Environmental Justice For All
(Page 4 of 6)
In one study of air quality in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, Pastor found that race, even more than income, determined who lived in more toxic communities. That 2007 report, “Still Toxic After All These Years: Air Quality and Environmental Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area,” published by the Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community at the University of California at Santa Cruz, explored data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which reports toxic air emissions from large industrial facilities. The researchers examined race, income, and the likelihood of living near such a facility.
More than 40 percent of African American households earning less than $10,000 a year lived within a mile of a toxic facility, compared to 30 percent of Latino households and fewer than 20 percent of white households.
As income rose, the percentages dropped across the board but were still higher among minorities. Just over 20 percent of African American and Latino households making more than $100,000 a year lived within a mile of a toxic facility, compared to just 10 percent of white households.
The same report finds a connection between race and the risk of cancer or respiratory hazards, which are both associated with environmental air toxics, including emissions both from large industrial facilities and from mobile sources. The researchers looked at data from the National Air Toxics Assessment, which includes estimates of such ambient air toxics as diesel particulate matter, benzene, and lead and mercury compounds. The areas with the highest risk for cancer had the highest proportion of African American and Asian residents, the lowest rate of home ownership, and the highest proportion of people in poverty. The same trends existed for areas with the highest risk for respiratory hazards.
According to the report, “There is a general pattern of environmental inequity in the Bay Area: Densely populated communities of color characterized by relatively low wealth and income and a larger share of immigrants disproportionately bear the hazard and risk burden for the region.”
Twenty years ago, environmental and social justice activists probably would have presented the disparities outlined in the 2007 report as evidence of corporations deliberately targeting minority communities with hazardous waste. That’s what happened in 1987, when the United Church of Christ released findings from a study that showed toxic waste facilities were more likely to be located near minority communities. At the 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, leaders called the disproportionate burden both racist and genocidal.
In their 2007 book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, authors Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger take issue with this strategy (see “The Temperature Transcends Race”). They argue that some of the research conducted in the name of environmental justice was too narrowly focused and that activists have spent too much time looking for conspiracies of environmental racism and not enough time looking at the multifaceted problems facing poor people and people of color.
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