Pollution and Poverty: The Idea That Poorer Communities Suffered More from Environmental Damage Has Been around for Some Time, but Politicians Have Been Slow to React

Geographical, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Pollution and Poverty: The Idea That Poorer Communities Suffered More from Environmental Damage Has Been around for Some Time, but Politicians Have Been Slow to React


Residents of Grangemouth, Scotland, call it "living within the glow". The bright lights scattered along the towers and pipes of a network of refineries and chemical plants, coupled with the flares that emerge from the tops of chimneys, give the surrounding area an eerie glow at night.

Data released by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the Grangemouth complex contained three out of the top ten polluters by volume in Scotland in 2002. The surrounding area, which is marked by multiple types of social deprivation, has seen male life expectancy fall since 1983. At the same time, the region's population has decreased by more than 20 per cent.

During the late 1990s, pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) released research that appeared to demonstrate that the situation in Grangemouth was part of a wider problem, whereby deprived communities were bearing an unequal burden of environmental degradation. An FoE report published in 1999 claimed that more than 90 per cent of London's most polluting factories were located in communities with below-average incomes, while the national figure was around 60 per cent. And the factories tended to clump together: once one has been built, others arrive nearby.

The concept of environmental justice appeared on the political map in Scotland a year before Tony Blair's 2003 speech on sustainable development. At the Dynamic Earth conference in Edinburgh in 2002, First Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell said: "At the moment there is a real injustice in that people who suffer the most from a poor environment are those least able to fight back."

The UK government's interest in local environmental justice comes more than ten years after US President Bill Clinton signed an executive order to focus attention on the environmental problems faced by minorities and the poor. Environmental justice in the USA has a different thrust to its counterpart in the UK. Where the focus in the UK has tended to be on poverty, in the USA, race has taken a much bigger role in driving demands for change.

In 1978, the residents of North Carolina found oil soaking into the soil alongside 340 kilometres of road. On closer inspection, the oil was found to be laced with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls. State officials moved to dispose of the waste in a landfill site near the predominantly black town of Afton. The officials claimed that it was the most suitable site for the thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil. The residents disagreed and took to the streets in 1982, attracting national support from civil rights campaigners.

The focus later expanded from the location of waste dumps to factories that produced high levels of pollution.

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Pollution and Poverty: The Idea That Poorer Communities Suffered More from Environmental Damage Has Been around for Some Time, but Politicians Have Been Slow to React
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