A new movement to achieve "environmental justice" has been gaining steam. It is motivated by the belief that minorities and the poor face greater exposure to pollution and hazardous substances than do other segments of society. Acknowledging this possibility, the Environmental Protection Agency has opened an investigation of environmental officials in Mississippi and Louisiana for allegedly violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. By merely demonstrating that differences in exposure exist, Title VI would enable EPA to deny companies building and operating permits and to withhold federal money destined for these states.
The situation turns out to be more complex than the advocates of environmental justice seem to realize. Many industrial facilities, which are the target of environmental racism claims, were situated where they were simply because of favorable demographic and geological conditions. In numerous instances, at the time facilities were built, the surrounding areas were rural or thinly populated. Major population expansion - including the arrival of minorities and poor people - came later. Changing demographics may increase a company's obligation to hear and address a local community's concerns, but using the new population distribution as grounds for claims of discrimination puts the cart before the horse.
Moreover, allowing racism cases to be based on effect regardless of intent serves a a strong disincentive for companies to locate and continue operating facilities in areas where "discrimination" suits would likely occur. The effects of such disincentives could be devastating to the local communities that reap the economic benefits of being host to industrial and waste facilities.
Consider the controversial Emelle landfill in Sumter County, Ala. While often identified as an instance of discriminatory siting, Emelle ended up in Sumter County because of the area's sparse population, arid climate and location atop a 700-foot deep natural chalk formation. These factors, along with millions of dollars in state-of-the-art technology make Emelle one of the world's safest landfills. Furthermore, the landfill provides 300 jobs (60 percent of which are held by Sumter County residents) as well as $4.2 million in annual tax revenue. This money has enabled the community to build a fire station and town hall, improve schools, upgrade the health-care delivery system and begin reversing the rates of illiteracy and infant mortality.
Using the catch-all charge of racism to force legitimate businesses out of communities like Sumter County denies economic benefits to those who most need them. Draconian environmental regulations have already devastated minority and inner-city communities. The depressed conditions of south-central Los Angeles, for example, are, in part, attributable to overly stringent air quality standards, which drove profitable businesses out of the city. Further decreasing the incentives for companies to locate in minority communities exacerbates the problems of poverty and unemployment - conditions far more unhealthy than the minute cancer risks associated with industrial and waste facilities. …