to the big picture. Lots of low-income and minority folks live and work in cities. Anyone who does is almost certainly breathing dirtier air than anyone who doesn’t. And no one disputes that a fair amount of what migrates into urban airsheds would ideally not be there, especially the ozone that, as a significant respiratory irritant, EPA aims to reduce further. Ozone can help trigger asthma attacks, and African Americans suffer disproportionately from asthma. But these observations hardly add up to a compelling rationale for racialized clean air politics and policies.

By the same token, New Jersey is renowned for having more hazardous waste than any other state. Would anyone claim that the size of that state’s minority population in any way explains this? One might pose the same question about the notorious Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington state, or even the infamous (and vastly overblown) Love Canal and Times Beach episodes of years ago. Recent and careful studies do not bear out the claim of regular or systematic ethnic bias either in facility siting or in cleanup decision making. Though activists have a hard time accepting it, racism simply doesn’t appear to be a significant factor in our national environmental decision making.

Anyone who has closely watched the environmental justice movement over the years has heard two phrases repeated with an almost mantra-like regularity. One is “cancer alley.” The other is “multiple, cumulative and synergistic risk.” In movement lore, “Cancer Alley” endures as perhaps the clearest example of environmental harm disproportionately borne by communities of color. Trouble is, careful research refutes the allegation. On the other hand, the cry of “multiple, cumulative and synergistic risk” bundles a partly disingenuous plea for more research along with an intuitively appealing presumption that minority and low-income communities face substantial environmental risks that remain unrecognized and unassessed. But the plea is disingenuous because activists have no intention whatsoever of using risk assessment, however careful, to guide their advocacy priorities.

“Cancer Alley” refers to the roughly 85-mile industrial corridor stretching from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to New Orleans, said to be home to a quarter of the nation’s petrochemical production. Some residents have been convinced for years that living in the area carries with it significant additional cancer risk. In 1993 testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee Pat Bryant, representative of the Gulf Coast Tenants Association, proclaimed:

“‘Cancer Alley’ . . .remains one of the most poisoned areas anyplace. One hundred and thirty-eight petro-chemical facilities have made home in large plantations, most of the time as close as possible to African-American communities. .

“Despite denials of the petro-chemical industry financed studies, we know that cancer incidence in this corridor is higher than the national average. Cancer is so commonplace in ?Cancer Alley’ that almost every family is touched.

” . . .This area has become a zone of national sacrifice. This is genocide at its finest, and it is a national disgrace.”

Actually it is not surprising that black Louisianans have been seeing a lot of cancer since everyone else is too. American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Michael Fumento observes that “one fourth of us will contract cancer and one fifth of us will die of it. Indeed, as the population ages and fewer and fewer people die of other causes, more and more will die of cancer.”

But have black Louisianans been seeing more cancer than other Americans? In 1990 the respective cancer incidence rates among blacks and whites nationally stood at 423 and 393 per 100,000. Differences in behavior and health care access are clearly part of the explanation. In the 1970s some studies suggested an association between lung cancer incidence and the percentage of a population employed in or near certain industries or in urban areas. But these studies often failed to take smoking into account, and the association has not withstood scrutiny in the Louisiana case. The current scientific consensus is that behavioral (and some occupational) factors have been associated with cancer incidence in Louisiana but that there is no overall “cancer epidemic” in that state or in the so-called “Cancer Alley.” Indeed, blacks in south Louisiana appeared to have fewer cases of cancer than the national average during the 1983-87 period covered by the most careful study yet, published in the April 1996 issue of the Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society. Although cancer incidence among blacks may have been low, mortality rates were indeed excessive when compared with the nation as a whole, perhaps indicating that poor health care was a factor in the cancer burden among area residents.

But the mythical “Cancer Alley” endures in movement rhetoric, and it is not hard to understand why. A connection between petrochemical plants—or, for that matter, between any source of fearsome, unwanted “goop”—and disease has powerful intuitive appeal for citizens even though science may identify no causal linkage. As Howard Margolis of the University of Chicago argues in Dealing with Risk, a divergence between expert and citizen perception of risk remains one of the more treacherous fault lines in environmental politics, precisely because of the profound grip that intuition wields over citizen perceptions. And since one cannot prove a negative—that is, prove beyond all doubt that factories and dumpsites could never cause cancer—uncertainty prevails.

That uncertainty also provides powerful leverage for mobilizing citizens, and for holding the Establishment’s feet to the fire. In the end, this is the real game that environmental justice activists are playing. These activists (especially those more or less full-time advocates who champion a broad agenda transcending specific site-level grievances) are best perceived as social justice proponents who happen to specialize in environmental themes. Employing such themes, they try to win a larger voice, and more resources, for disadvantaged communities, broadly defined. Their specific targets are many and varied, their overarching motivation strongly egalitarian. On behalf of their redistributive ends, they wish to arouse and unify citizens in order to make and enforce demands on business and government. The environmental justice movement is, of necessity, highly opportunistic and improvisational. Because the movement’s main thrust is toward the “empowerment” of a diverse citizen constituency, scientific findings that blunt or conflict with that goal are a decided inconvenience, and are therefore either ignored or ridiculed.

Formal analysis, including risk assessment, is thus largely irrelevant to the underlying objectives and gratifications that stir activist and community enthusiasm under the environmental justice rubric. Sympathetic accounts of the movement’s rise often highlight studies published in 1983 by the General Accounting Office and in 1987 by the United Church of Christ/Commission for Racial Justice. These studies (especially the latter, entitled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States”) purported to show that commercial hazardous waste facilities were more likely to be found near minority communities.

What is most important to grasp about these studies is not just that they are crude and woefully misleading—though they are—but rather that they were always mere instruments of the movement rather than its cause. Although more refined risk analyses may have some uses in the environmental justice context, it would be naive to imagine that their conclusions will matter much to communities unless bonded to a gratifying practical politics anchored within those communities. And analytic conclusions cannot achieve this effect unless they demonstrate what activists want shown, that minority and low-income people are disproportionately victimized.

The environmental justice perspective is powerful not because it speaks honestly to technical questions of harm or risk—it often does not—but because it appears to promise something larger, more uplifting, more viscerally engaging than mere careful calculation can offer. It effectively speaks to the fear and anger among local communities feeling overwhelmed by forces beyond their control, and outraged by what they perceive to be assaults on their collective quality of life.

In this context, “multiple, cumulative and synergistic risk” represents a piece of technical rhetoric but not authentic commitment to a technical perspective. Activists have no intention of allowing toxicologists, epidemiologists and their various intellectual kin to define the premises of their movement. Indeed, like grassroots antitoxics advocacy generally, environmental justice largely reflects a challenge to technocracy, and to technical ways of thinking, not an embrace of them. Such language is believed to be the price of admission to the policy process, but it most certainly is not what the ticket buyers are really all about.

“Multiple, cumulative, and synergistic risk” is useful to the environmental justice movement in yet another way: it is virtually impossible that environmental authorities can, in the foreseeable future at least, successfully study and attack it. In December 1996 EPA staff from the Office of Policy Planning and Evaluation (OPPE) came before EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) to brief members on the cumulative exposure project under way. NEJAC learned that the project was using existing data to independently estimate cumulative concentrations/exposures from three pathways (i.e. outdoor air, drinking water, food) in an attempt to lay the groundwork for consideration of multi-pathway cumulative exposure. But that last word—exposure—bears emphasis, for it remains a long way indeed from “risk.” For the moment, let us assume that one can have full faith in the data being assembled, and that the inevitable gaps and uncertainties don’t too badly afflict those substances (such as dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, and lead) ranking highest in the activist pantheon of environmental horrors. Even so, can one expect EPA reliably to gauge the various interactive and cumulative effects of these (often very low) doses and exposures, and to do so in a way that would win the confidence of activists? The simple answer is no (unless, again, the results happen to provide a convenient platform for activist claims). Yet EPA’s all but certain failure on this score will help activists in one potent way, by offering grounds for additional rhetorical leverage over the agency.

There are serious environmental problems afflicting low-income and minority communities. But they are overwhelmingly quality-of-life problems: odors, noise, unsightly construction or destruction, dilapidation, congestion—as well as the low incomes that often bring people into proximity with such things. Truth be told, activist carping about risk and racism is really a cover for trying to crank up collateral attention to these other issues. But at the end of the day, one should not be too hard on the activists, despite their manifest limitations. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, they are simply doing what they can with what they have.