ArticlePDF Available

The Politics of Illegal Dumping: An Environmental Justice Framework



Studies of the intersection between environmental hazards and community demographics have concluded that environmental inequality is prevalent in communities across the United States. While these studies offer persuasive indicators of environmental inequality, we still have little understanding of the social forces involved in the production of these unequal outcomes. Drawing on a case study of a community of color facing illegal dumping, I propose an environmental justice framework to explain the social dynamics that produced this outcome.
Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2004 ( C2004)
The Politics of Illegal Dumping: An Environmental
Justice Framework
David N. Pellow
Studies of the intersection between environmental hazards and community demo-
graphics have concluded that environmental inequality is prevalent in communi-
ties across the United States. While these studies offer persuasive indicators of
environmental inequality, we still have little understanding of the social forces
involved in the production of these unequal outcomes. Drawing on a case study of
a community of color facing illegal dumping, I propose an environmental justice
framework to explain the social dynamics that produced this outcome.
KEY WORDS: environmental inequality; environmental justice; environmental racism.
Numerous studies of the intersection between ecological hazards and social
inequality have concluded that environmental inequality and environmental racism
are prevalent in communities across the United States (Krieg 1998; Mohai 1996;
Pastor, Sadd and Hipp 2001). That is, communities of color and low-income
neighborhoods are disproportionately burdened with a range of environmental
hazards, including polluting industries, landfills, incinerators, and illegal dumps.
Researchers have supported this conclusion with analyses of census data and
case studies of contaminated communities where poor persons and people of
color are the residential majority. Significant attention has also focused on the
environmental justice (EJ) movement that has emerged with the aim of reducing
the level of environmental risk in communities across the U.S. (Bullard 2000).
In this article, I argue that while these studies offer persuasive indicators of
environmental inequality, we have little understanding of the complexity involved
Correspondence should be directed to David Pellow, Department of Ethnic Studies, University of
California-San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093; e-mail:
0162-0436/04/1200-0511/0 C
2004 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.
512 Pellow
in the decision-making that produces or otherwise influences these unequal out-
comes. Specifically, few if any studies have proposed a conceptual framework for
understanding how environmental inequality emerges in communities. I propose
an “environmental justice framework” to address these questions. In the remainder
of the article, I review the relevant literature on environmental inequality/racism;
I then develop an environmental justice framework, and apply it to a case study of
illegal dumping in communities of color in Chicago, Illinois.
Place-Specific Explanations for Environmental Inequality
While environmental racism and inequality are national, even global, phe-
nomena, they unfold and impact people differently across space, depending on
any number of factors. In their recent study of the state of Massachusetts, Faber
and Krieg (2001) argue that a combination of white and middle-class flight to the
suburbs, a rise in the number of people of color in the central cities, and increases in
illegal dumping and the siting of incinerators produced environmental inequalities
in that state. In a case study of the US Steel Corporation in Gary, Indiana, Hurley
(1995) found that Latinos and African Americans faced disproportionately high
levels of exposure to environmental toxins on the job and in their neighborhoods
as a result of local racial discrimination.
Roberts and Toffolon-Weiss (2001) argue that the primary cause of environ-
mental inequalities in the state of Louisiana is an alliance among business, the
state, and other “growth machine” interests to create a “good business climate” that
favors private profits over public and environmental health. The authors conclude
that each particular EJ struggle may reveal driving factors that are unique to that
specific context. For African Americans, Vietnamese, and Native American com-
munities in the state, the process by which environmental inequalities emerged
was distinct. For example, in the case of some African Americans in Louisiana,
they face environmental racism not only as a result of contemporary racist envi-
ronmental policies, but also because many polluting corporations occupy land that
was once the site of slave plantations, land where the descendants of slaves and
sharecroppers now live. Thus context, place, and history matter a great deal.
In a study of Torrance, California, Sidawi (1997) demonstrated that, as a
result of racially biased urban planning during the last century, Chicanos faced
the highest levels of exposure to industrial pollution in that city, when com-
pared to Anglos. Similarly, Boone and Modarres (1999) argue that in Commerce,
California, although hazardous industry was sited in close proximity to Latino pop-
ulations, zoning and urban planning practices had as much, if not more, to do with
industrial location decisions as did demographics and racial politics. As they state,
The Politics of Illegal Dumping 513
“demographics alone are not responsible for the concentration of manufacturing
in Commerce” (ibid., p. 165). They emphasize the importance of “place-specific
analysis” to determine the root causes of environmental inequalities.
Macro-Level Explanations for Environmental Inequality
While discriminatory zoning practices and laws certainly contribute to envi-
ronmental inequality, Bullard (1990, 1996, 2000) demonstrates that all of the city
of Houston’s municipal landfills are located in African American neighborhoods,
despite the absence of any zoning laws. In this case, he maintains that there was
de facto zoning by Houston’s powerful white city leaders, who apparently viewed
African American neighborhoods as appropriate sites for waste disposal. In other
words, Bullard concludes that racism is a general organizing principle of city and
county politics in the U.S.
Compounding the institutional racism in politics, Pastor, Sadd, and Hipp
(2001, p. 19) argue that a lack of “pre-existing racially based social capital”
also places communities of color at a disproportionately higher environmental
risk than white communities. Communities with low levels of voting behavior,
home ownership, wealth, and disposable income are more vulnerable to high
concentrations of polluting facilities than are other communities. Unfortunately,
for communities of color, these characteristics are often highly correlated with
race. Bullard’s (1990) classic study Dumping in Dixie supported this claim more
than a decade ago with evidence that polluters follow the “path of least resistance”
when seeking cost-effective dumping sites. In Bullard’s estimation, the basis for
these choices is institutional racism, which, in turn, “influences local land use,
enforcement of environmental regulations, industrial facility siting, and, where
people of color live, work, and play” (Bullard 1996, p. 449). Those communities
most capable of mounting effective collective resistance tend to be better educated,
have higher income levels, and have fewer people of color. Building on this
record of evidence, Lake concludes that environmental inequalities “arise from
the unequal power relations controlling the organization of production in capitalist
societies” (Lake 1996, p. 169).
Thus, on one hand, we can cull from this literature particular factors that have
produced environmental inequalities in certain case studies: local growth machine
politics, discriminatory and insensitive zoning (or lack thereof), residential and
occupational segregation, and white flight. On the other hand, a number of scholars
point to a range of interrelated macro-level factors believed to be the general cause
of environmental inequality: racism, social inequality, a lack of social capital, and
the limited capacity to engage in collective action in the face of powerful political
economic institutions. I argue that, while both groups of studies are helpful for
understanding the nature of environmental racism, a new framework is needed to
address both the generalities and complexities of this phenomenon, a framework
514 Pellow
that acknowledges both the macro-level themes of institutional inequality and the
more micro-level motivations of particular organizations and actors involved in EJ
struggles. In order to capture these factors that define many EJ struggles I propose
an “environmental justice framework.
An Environmental Justice Framework
The framework I propose is organized around four dimensions relevant to
most EJ conflicts. First is the importance of viewing environmental inequality as
a sociohistorical process rather than as a discrete event. A focus on the history of
an EJ conflict opens a window into the processes by which hazards are created
and distributed. Second is a focus on the complex roles of the many people and
organizations (stakeholders) involved. Environmental inequality impacts many
actors and institutions with often contradictory and crosscutting allegiances (the
state, workers, environmentalists, residents, private capital, and neighborhood or-
ganizations). These stakeholders are engaged in struggles for access to valuable
resources (clean and safe working and living environments, natural resources,
power, and profit). Third is the effect of social inequality on stakeholders. Institu-
tional racism, class and gender inequalities, political hierarchies, and other forms
of stratification play decisive roles in EJ struggles. Specifically, those populations
of workers and residents lower on the social hierarchy are generally low-income
and/or people of color and are therefore more likely to suffer environmental in-
justices. Fourth is agency—the power of populations confronting environmental
inequalities to shape the outcomes of these conflicts. That is, marginal groups
can sometimes create openings in the political process to mitigate environmental
inequality. Through resistance they can shape environmental inequalities.
I refer to this as an environmental justice framework because, although it
underscores the causes and nature of environmental inequalities, I view the absence
of environmental justice (EJ) as the central problem. In this study, I focus on a
case in which a community of color faces an ecological threat. By drawing on
the environmental justice framework, I seek to explain the social dynamics that
produced this outcome.
I collected data from 1997 through 1999—as part of a larger project—
employing archival, interview, and participant observation methods. I collected nu-
merous newspaper articles and government documents on EJ conflicts in Chicago
during the 1990s. Data were also culled from hundreds of memos, reports, internal
documents, and studies from various grassroots and environmental advocacy orga-
nizations involved in these struggles. I conducted forty face-to-face semistructured
The Politics of Illegal Dumping 515
interviews with residents, environmentalists, and government officials active in
Chicago’s solid waste conflicts. Interviews ranged from thirty minutes to two
hours and were audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed with a thematic coding
system. Thus, through observation, interviews, and documentary analysis, I have
triangulated data sources to provide the most accurate and complete presentation
of the case study as possible (Denzin 1970).
Operation Silver Shovel was an illegal dumping scandal that occurred in
Chicago’s West Side Latino and African American communities during the 1990s.
Thousands of tons of debris from construction, demolition, and residential remod-
eling projects were dumped in these neighborhoods, creating small mountains
of waste, over the objections of local residents. Unfortunately, this case was not
without precedent.
On November 19, 1913, Mary McDowell addressed the City Club of Chicago.
McDowell, an activist associated with Jane Addams’ Hull House, was widely
known as “the Garbage Lady.” She and other reformers were leading a battle
against the city’s unhealthful and exploitative practice of concentrating garbage
dumps in immigrant neighborhoods. McDowell and her colleagues were, with-
out question, early environmental justice activists, fighting against environmental
injustices directed at European immigrant populations in their ward, but also
speaking out against violence and discrimination directed at African Americans.
The City Club requested that she address its members about “Chicago’s garbage
problem.” Her remarks that day in 1913 are illuminating with regard to EJ struggles
of nearly a century ago as well as today:
Finally, let me say that here in Chicago the people in the “back yard” of the city are
awake. We can never go back to the old outrageous conditions. The old attitude of mind
was represented by a lawyer before the Finance Committee in the City Hall when he said:
“Gentlemen, in every great city there must be a part of that city segregated for unpleasant
things, and, of course, you know that people in that part of town are generally not sensitive.
Now, Chicago dare not have that attitude. We must take a new attitude of mind toward these
other districts because the people are thinking in those districts and the standard is growing
higher every day...We must make it so that it will not be tolerable to the citizens even on
the edge of town (McDowell 1913; emphasis added).
That powerful leaders and institutions behave in ways that create environmental
injustices is rarely a question. However, many activists and scholars speculate as
to whether or not those stakeholders actually intend to do so. This quote suggests
a conscious, even nonchalant, ideological framework that supports the production
of environmental injustices as an inherent necessity of urban life and politics.
Groups involved in Chicago’s early garbage wars included Hull House, the
City of Chicago, private waste haulers and dumpers, and the immigrant ethnic
516 Pellow
groups living in the wards and neighborhoods where dumping was occurring.
These stakeholders were in conflict over the seminal environmental justice issue:
the distribution of solid waste in neighborhoods populated by less powerful so-
cioeconomic or racial/ethnic groups. McDowell’s very presence at the City Club
of Chicago indicates that the protests that emerged over this crisis had caught
the attention of the media, policymakers, and influential institutions. She also
noted that the system was being changed precisely because of local neighbor-
hood consciousness of environmental injustices, thus creating a “standard [that] is
growing higher every day.” In short, McDowell’s statement nicely illustrates the
environmental justice framework. She demonstrated that the history and process of
waste management and dumping were in transformation; that multiple stakehold-
ers were involved in this drama, not just waste dumpers and community residents;
that longstanding practices of institutional racism and classism were at work in
these communities; and that ordinary people, residents targeted by these practices,
were changing the very face of these environmental injustices by challenging
Chicago is a city frequently rocked with environmental justice battles, as
evidenced by its continual “garbage wars,” wherein residents struggle to keep
solid waste out of their communities and, by extension, inside other commu-
nities. More than eighty percent of the city’s formal garbage disposal occurs
in landfills on the mostly working-class, African American, Latino, and Euro-
pean ethnic Southeast side. Chicago hosts the most landfills per square mile
in the nation. But formal waste disposal practices are only one dimension of
Chicago’s garbage wars. Less visible is the informal practice of illegal, or “fly,
Chicago has a long history of conflicts over illegal waste disposal. At the
end of the nineteenth century in the immigrant enclave of the twenty-ninth ward,
Alderman Tom Carey made a fortune creating large pits in the neighborhood to
make bricks for his own construction company and then receiving payment from
the city to fill them in with garbage (Hull House 1895, ch. VII). In 1910, the
Superintendent for the Department of Health was dismissed after an investigation
concluded that several incidents involving graft and extortion at a waste dump
had occurred on his watch (Citizens’ Association of Chicago 1910). In 1914 the
City Council of Chicago passed an ordinance outlawing unregulated dumping. But
since that time, there have been frequent scandals over the illicit trade in garbage
for favors and cash.
This phenomenon also reflects the problem of environmental inequalities. A
study during the 1990s by the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation re-
vealed that, of the ten city neighborhoods with the most illegally dumped garbage,
all are at least sixty percent African American or Latino. And wards where people
of color are the majority account for seventy-nine percent of all illegally dumped
garbage in the city (Cohen 1992). This is the historical context in which Operation
Silver Shovel must be viewed.
The Politics of Illegal Dumping 517
A Multi-Stakeholder View of Illegal Dumping:
Politicians, Firms, and Residents
John Christopher was a businessman. Since the late 1980s, he was in the busi-
ness of “recycling” construction and demolition (C&D) waste and finding places
to dump it at the lowest possible cost. The vast majority of the waste Christopher
was dumping originated from highway construction projects and remodeling firms
across the mostly white North Side of the city and suburbs. John Christopher be-
gan dumping his waste in working-class and low-income African American and
Latino communities on Chicago’s West Side, particularly Lawndale and Austin. In
order to ensure that he could commit these crimes without detection by the police
or City Hall, he paid local aldermen cash bribes. For example, Christopher later
admitted to paying bribes in the late 1980s of approximately $5,000 per month
to Alderman William Henry of the 24th Ward “in return for Alderman Henry’s
agreement to assist [Christopher] in using and operating the site ...without in-
terference from the City of Chicago” (Plea Agreement 1995). Christopher’s
deals intensified the close links that normally exist between political institu-
tions and economic organizations in the urban political economy (Schnaiberg
Every community where Christopher dumped his waste was primarily African
American or Latino, as was each alderman whom he bribed. The KrisJon company
claimed to be recycling the C&D waste for use in future construction operations.
However, KrisJon was not actually recycling the waste. Instead, the company was
crushing large rocks and concrete blocks and simply piling them up—creating
dumps in the neighborhoods. Local activists soon discovered that KrisJon had no
permits for this operation and was therefore in violation of several city ordinances.
KrisJon was engaged in illegal dumping.
Communities confronting environmental inequalities in the U.S. typically
respond in a variety of ways. Public protests, petitioning and targeting political
leaders, and negotiating directly with polluting firms are just a few methods
commonly found in EJ groups’ tactical repertoires (Gottlieb 1993; Hurley 1995).
Resident stakeholders on Chicago’s West Side were no different.
Local neighborhood groups in Lawndale and Austin protested against the
illegal dumping operations early on. In 1990, residents held public hearings to
discuss a site that was being proposed for a dump that KrisJon was to operate. A
short while later, when the site was operational and producing a large volume of
dust, an organization called Concerned Parents of Sumner, Frazier, and Webster
Elementary School Children (schools located within blocks of the dump) sent
letters to John Christopher requesting a number of environmental improvements.
Christopher never responded. His dumpsites, however, were bustling and receiving
waste from ninety-six different locations around metropolitan Chicago. The noise
518 Pellow
and vibrations from trucks delivering the waste was so extensive that it cracked
the streets and sidewalks, damaged the foundations of nearby homes, and kept
residents awake at night. Residents believed that the dust from the operation
was linked to severe respiratory problems in these African American and Latino
communities. One man reported that he had experienced
...coughing, wheezing, short of breath, headache, sinus and I have been hospitalized six
times since the dump been on Kildare [Street]. I had to remove carpet from floors because
of dust and dust flares up my asthma (Interview 1997).
Another resident, Doreen Jenkins, wrote of her son’s medical problems:
. . . including a trip to the emergency room in January for headaches, dizziness and diffi-
culty breathing. The emergency services report attached to Ms. Griffin’s letter describes
that the “community is quite polluted by trucks that dump dirt into the air.” Ms. Grif-
fin pleaded to “please stop this illegal operation in our neighborhood” (Vinik and Harley
While perhaps not scientifically conclusive, these residents’ claims resonate
strongly with the testimonies of other persons living near polluting facilities in nu-
merous communities across the nation (Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Kroll-Smith
and Floyd 1997).
Although the Illinois State’s Attorney has the authority to bring legal action
against a company when there is “substantial danger to the environment or to
the public health,” the community received only a noncommittal letter from an
Assistant State’s Attorney. By this time, one of the dumpsites was measured at
eighty feet high. Residents began to refer to it as “the mountain” and success-
fully urged the City of Chicago to file a suit against John Christopher’s operation
as a common law public nuisance and as a violation of the Municipal Code
prohibiting open dumping. In fact, the Illinois Environmental Protection (IEP)
Act expressly prohibits both open dumping and the operation of unpermitted
waste storage, treatment, or disposal facilities. There are also requirements in
the IEP Act concerning dust minimization and permits. However, the court de-
nied the plaintiffs’ motions, allowing dumping operations to continue. Despite
the fact that Christopher’s facility violated all of these regulations, the Illinois
Environmental Protection Agency issued no citations. This official sanctioning
of direct violations of city and state laws in a community of color stunned local
The community meetings and protests continued. In February 1992, more
than six hundred people signed a petition demanding the closure of KrisJon’s
two major sites at Kildare and Kostner Avenues. The South Lawndale Com-
munity Block Club wrote letters to city and state environmental regulators,
KrisJon is receiving more consideration and respect by the courts than the residents who
live and own property in this area. This is an insult to our community. . . We are still
The Politics of Illegal Dumping 519
appalled that this company has been allowed to operate in our area next to our homes,
residents and schools with no regard to the rights of the people who reside in our
The resident-activist stakeholders were fighting what appeared to be either a case
of near total insensitivity by the state or an alliance between government and
polluters to allow the dumps to remain in these communities of color.
But not everyone in the community was opposed to the dumping oper-
ations. Some residents joined John Christopher and participated in neighbor-
hood “beautification projects” wherein he provided them with grass, flower,
and vegetable seeds for landscaping and gardening. He also received the sup-
port of one of the strongest institutions in the African American community—
the church. In 1991, a local pastor wrote a public letter applauding Christo-
pher’s efforts to “give back” to the community, and thirty residents signed a
petition indicating they “. . . welcome the KrisJon Construction Company into
the community and are grateful that the company is involved in a beautifi-
cation project that will benefit the community and its residents.” Hence even
under these particularly pernicious circumstances, there were local leaders will-
ing to publicly support even the most egregious violations of community
While local leaders and politicians were involved in this struggle, the federal
government was also well aware of the illegal dumping operations and used them
as an opportunity to launch an investigation of political corruption. In 1992 the
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) secretly secured John Christopher’s coop-
eration in what became known as Operation Silver Shovel. Christopher became
a “mole,” working undercover for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI in an
effort to uncover political corruption associated with the disposal of solid waste
in Chicago. So, just as he had done in the 1980s, Christopher bribed African
American and Latino aldermen to allow him to dump waste in their wards; the
only difference was that in 1992 he was secretly videotaping the transactions. The
public was not informed about this sting operation until 1996 when the media
broke the case.
Residents who had already been protesting the dumping were incensed that
the government had sanctioned this process. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and
his organization Operation PUSH joined local activists and exhorted community
members to take action:
These dump sites must be removed. They bring property value down with rats and
roaches ... They’re health hazards. If you live in those areas call PUSH and fight back
or they’ll keep doing it (Walls 1996).
Despite this persistence on the part of activists, it would be many more months
before any positive changes would result from their protests. This is in large part
because these communities possess few economic and political resources.
520 Pellow
Inequalities: Race, Class, and Political Power
While local aldermen were receiving bribes to allow dumping to continue
unabated, activists were aware of the environmental inequality/racism dimensions
of this struggle. One resident wrote a letter to the Cook County State’s Attorney
about KrisJon:
The company operates only in minority areas. We also know that the company poses health
hazards, damages our buildings and houses, and decreases our property values.
Echoing this sentiment, a local newspaper in the Austin community referred to
the dumping practices as
...“environmental racism” poor areas of Chicago where toxic dumpers, solid waste
treatment companies and others see large profits to be made from garbage and industrial
waste [and they] attempt to gain footholds with the cooperation of greedy, corrupt, and
stupid elected officials. Apparently, the first battle-ground is North Lawndale (Austin Voice
This writer makes two major points. The first is that the dumpsites are in poor
communities; the second is that certain elected officials facilitated this process. I
will address both issues because they underscore the nature of social inequality in
these communities.
The two largest illegal dumpsites on the West Side were on Kostner and
Kildare Avenues. The level of class and racial inequality evident at these sites is
remarkable. For example, the neighborhood surrounding the Kostner dump (based
on a one-square-mile radius from the site) had a median household income of
$20,469 compared to a citywide median income of $26,301 (U.S. Census Bureau
1990). The majority of residents in this community are people of color, with
Latinos comprising 46.3 percent and African Americans 40.2 percent. Citywide,
African Americans comprise 39.1 percent of the population and Latinos 19.6
percent. Thus the median household income in this neighborhood is well below
both the national poverty level and the citywide median, and the percentage of
people of color is higher than the citywide percentage. The figures for the Kildare
site are even starker. For example, the neighborhood surrounding the Kildare dump
(based on a one-square-mile radius from the site) had a median household income
of $15,113. The majority of people in this community are also people of color,
with African Americans comprising 89.6 percent and Latinos 6.6 percent. Both
of these communities are what William Julius Wilson (1996) has called “new
poverty areas,” where the majority of people live in deep poverty and most adults
are either unemployed or underemployed. Thus, the majority of the residents
in these neighborhoods experienced a significant degree of poverty, economic
instability, and relative deprivation.
With regard to the role of corrupt elected officials, this dimension of inequal-
ity requires analysis but should also include a consideration of activities by res-
idents who themselves accepted bribes and facilitated illegal dumping practices.
The Politics of Illegal Dumping 521
The relative lack of status and political influence over citywide politics among
Chicago’s African American and Latino aldermen is rivaled only by the political
powerlessness among their constituents. Poor and working-class residents of color
in Chicago are not particularly influential in local politics and therefore offer pol-
luters easy targets. The attendant lack of economic stability that characterizes
many of these neighborhoods only reinforces their political powerlessness and
the diminished status of their elected officials. This subjugated position also ren-
ders these groups particularly vulnerable to efforts by polluting firms to “divide
and conquer” residents over potential economic benefits that may accompany
industrial activity.
Frequently, when communities confront environmental threats, they are beset
by internal fractures surrounding family conflicts, fear of job losses, and loyalties
to various neighborhood institutions and firms involved. These tensions gener-
ally intensify the pain and anxiety that normally develop during conflicts over
environmental contamination (Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Hurley 1995; Roberts
and Toffolon-Weiss 2001). Chicago’s West Side was characterized by a particu-
larly intense array of divisive wedges that rendered these working-class, polluted
communities of color quite vulnerable.
Foremost among these fractures was the abuse—by aldermen—of their po-
litical positions to allow waste dumping in return for cash. But in addition to this,
John Christopher had to build broader community support for his operation to
ensure its survival. One strategy was to bribe residents who had complained about
his facilities. One resident reported:
The [truck] running up and down the street shaking the building so bad it cracked the front
of the building and the roof have come loose. . . My son has shortness of breath especially
when the wind is coming from the west. I told John [Christopher] that his dust was a
problem covering my cars every day. So he gave me $20. I told him that wouldn’t pay for
a whole year. Earlier he had sent $15 (Interview 1997).
For some observers fifteen or twenty dollars may seem outrageously small for
a “pay-off.” However, in some West Side neighborhoods in Chicago, including
Lawndale and Austin, the unemployment rate among African American residents
has exceeded 50 percent in the last decade (Wilson 1996). Given this context, the
low price for compliance is not so surprising.
While some segments of the community were united against illegal dumping,
the fractures remained. The divisions and betrayals within the West Side commu-
nities went much deeper than the misdeeds of corrupt politicians, immoral busi-
nessmen, and the occasional resident in need of cash. In fact, local street gangs in
the Austin community were discovered regulating the fly dumping trade and were
said to have charged as low as five dollars per ton of waste dumped on vacant lots.
In another instance, in December of 1997, a number of Austin residents employed
by a North Side remodeling company were cited for illegally dumping debris
in their own community. “You have companies and residents, bringing garbage
522 Pellow
from the suburbs back into their own neighborhoods,” one observer commented
(McNeil 1998).
Austin and Lawndale are two communities in desperate need of sustainable
economic development, so politicians and residents were easy prey to bribes, tem-
porary jobs, or a range of cash-producing activities associated with illegal waste
dumping. This dynamic illustrates the depths of economic despair in many commu-
nities of color, which have become so desperate for development that garbage—or
one’s willingness to accept it—is viewed as one of the only marketable resources
available. In the next section I consider these communities’ ability to produce real
change and challenge environmental injustices.
Agency: Shaping and Reducing Environmental Inequalities
West Side neighborhood activists were ultimately successful at urging the
city, the state EPA, and the federal EPA to take action in the Operation Silver
Shovel case. The three levels of government have begun to develop a comprehen-
sive “strategy to address the problem of illegal solid waste disposal in Chicago”
(Vinik and Harley 1997, p. 32). Some of the concrete steps taken include: develop-
ing a community policing program specifically for illegal dumping; training police
officers on illegal dumping surveillance techniques; strengthening the city ordi-
nance regulating dumping; inspecting dumpsites and testing them for hazardous
and chemical waste; and beginning waste clean-ups at the sites. New or modified
city ordinances in Chicago include penalties such as jail time for illegal dumpers,
the seizure and impoundment of all vehicles used for fly dumping, and the bar-
ring of contractors convicted of illegal dumping from future eligibility for city
contracts. The city also introduced a new surveillance system near many illegal
dumpsites and vacant lots and began vigorously prosecuting and fining dumpers
(Chicago Defender 1997).
One West Side activist wrote a letter to a public interest lawyer about the
community’s success:
We won the case and a law was changed because we fought so persistently to stop the
illegal operation in our community. . . Removal efforts just started after the recent publicity.
Officials that we appealed to for years are now appearing to help since Operation Silver
Shovel hit the news.
Crediting her own organization’s activism and the news media coverage, this
activist acknowledged that it often takes many stakeholders several years to create
an opening in the local political process.
The community fought back repeatedly and, despite years without official
support, was able to initiate governmental action, regulatory enforcement, and a
clean-up of the waste. Angry constituents also later voted out of office one of the
aldermen who accepted bribes. At the national level, as a result of the Operation
Silver Shovel scandal, U.S. Representative Cardiss Collins of Illinois (an African
The Politics of Illegal Dumping 523
American woman) introduced a House bill intended to outlaw environmental
racism. Although the bill later died, this was evidence that grassroots activists were
able to put the issue of environmental racism on the public agenda. In this way, even
the most dispossessed and disenfranchised communities on Chicago’s West Side
shaped the discourse around—and even reduced the impacts of—environmental
Illegal Dumping and the Environmental Justice Framework
Operation Silver Shovel was a case of environmental inequality/racism and
can be analyzed using the framework I introduced earlier. First, a historical analysis
reveals that Operation Silver Shovel was not an isolated instance of environmental
racism without precedent. Illegal dumping in Chicago’s communities of color
and immigrant neighborhoods is more than a century old and it has been one
of the key battlefronts in that city’s garbage wars. Hence, the fly dumping in the
Lawndale and Austin communities was part of a longstanding and larger pattern of
environmental inequality around the city. Second, many stakeholders with a host of
complex motives were involved in this conflict. While most residents opposed the
waste dumpers, many locals were facilitating the waste trade, including aldermen,
neighbors in need of cash, and gang members. The other key stakeholders were
the various levels of government, each of which was complicit in allowing these
acts of environmental injustice to go unchallenged, despite their obvious illegality.
Third, Operation Silver Shovel is largely rooted in institutional racism and class
inequalities in that this type of locally unwanted land use is likely to appear only
in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. KrisJon and the FBI
targeted these communities because of their vulnerability, their lack of political
power, and the presence of politicians willing to accept bribes for favors. Finally,
this was a defining moment for the power of the grassroots to exercise agency—
to challenge powerful actors and institutions. Community groups persisted in
their efforts to bring public attention to the problem of illegal dumping and to
get the courts and government agencies to enforce the law and, despite virtually
no assistance, were able to implement real changes. These formerly powerless
networks of ordinary citizens placed the issue of environmental racism on the
city’s agenda and successfully reduced the level of environmental hazards in their
Environmental inequality/racism occurs, therefore, when historical and con-
temporary social forces intersect to position various stakeholders in a state of
power imbalance with regard to environmental resources. These conflicts are, in
turn, shaped by all affected groups, and can be mitigated or exacerbated when the
power imbalances are reduced or increased. Drawing on the environmental justice
524 Pellow
framework and the case of illegal dumping, three things are clear: 1) Envi-
ronmental inequality/racism is not just about correlations between hazards and
populations. It is about the power dynamics that produce these inequalities and
the power of the grassroots to challenge and reverse them; 2) environmental
inequality/racism is not just about communities of color versus white commu-
nities. While racism may play a persistent role in these conflicts, the range of
motivations among stakeholders—including the desire for political power—and
intraracial divisions across a range of community interests matter a great deal;
and 3) until we understand why certain interests in communities of color are will-
ing to support environmentally harmful practices we will never truly understand
environmental racism and will therefore be ill-equipped to move toward envi-
ronmental justice. It is my hope that future studies will take these findings into
Austin Voice. (1994, October 18). Alderman Miller & Flood Bros. trying to sneak dump into Lawndale.
p. 1.
Boone, C., & Modarres, A. (1999). Creating a toxic neighborhood in Los Angeles County. Urban
Affairs Review,35, 163–187.
Brown, P., & Mikkelsen, E. (1990). No safe place: Toxic waste, leukemia and community action.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bullard, R. (1990). Dumping in Dixie (1st ed.) Boulder, Co: Westview Press.
Bullard, R. (1996). The legacy of American apartheid and environmental racism. St. John’s Journal of
Legal Commentary,9, 445–474.
Bullard, R. (2000). Dumping in Dixie (3rd ed). Boulder, Co: Westview Press.
Chicago Defender. (1997, December 17). City swats down illegal fly dumpers. p. 5.
Citizens’ Association of Chicago. (1910, June). Bulletin No. 25. Chicago.
Cohen, L. (1992, April). Waste dumps toxic traps for minorities. The Chicago Reporter,p.2.
Denzin, N. (1970). The research act. Chicago: Aldine.
Faber, D., & Krieg, E. (2001). Unequal exposure to ecological hazards: Environmental injustices in
the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Northeastern University, Boston, MA.
Gottlieb, R. (1993). Forcing the spring. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Hull House (1895). Hull-House maps and papers. New York: T. Y. Crowell.
Hurley, A. (1995). Environmental inequalities. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.
Krieg, E. (1998). The two faces of toxic waste. Sociological Forum,13, 3–20.
Kroll-Smith, S., & Floyd, H. H. (1997). Bodies in protest: Environmental illness and the struggle over
medical knowledge. New York: New York University Press.
Lake, R. (1996). Volunteers, NIMBYs, and environmental justice. Antipode,28, 160–174.
McDowell, M. (1913, December 20). The City Club Bulletin, Chicago, p. 331.
McNeil, B. (1998, June 4). City tries to trash illegal dumping in Austin. Austin Weekly,p.4.
Mohai, P. (1996). Environmental justice or analytic justice? Social Science Quarterly,77, 500–507.
Pastor, M., Sadd, J., & Hipp, J. (2001). Which came first? Toxic facilities, minority move-in, and
environmental justice. Journal of Urban Affairs,23, 1–21.
Plea Agreement. (1995, December 27). U.S. Attorney, Northern District, Illinois and J. Christopher.
Roberts, T., & Toffolon-Weiss, M. (2001). Chronicles from the environmental justice frontline.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
Schnaiberg, A. (1994). The political economy of environmental problems. Advances in Human Ecol-
ogy,3, 23–64.
The Politics of Illegal Dumping 525
Sidawi, S. (1997). Planning environmental racism. Historical Geography,25, 83–99.
U.S. Census Bureau. (1990). Census of the population: 1980. Washington, DC.
Vinik, N., & Harley, K. (1997). Environmental injustice. January. Chicago: Chicago Legal Clinic.
Walls, S. (1996, February). Rev. Jackson plans dump site clean up. Chicago Weekend,p.4.
Wilson, W. J. (1996). When work disappears. New York: Random House.
... Consequently, questions arise regarding how the cost and benefits associated with the development and growth of the sport industry are unequally distributed to people and communities, reflecting a fundamental understanding of environmental (in)justice concerns. In any given context, the presence of environmental problems does not affect every person equally, nor do all members of the society possess equal power to decide solutions and/or to take actions to solve these problems (Pellow, 2004(Pellow, , 2018Pulido, 2018;Sze and London, 2008;Walker, 2009). This unequal and differentiated positioning means that the heaviest environmental burdens are often fallen upon the marginalized and less powerful communities and populations-this is the central premise of environmental injustice. ...
... While environmental racism remains an important concern, in recent decades, newly incorporated theoretical constructs and frameworks such as settler colonialism and intersectionality further broadened the principles underlying the mobilizations of EJ in the Western hemisphere (Murdock, 2020). Also emerged in this newer wave of EJ scholarship are critiques of Eurocentrism in the knowledge production process ( Alvarez and Coolsaet, 2020), anthropocentric views of the environment (Schlosberg, 2009), singular-scale and ahistorical analyses that are inadequate to grasp the complex dynamics of environmental Environmental justice in sport management conflicts (Pellow, 2004(Pellow, , 2018, and a lack of questioning the existing power structures, particularly, the state apparatus, in (re)producing environmental injustice (Pellow, 2018). ...
... Situating sport management within environmental justice EJ scholarship should involve analyzing and diagnosing conflict, attributing blames and accountabilities, and seeking solutions to resolve the conflicts. As noted by Pellow (2004), environmental injustice occurs when historical and contemporary social forces intersect to position various stakeholders in a state of power imbalance with regard to environmental resources. These conflicts are, in turn, shaped by all affected groups, and can be mitigated or exacerbated when the power imbalances are reduced or increased. ...
Full-text available
This paper aims to explore what environmental justice (EJ) can offer to sport management research and highlights the urgency for sport management scholars interested in environmental and ecological issues to engage with EJ as an important research agenda. This paper is primarily a position and conceptual paper. Drawing from multidisciplinary literature (e.g. critical human geography, environmental sociology, Indigenous studies and postcolonial studies), it provides an overview of the major conceptualizations of EJ and discusses important premises for sport management researchers to engage with EJ topics. EJ offers opportunities for sport management researchers to form stronger analyses on existing racial, socioeconomic, and gender-related inequities manifest in the sport industry. The incorporation of EJ can strengthen the emerging sport ecology research in sport management and offer opportunities for sport management researchers to form stronger analyses on existing racial, class, and gender-related inequities manifest in the sport industry. It provides a critical and original intervention to the sport management literature. EJ's emphasis on power and its position at the convergence of social movements, public policy, and scholarship holds important potential for sport management researchers to advance scholarship with "actions," addressing environmental harms, and seeking practical solutions for enhancing communities' well-being.
... This may also lead to frequent protests and sometimes violent protests. The use of illegal dumping sites and street littering can be interpreted as protest behaviour as well (Pellow 2004). The situation is made even worse by the lack of capacity to enforce rules and regulations by the city authorities. ...
... Protests are often violent, and efforts to install service delivery infrastructure such as street bins are hampered by theft and destruction (Niyobuhungiro and Schenck 2021). Households in this category also suffer from insecurity because quite often they are targeted by government clean-up operations and conflict of ownership rights (Pellow 2004). Formalization through registration of properties and allocation of property rights could help to improve security and incentivise consumers from these areas to behave in a responsible and sustainable manner. ...
Full-text available
Studying people’s perceptions of their attitudes and behaviour toward the use and inappropriate disposal of plastics is necessary because it helps explain the meaning of sustainable environmental behaviour in the context of African countries. Formulating appropriate behavioural change interventions may lead to a shift in people’s behaviour in terms of plastic consumption if they become aware of the environmental risk of plastics. Using a qualitative review of literature, relevant materials for this paper were identified using a search strategy that involved keywords and databases. Previous empirical studies employed several theoretical frameworks. However, inconsistences in the use and definition of variables, make comparing the results of these studies difficult. Although the literature is growing, more empirical evidence is still needed to understand the drivers of people’s perceptions toward unsustainable environmental behaviour in the context of African countries and to formulate appropriate behavioural change interventions. A review of the literature determined four broad drivers of people’s perceptions toward unsustainable environmental behaviour. These include policy or institutional variables, product and market attributes, community variables, and individual characteristics. Additionally, we offer a consolidated conceptual framework for analysing consumer perception in relation to the use of nondegradable plastics and environmental pollution and identify the drivers of people’s perceptions. Policy implications for developing countries as well as future research directions are flagged.
... Environmental justice is both an activist discourse (Agyeman and Evans, 2004) and a vision-setting framework for analyzing our ecological standing (Pellow, 2004(Pellow, , 2009. As a framework, it examines how the environmental hazards are created and unequally distributed as well as the role of the people and various groups in this process (Pellow, 2009). ...
Full-text available
The notion of resilience is being increasingly used, without much criticism, in various areas of the development debate, involving climate migration. Nevertheless, the concept incorporates several weaknesses which are often ignored: it is a vague and non-transparent concept with shifting meanings, transfers the risk and responsibility of adaptation from the state onto the shoulders of individuals, and duplicates existing injustices. Thus, it promotes the continuation of the status quo and overlooks the structural causes of socio-economic and environmental problems. This paper argues that resilience is a limited framework to deal with environmental harms and that environmental degradation should be dealt with in a framework of environmental justice because it provides a more comprehensive and just socio-ecological lens for the critical assessment and solution of environmental problems. The paper studies the phenomenon of climate migration in India and investigates why an environmental justice framework should be employed for analyzing and proposing solutions to environmental damage instead of resilience. ////////////////// Dayanıklılık kavramı, iklim göçünü de içeren kalkınma tartışmalarının çeşitli alanlarında-çok da eleştirilmeden-giderek daha sık kullanılmaktadır. Fakat kavram, genellikle göz ardı edilen birçok sorunu içermektedir: İçeriği değişken, belirsiz ve şeffaf olmayan bir kavramdır. İklim değişikliğine uyum riskini ve sorumluluğunu devletten bireylerin omuzlarına yükler. Ayrıca mevcut adaletsizlikleri arttırır. Böylece kavram, statükonun devamına yol açar ve sosyo-ekonomik ve çevresel sorunların yapısal nedenlerini görmezlikten gelir. Bu makale, dayanıklılık kavramının çevresel sorunları çözmek için sınırlı bir kavram olduğunu ve bu sorunların dayanıklılık kavramından daha kapsayıcı ve adil bir sosyo-ekolojik mercek olan çevresel adalet kavramı ile ele alınıp çözülmesi gerektiğini savlamaktadır. Makalede Hindistan'daki iklim göçü örneği irdelenerek neden dayanıklılık kavramı yerine çevresel adalet kavramının kullanılmasının gerektiği tartışılmaktadır.
... Also relevant to this discussion is Pellow's (2004) analysis of the illegal dumping of construction waste in Chicago. Pellow notes that the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of the city were more likely to be polluted with construction debris. ...
This article examines the concept of environmental justice and its implications for criminology, criminal justice, and victimology. It first considers two different definitions of environmental justice before turning to a review of criminological studies related to environmental justice. It then summarizes the growing evidence on environmental injustice across disciplines, taking into account some important methodological considerations. It also illustrates how a concern with environmental justice can change the nature of research undertaken by criminologists, focusing on toxins as a cause of crime and the construction of crime. Finally, the article discusses four areas of potential environmental justice scholarship for criminologists, criminal justice, and victimology scholars and stresses the role of criminologists in these areas to help move environmental justice studies forward.
... Environmental justice is both an activist discourse (Agyeman and Evans, 2004) and a vision-setting framework for analyzing our ecological standing (Pellow, 2004(Pellow, , 2009. As a framework, it examines how the environmental hazards are created and unequally distributed as well as the role of the people and various groups in this process (Pellow, 2009). ...
The notion of resilience is being increasingly used, without much criticism, in various areas of the development debate, involving climate migration. Nevertheless, the concept incorporates several weaknesses which are often ignored: it is a vague and non-transparent concept with shifting meanings, transfers the risk and responsibility of adaptation from the state onto the shoulders of individuals, and duplicates existing injustices. Thus, it promotes the continuation of the status quo and overlooks the structural causes of socio-economic and environmental problems. This paper argues that resilience is a limited framework to deal with environmental harms and that environmental degradation should be dealt with in a framework of environmental justice because it provides a more comprehensive and just socio-ecological lens for the critical assessment and solution of environmental problems. The paper studies the phenomenon of climate migration in India and investigates why an environmental justice framework should be employed for analyzing and proposing solutions to environmental damage instead of resilience.
... Rather than increasing investments based upon need, austerity-driven policies reduced public investment within urban centers (Sugrue, 1996). Across the country, the placement of unwanted land uses, such as water treatment plants, garbage dumps, and toxic industries, proximate to neighborhoods that were predominantly inhabited by people of color, contributed to environmental injustices and health inequities (Pellow, 2004). This constellation of policies and practices which simultaneously invest resources to improve housing and amenities in some areas while divesting from or disrupting other areas is referred to as uneven development (Brenner & Theodore, 2002). ...
Full-text available
Gentrification can be understood as the process through which geographical areas become increasingly exclusive, which disproportionately harms people living in poverty and people of color, as well as the elderly, families, and youth. As such, this article argues that macro social work practitioners should view gentrification as a key concern. Thus, to help guide macro interventions, the article begins by first defining gentrification and describing ways to measure it, while emphasizing its difference from revitalization. Second, the article explores causes of gentrification, including its relationship to systemic racism. Third, the article explores the consequences of gentrification on individuals’ and communities’ well-being, considering how these consequences can influence macro practice. Finally, the article provides insight into ways that macro practitioners can strategically with others to prevent gentrification, mitigate its harms, and proactively support community well-being in areas threatened by gentrification.
... KDD Humanitarian Mapping Workshop '21, August 14-18, 2021, Virtual Conference © 2021 Copyright held by the owner/author(s). environmental degradation that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable population [10], specially those who -without access to better options-occupy land near or even inside dumping sites. This close proximity of human settlement to informal waste disposal areas has been associated to severe health risks such as respiratory disease [8] and heavy metal poisoning [4]. ...
Full-text available
Public health and habitat quality are crucial goals of urban planning. In recent years, the severe social and environmental impact of illegal waste dumping sites has made them one of the most serious problems faced by cities in the Global South, in a context of scarce information available for decision making. To help identify the location of dumping sites and track their evolution over time we adopt a data-driven model from the machine learning domain, analyzing satellite images. This allows us to take advantage of the increasing availability of geo-spatial open-data, high-resolution satellite imagery, and open source tools to train machine learning algorithms with a small set of known waste dumping sites in Buenos Aires, and then predict the location of other sites over vast areas at high speed and low cost. This case study shows the results of a collaboration between Dymaxion Labs and Fundaci\'on Bunge y Born to harness this technique in order to create a comprehensive map of potential locations of illegal waste dumping sites in the region.
The Idle No More (INM) movement emerged in reaction to Bill C-45, the Canadian Jobs and Growth Act, in November 2012, inspiring a new wave of activism. Central to the movement’s grievances are Indigenous resistance and environmental justice (EJ), positioning INM’s activities against neo-colonialism, exploitation, and environmental degradation. We build upon existing EJ movements, Indigenous Peoples/Indigenous Environmental Justice (IEJ) movements, and social movement spillover, grievance, and claims making literatures to understand the role of shared movement narratives in encouraging mobilization. INM relies on social media to educate members and construct and communicate movement goals and actions. Analyzing 6 months of Facebook comments, reflecting the INM movement’s emergence period, we argue that INM activists employ structural grievances embedded in previous EJ and Indigenous resistance movements, combined with emerging (incidental) grievances to articulate shared claims that address inequality and justice, appealing to a range of potential supporters. We offer an analysis of the emergent INM movement to consider the active intersection of EJ, Indigenous Peoples, and IEJ movements to mobilize and sustain movement activities in spite of Bill C-45’s passage.
Full-text available
The city of Commerce, a largely industrial and Latino city east of Los Angeles, contains a disproportionately high concentration of manufacturers that emit toxic chemicals. The coincidence of a minority population and toxic sites is a classic example of environmental inequity. The authors seek to understand why industry located in this community. A historical investigation of the development of a hazardous community suggests that demographics alone are not responsible for the concentration of manufacturing in Commerce. The zoning decisions of the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission in the 1920s and 1930s set the pattern of industrialization in Commerce.
Full-text available
The principle of environmental equity constitutes a challenge to local autonomy and democratic practice. Community protest is sometimes hailed as an expression of local autonomy, sometimes derided as NIMBYism. To disentangle these issues we must reexamine environmental justice in light of the distinction between distributional and procedural justice. A search for just procedures for distributing environmental burdens represents an unnecessarily truncated view. Procedural equity entails democratic participation not only with regard to distribution but in prior decisions affecting production of costs and benefits. Two brief case studies illustrate the possibility of reconciling environmental equity with local autonomy. Geographers concerned with environmental inequity might turn from mapping the distribution of burdens to mapping power relations between local communities and the structures producing those burdens.
Chronicles from the Environmental Justice Frontline, first published in 1991, provides a rare glimpse of the environmental justice movement as it plays out in four landmark struggles at the end of the twentieth century. The book describes the stories of everyday people who have decided to take to the streets to battle what they perceive as injustice: the unequal exposure of minorities and the poor to the 'bads' produced by our industrial society. In these struggles residents and local, state, and national environmental and social justice groups are on one side pitted against local and state government representatives and industry on the other. By employing historical and theoretical lenses in viewing these struggles, the book reveals how situations of environmental injustice are created and how they are resolved. These cases bear great similarity to battles occurring across the nation, and are setting precedents for national and state agencies as they handle these cases.
Foreward, by Jonathan Harr Preface (1997) Preface (1990) Acknowledgments Introduction Town in Turmoil: History and Significance of the Woburn Cluster The Formation of an Organized Community The Sickness Caused by "Corporate America": Effects of the Woburn Cluster Taking Control: Popular Epidemiology Making It Safe: Securing Future Health Bibliography
Abstract The political economic perspective on environmentalissues poses these as dialectical conflicts, with competing sets of social interests in natural resources: use-values involving direct utilization of natural resources for subsistence, habitat, or recreation by citizens, versus exchange-values,which require transformation of natural resources into commodities,that can be marketed. Dialectical struggles to maximize,the "value" of ecosystems and their components,thus characterize modern societies, and especially modern states. The state in contemporary,advanced,industrial societies is of necessity involved in this dialectical relationship to the natural environment. It has accepted simultaneous responsibilitiesto enhance economic development, on the one hand, and to meet the social needs of their constituents, on the other. In the first role, state officials seek to increase capital accumulation and tax revenues, in part through fostering greater industrial access to natural resources. Conversely, in their latter role, state agencies are pressured to provide clean air, clean water, and safe communities,to their electorates. States thus oscillate under varying sets of social, economic and political pressures between syntheses of this dialectic: the economic, in which use-values are largely dismissed, the managed scarcity, in