Environmental Equity

By Knox, Robert J. | Journal of Environmental Health, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Environmental Equity


Knox, Robert J., Journal of Environmental Health


Someone once said that no one is safe from the many environmental problems that threaten our planet and our health; but, we are not all endangered equally.

Over the last five years, the civil rights movement has voiced concern over the likelihood that low-income groups and people of color are more subject to environmental hazards than their white and more affluent counterparts. The traditionally white, middle class environmental movement has begun to support this claim, and what has resulted is evidence of growing cooperation between those committed to protecting nature and those committed to correcting problems of social justice.

Political activity resulting from such cooperation has materialized only recently. Most observers point to the 1982 demonstration against the siting of a PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina as the watershed event in the mobilization of environmentalists and social justice activists (the so-called "Merger of the Environmental and Civil Rights Movements"). While protests of siting decisions have been common in white, middle-to-upper income neighborhoods ever since Love Canal, NIMBY ("Not-in-my-back-yard") opposition in low-income areas with high populations of African Americans, Latinos and other nonwhite racial and ethnic groups has been rare, or at least not publicized. With this in mind, the Warren County protests symbolized unprecedented levels of environmental awareness among peoples typically perceived to be apathetic with respect to natural resource and pollution issues.

In response to the protests, District of Columbia Congressional Rep. Walter Fauntroy (who was one of the 500 demonstrators arrested) requested that the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO)investigate the siting question. GAO's response was entitled "Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and their Correlation with the Racial and Socio-Economic Status of Surrounding Communities," published in June 1983. GAO reported that blacks were disproportionately represented in three of the four sites surveyed. In an effort to expand on this finding, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (U.C.C.) contracted with the consulting firm Public Data Access, Inc. to examine the statistical relationship between hazardous waste site location and racial/socioeconomic composition of host communities nationwide. The resulting study was called, "Toxic Waste and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites."

The report's specific claim that "race proved to be the most significant (factors) among (the) variables" correlated with hazardous site location has yet to be positively confirmed by the academic community. However, the study's more general argument--that the poor and people of color are more likely to live in communities which host hazardous waste facilities and/or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites than affluent whites--has been generally accepted. If nothing else, Toxic Waste and Race has helped to strengthen this new and delicate link between environmentalists and civil rights activists in efforts to highlight instances of dumping on the poor and people of color.

"Environmental justice" research has taken many forms, from sociological texts to pure economic analyses. The following is a review of a number of papers, articles and texts concerned with equity implications of environmental policy. Sources have been broken down by environmental medium rather than by type of research. These media are consistent with the organizational breakdown of EPA into program offices.

Water quality

The distributional implications of EPA's water pollution abatement efforts are quite serious. The Agency allocates billions of dollars each year for municipal water pollution control in the form of construction grants (and other government cost sharing programs) for publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) and other forms of pollution abatement. …

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