Report Links Race, Income, Environmental Hazards In Massachusetts

By Cat Lazaroff

BOSTON, Massachusetts, January 9, 2001 (ENS) - Massachusetts residents are more likely to live near environmentally hazardous sites and facilities if they are poor or non-white, a new report reveals. The study finds that people of color are 19 times more likely to live in or near contaminated areas than are wealthy White people.

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Neighborhoods Against Urban Pollution is a Boston based project that works with area community groups to combat pollution from auto related businesses (Photo courtesy EPA)
Across the state, facilities that produce environmental hazards are disproportionately located in communities of color and lower income communities, finds the report, released Monday.

"Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards: Environmental Injustices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts" explores whether environmentally hazardous industrial facilities, power plants, municipal solid waste incinerators, toxic waste sites, landfills, and trash transfer stations are unequally distributed with respect to the income and racial composition of Massachusetts communities.

The authors analyzed exposure rates of 370 communities - including cities and towns throughout the state, sub-towns or neighborhoods in Boston, and Cape Cod - to these environmentally hazardous industrial facilities and sites.

The report was written by Daniel Faber, an associate professor of sociology at Northeastern University, and Eric Krieg, an assistant professor of sociology at Buffalo State College.

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Environmentally hazardous facilities are less likely to be located in affluent, predominently White communities, the study found (Photo courtesy Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development)
"An analysis of 370 communities throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts reveals that these populations live each day with substantially greater risk of exposure to environmental health hazards," said project director Daniel Faber. "If you live in a community of color in Massachusetts, for example, the chances are 19 times higher that you live in one of the 25 most environmentally burdened communities in the state."

Faber said the report is the first to provide a method for ranking the environmental burden of communities in the state, as well as the first to measure cumulative exposure to environmental hazards of all kinds in Massachusetts.

Among the study's findings:

  1. Communities where people of color make up 15 percent or more of the total population average more than four times the number of hazardous waste sites as communities with less than five percent people of color.
  2. Communities where people of color make up 25 percent or more of the total population average nearly five times as many pounds of chemical emissions from industrial facilities per square mile, compared to communities where less than five percent of the population are people of color.
  3. Communities with median household incomes of less than $30,000 average almost seven times as many pounds of chemical emissions from industrial facilities per square mile than communities with median household incomes of $40,000 or more.
  4. Communities with median household incomes of less than $30,000 average almost 2.5 times more waste sites than communities with median household incomes of $40,000 or more. They also average more than four times as many waste sites per square mile.

The authors used data from the 1990 U.S. Census, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Institute, as well as data collected from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in the spring and summer months of 2000.

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Manufacturing plants at Industri-Plex contributed to extensive contamination of the soil and groundwater in Woburn, Massachusetts (Photo courtesy EPA)
"Clearly, not all Massachusetts residents enjoy equal access to a clean environment," said Faber. "Communities most heavily burdened with environmentally hazardous industrial facilities and sites are overwhelmingly minority and lower income. Governmental action is urgently required to address these disparities."

To address the problem, Faber and co-author Krieg recommend that the state of Massachusetts pass an environmental justice law that will ensure equal protection and additional resources for overburdened areas. The state should incorporate environmental justice into all existing regulations, and work to reduce pollution levels across the state, they said.

To prevent the addition of more polluting industries to already overburdened areas, the state should review, and when necessary, halt the provision of economic development incentives for projects in these areas, the authors said. City officials and public health boards should consider issues of environmental justice when making decisions about new development.

Woburn

The cleanup of the Industri-Plex site included the construction of protective covers over portions of the site, allowing the site to be put back into productive use (Photo courtesy EPA)
An existing moratorium on new landfills and incinerators should be maintained, the authors recommend, and additional funding should be made available to the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

Massachusetts community groups said the new report confirms what they have known all along - that the state needs to address pollution disparities.

"Environmental justice is no longer a secret," said Klare Allen, a Roxbury resident and community organizer at Alternatives for Community & Environment, a Roxbury based environmental justice group. "Residents of Roxbury have been working on environmental justice issues for many years without a name for the problem and the numbers to back up the burdens they carry. Why is it that out of the 15 most polluted areas, nine of them are communities of color - that's more than half of those areas."

"This report is the first that we've heard of that talks about the cumulative effects of hazardous waste," said Martha Tai, from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown. "That alone would make it a valuable study, but what is really important to Chinatown residents is that Chinatown is located in the most overburdened area."

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A Roxbury, Massachusetts community group called Alternatives for Community and Environment trains students to educate their community and increase the awareness of the health impacts of air pollution (Photo courtesy EPA)
"This is science just confirming the facts of every day life for communities of color and low income communities in Massachusetts," said Quita Sullivan, staff attorney for Alternatives for Community and Environment. "And if the state is sincere in its efforts to equally protect all of its citizens, now is the time to do something to address this issue."

State Senator Dianne Wilkerson pledged action to address the problem.

"This report shows what people in my district have known all along: It is no coincidence that low income communities of color are disproportionately selected for the placement of new pollution sources," said Wilkerson. "As a result these communities bear an extraordinarily high environmental and public health crisis associated with the presence of these pollutants. The time has come for the Legislature to put an end to this form of discrimination."

The report is available for download at: http://www.nupr.neu.edu/news/0012/environment.pdf