A new study has provided empirical evidence of what many environmental justice advocates have long known – black Americans are far more likely to live near pollution than white Americans. The disparity occurs in most parts of the country, and in cities, suburbs, and urban areas. However, the racial injustice is most terrible in Midwestern metro areas, where black Americans are almost twice as likely to live within a mile of a major pollution source as white Americans.
The study, led by Prof. Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment (one of my first college profs), was just published in the American Journal of Public Health (full download available here). The methodology is detailed in the article, but basically consisted of correlating survey data on race, income, and other demographic factors with residences within one mile of polluting facilities identified with EPA Toxic Release Inventory data. This is admittedly an imperfect proxy for exposure to pollution, but produces a telling snapshot of how race is correlated with environmental health risks.
The study found 58 percent of black Americans in Midwest metropolitan areas lived within a mile of a polluting industrial facility compared to only 35 percent of white Americans. Similar disparities were found between the races in the South and West, but not Northeast. While income levels were also correlated to living near pollution, the racial divide was evident even after adjusting for socioeconomic and other demographic characteristics. According to the study, the black-white disparity suggests that factors uniquely associated with race may be involved, such as housing segregation and the targeting of African-American communities to place sources of pollution.
This is an injustice in every sense of the term. Remedying this ongoing problem should be a top priority for the EPA, states, and environmental advocates. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has just created two new senior positions to address environmental justice and civil rights, appointing Lisa H. Garcia as senior adviser for environmental justice and Patrick Sungwook Chang as senior counsel for external civil rights. This is a promising sign that the EPA is finally taking environmental justice and civil rights seriously. But far more is needed, especially at the state and local levels. State regulators must reverse the trend of permitting pollution in areas that disproportionately affect black Americans and other racial minorities. And environmental groups must partner with black churches and other neighborhood organizations on the front lines of environmental justice battles. Being black should not destine an American to living with pollution.