April 12, 2007

Toxic Waste Next Door

Everyone should check out Garance Franke-Ruta's new-ish blog. It's a good one. Today she points us to this grim Los Angeles Times story:
California has the nation's highest concentration of minorities living near hazardous waste facilities, according to a newly released study. Greater Los Angeles has 1.2 million people living less than two miles from such facilities and 91%, or 1.1 million, are minorities. Statewide, the figure was 81%.
Garance calls this "environmental racism." I think she's right. But some of her commenters see things differently, arguing that there's a less-insidious explanation at work: Toxic waste facilities tend to get sited in poorer neighborhoods because it's cheaper to do so, and it just so happens that a lot of minorities are clustered in those poorer neighborhoods. In other words, to the extent that there's racial injustice at work here, it merely reflects preexisting patterns of racial segregation and racial inequality. The site owners aren't making racist decisions per se, even if the hazardous facilities are obviously exacerbating these patterns.

I'd say it's a bit more complicated than that. If you look at the study in question, it notes rather clearly that "race [is] more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation's commercial hazardous facilities." So this pattern can't, it seems, be explained away simply by saying that minorities just happen to live in poorer neighborhoods. And that conclusion jibes with previous research on the topic. See this 1997 study on Los Angeles, for instance. And in 1995, James Hamilton found that the wealth of a community didn't predict the location of hazardous-waste sites nearly as well as race did.

What Hamilton found, in fact, was that polluting industries were more likely to build in a neighborhood if they thought the residents were less likely to engage in collective action against the new facility. And since minorities tend to have less political power--not least because they're poorly represented in state and local governments--these industries tend to assume they won't put up as much of a fight. So they saunter on in. (This probably explains why toxic facilities tend to "cluster" in certain regions--if an incinerator can move into neighborhood A without much hassle, then developers figure they can also put, say, a chemical plant there rather easily.)

So there are several things going on here: Not only are African-Americans and Hispanics more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods--due in no small part to general economic inequality and discriminatory housing policies--but their neighborhoods are more likely to be targeted by hazardous facilities, thanks to their relative lack of political power. And these things all reinforce each other. Living near a toxic dump can often be bad for your health. Inequality begets more inequality. And so on. Now, in 1994, Bill Clinton ordered the EPA to take "environmental justice" into consideration during its reviews of new facilities. But the EPA hasn't really enforced the rule (if it ever did), and it's not exactly a high priority in the current administration. So that's that.
-- Brad Plumer 8:21 PM || ||