Environmental Injustices

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In a review of data collected between 1970 to 1990 from Los Angeles County, California, Manuel Pastor, a professor at the University of Southern California, showed that there was a link between waste factories and neighborhoods with a majority-minority population (Ramirez 2021). It had been suggested that this link was because naturally, the properties surrounding these plants were cheaper and attracted lower income households and therefore minorities. However, the data studied by Pastor shows that in fact, the factories tend to be built after these minority communities are established (ibid.)

“Even if you are a middle-class, highly educated Black person in this country, you’re more likely to still be living beside or close to communities with hazardous waste sites than if you are white, working-class with low educational attainment,” said Dr. Dorceta Taylor, a professor at Yale School of the Environment. “So, however we slice it, there is a ratio that is more correlated with exposure to toxics and hazards with race than with the class.” (Ramirez 2021).

The evidence suggests this is because these industries look to build in communities that are less likely to pursue complaints or receive support after having complained. This has been a historically debated topic and the lawsuit Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation 1978, is an example of this battle. In this case, a majority middle-class, Aftican American neighborhood took The Southwestern Waste company to court for having a bias of discriminatively building their management facilities in majority black neighborhoods (Ramirez 2021). At the time of this case, reports showed that 75% of the waste management incinerators were in black-majority neighborhoods, despite that these neighborhoods only made up 25% of the entire city (ibid.). Needless to say, the court ruled in favour of the waste management company.

Even when there are legal consequences for waste companies polluting minority neighborhoods, studies have found that the fines are much lower compared to if a company is charged for polluting a non-minority neighborhood. “Corporations, they’re not idiots – they can see this difference” said DorcetaTaylor a professor at the Yale School of the Environment – and they use this to their advantage (Ramirez 2021). It is more complex for minority and lower income communities to mobilize and fight for their rights as they have less mobility and representation and therefore less political influence (ibid.). 

These companies are likely strategically building in areas where it will be the “path of least resistance,” (Ramirez 2021). These communities generally have fewer investors, representatives, and resources to pull from; overall they have less “political clout” (Arbor 2016). Naturally, this results in health disparities for the communities that are targeted for tbuilding of these facilities. “People of color in Richmond, California live on average ten years less than white people living in other parts of the county,” said Kinshasa Curl, Richmond, Virginia’s Environmental Division Administrative Chief (Kay and Katz 2012).

In Reserve, Louisiana, 10,000 people are living in a zone nicknamed “Cancer Alley,” which has a cancer rate 50% higher than the national average. A plant that is based only 100 yards away is suspected to be the cause of these soaring cancer rates. Robert Taylor, a homeowner who has lived in the town for almost 78 years said: “Why should I move? How can I move?… I struggled all my life to build this. Here’s the American dream, to own your own home. Right now, in good conscience, who would I actually sell this house to? What poor, unsuspecting family would I trick into moving into this death trap?” (Shamlian 2019). His words highlight the difficult decision that many families are left to grapple with on their own and the reality that their lives and safety are slipping through legislative cracks. 

Essentially, waste facilities are constructed in minority communities because restrictions and backlash are less severe. This is not only a national concern – internationally, countries send their waste to lower income countries for processing – 50% of Malaysian landfills are filled with American trash (Ramireza 2021). 

Yet another instance of the health gap is found in that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between the years 2004 and 2018, 702 people on average died from heat related complications (24th ed., 2020). Not everyone experiences heat the same however, and as global warming continues to unfold, and the world’s average temperature rises, select demographics will feel the impact more directly (Ramirez 2021). In urban settings, in districts that were historically redlined, there is a significant difference in temperature – a study of 108 previously redlined settings shows these areas are currently reaching 13 degrees higher than non-redlined areas (Anderson 2020).

 Redlining was an extremely detrimental practice used in the 1930s  – red lines were drawn on maps to show which locations were majority African American as a method for determining which neighborhoods would receive investments and mortgage loans (Perry and Harshbarger 2019). While these historically discriminated neighborhoods are, in general, no longer majority African American, they are still inhabited by a lower earning, majority-minority population and suffering from the effects of low investment ninety years later (Perry and Harshbarger 2019). 

These neighborhoods have not received the same investments for “urban greening” are key to minimising the effects of pollution and key lowering the average temperature (Perry and Harshbarger 2019, Pyzyk 2018). So, these redlined neighborhoods have an overall lack of trees, the increase in cement surfaces, freeways, factories, and other hazardous sites bringing their exposure to dangerous materials and heat more likely (Borunda 2020).

Hopefully this reality is changing. Los Angeles is an example of a city who’s making efforts to directly change this urban reality. In 2019, Mayor Eric Garcetti hired a “forest officer” to plan the addition of trees and shade in the parts of town that have been neglected (Ramirez 2021). For Garcetti, working to change redlining’s lingering consequences is a move that will save lives. This reality is especially urgent as “average temperatures continue to rise” and the “urban heat island effect” takes hold (ibid.).


Work Cites 

Anderson, Meg. “Racist Housing Practices From The 1930s Linked To Hotter Neighborhoods Today.” Nor, 14 Jan. 2020. 

Arbor, Ann. “Targeting Minority, Low-Income Neighborhoods for Hazardous Waste Sites.” Michigan News, 19 Jan. 2016, news.umich.edu/targeting-minority-low-income-neighborhoods-for-hazardous-waste-sites/. 

Borunda, Alejandra. “Racist Housing Policies Have Created Some Oppressively Hot Neighborhoods.” National Geographic, 2 Sept. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/racist-housing-policies-created-some-oppressively-hot-neighborhoods?loggedin=true. 

Kay, Jane, and Cheryl Katz. “Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Living with Industry.” Scientific American, 4 June 2012, www.scientificamerican.com/article/pollution-poverty-people-color-living-industry/. 

Perry, Andre M, and David Harshbarger. “America’s Formerly Redlined Neighborhoods Have Changed, and so Must Solutions to Rectify Them.” Brookings, 14 Oct. 2019, www.brookings.edu/research/americas-formerly-redlines-areas-changed-so-must-solutions/

Pyzyk, Katie. “Study: Low-Income Neighborhoods Disproportionately Feel Environmental Burdens.” 4 Dec. 2018. 

Ramirez, Ivana. “10 Examples of Environmental Racism and How It Works.” Yes! Solutions Journalism, 22 Apr. 2021, www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2021/04/22/environmental-racism-examples. 

Shamlian, Janet. “High Cancer Risk Plagues Louisiana Town near Chemical Plants.” CBS News, 24 July 2019, www.cbsnews.com/news/cancer-alley-reserve-louisiana-denka-plant-health-risk-higher-national-average-2019-07-24/. 

24th ed., vol. 69, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020, pp. 729–734, Heat-Related Deaths – United States 2004-2018, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6924a1.htm. 


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