Much as people might try to deny it, environmental racism is a very real feature of life in the United States and in many other countries. Environmental racism refers to policies or regulations that have a negative effect on the living conditions of the minority or low-income group that resides in that area, especially when compared to the living conditions of a nearby affluent community. Often, areas where minorities live are chosen as sites for factories or industries that produce a lot of pollution or hazardous wastes. Alternatively, once a polluting factory is in operation, the most likely inhabitants of the surrounding area will be the poor, since property is less expensive in polluted areas.
In the United States, those most likely to suffer from environmental racism are African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and the poor. Most studies have determined that race is more of a deciding factor than economic level. A 1987 study by the United Church of Christ noted that communities with a commercial hazardous waste facility have twice the proportion of minority populations residing in them as communities without these facilities. If the community has two or more polluting facilities, the proportion of minorities in that community shoots up to almost triple. The less wealthy or educated the people in a community are, the fewer resources they possess to combat business or political interests that conflict with their health and well-being.
Communities with economic or political clout are often able to influence public policies in their favor.
Proponents of environmental justice, the solution to environmental racism, note that many environmentalists fail to focus on urban areas in their fight to preserve the environment, as if "the environment" means Yellowstone Park, Cape Hatteras and the Sierra Mountains and has nothing to do with where people live all year round, not just on vacations. Aside from the fact that cities may contain famous landmarks that are worth preserving, the most important part of cities is the population that inhabits them and deserves protection no less than the inanimate oceans, rivers and mountains of the world.
Some of the hazards to which minorities and people of limited financial means are exposed to in greater proportions than the rest of the population are incinerators, toxic chemicals in factories, toxic wastes that are illegally dumped or legally stored, toxic herbicides and pesticides used in agriculture, uranium mining radiation, sewage treatment plants and radiation from cell phone towers and power lines. These hazards may be present as air pollution, water pollution or contamination of the soil and local food supply.
Famous cases of environmental racism include the Warren County PCB landfill in North Carolina. Despite six weeks of protests, some 10,000 truckloads of soil contaminated with PCBs were sent to the rural, poor and mostly African-American community, despite scientific evidence that the toxic waste would probably contaminate the drinking water. Chester, Pennsylvania, has the highest proportion of African Americans in Delaware County and is the site of five large waste facilities, such as a medical waste incinerator, a trash incinerator that burns all the municipal trash from the entire county and a sewage treatment plant. The results of living in such a community include more than 60 percent of the children having blood lead levels above the recommended maximum level, higher risks of contracting cancer and high level of contaminated fish in streams.
Native Americans have not fared much better in their interactions with U.S. government bodies and businesses. When settlers moved west in the frontier days of American history, they pushed the Native American tribes further west until they were confined to reservations or lands that were too remote or barren for anyone else to be interested in living there. When the military needed more land for testing new weapons, they chose land similar to the type the Native Americans lived on (not useful for other purposes) and near the Native American reservations. Military facilities and nuclear, medical and other toxic waste dumps near tribal lands threaten the health and safety of Native Americans.