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Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Why Race Still Matters After All of These Years


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In 1987 the United Church of Christ's (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice published its landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. The report documented disproportionate environmental burdens facing people of color and low-income communities across the country. The report sparked a national grassroots environmental justice movement and significant academic and governmental attention. In 2007, the UCC commissioned leading environmental justice scholars for a new report, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States. In addition to commemorating and updating the 1987 report, the new report takes stock of progress achieved over the last twenty years. Although Toxic Wastes and Race has had tremendous positive impacts, twenty years after its release people of color and low-income communities are still the dumping grounds for all kinds of toxins. Using 2000 Census data, an updated database of commercial hazardous waste facilities, and newer methods that better match where people and hazardous sites are located, we found significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation's hazardous wastes facilities. We demonstrate that people of color are more concentrated around such facilities than previously shown. People of color are particularly concentrated in neighborhoods and communities with the greatest number of facilities and racial disparities continue to be widespread throughout the country. Moreover, hazardous waste host neighborhoods are composed predominantly of people of color. Race continues to be the predominant explanatory factor in facility locations and clearly still matters. Yet getting government to respond to the needs of low-income and people of color communities has not been easy, especially in recent years when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mounted an all-out attack on environmental justice principles and policies established in the 1990s. Environmental injustice results from deeply-embedded institutional discrimination and will require the support of concerned individuals, groups, and organizations from various walks of life. The Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report condensed in this Article provides dozens of recommendations for action at the federal, state, and local levels to help eliminate the disparities. The report also makes recommendations for nongovernmental organizations and industry. More than one hundred environmental justice, civil rights, human rights, faith based, and health allies signed a letter endorsing these steps to reverse recent backsliding, renewing the call for social, economic, and environmental justice for all. Congress has begun to listen and take action.
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... It has been established in the literature that where an individual lives, works, plays, and prays influences their potential exposure to chemical and non-chemical hazards [22]. Exposure to environmental contaminants, hazards, and to air pollution is not a "random" occurrence across the United States. ...
... Exposure to these environmental contaminants has disparate health impacts on residents of low-income and minority communities [32]. Historical and current data shows that the zip codes with higher levels of air pollution and hazardous waste activity are home to predominately residents of color and those with higher poverty rates [22,33]. Health disparities, such as low birth weight, premature birth, infant mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic diseases, and depression have become public health crises in these communities in concordance with such environmental exposures [32]. ...
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... Robert Bullard, 13 and Alexa Ross, co-founder of Philly Thrive. 14 A copy of the complete courageous conversations course syllabus is provided in the Appendix. ...
... This example provides a sense of how, historically, the environmental justice movement was shaped by community practice and how a community went from a reactive local agenda to stop an undesirable land use to a national policy that aims to prevent harm caused by environmental racism. Bullard, Mohai, Saha, and Wright (2008) note that the local struggles "blossomed into a multi-issue, multi-ethnic, and multi-regional movement" (p. 376). ...
Social work responses to environmental degradation have sought to mitigate harm that has already occurred and create strategies to respond or adapt to environmental hazards. Despite a good deal of literature suggesting the promise of prevention-focused models, social workers have less frequently considered preven- tion models to address environmental issues. In this manuscript, we consider how communities engaged in environmentally-based prevention work might inform the development of ecosocial work practice. We describe how a prevention-focused agenda, in partnership with communities, can be a promising avenue for ecosocial work practice to address the root causes of environmental degradation and its social impacts.
... 77 In 2007, the United Church of Christ reported that historically marginalized communities are more likely to be surrounded by toxic exposures from facilities compared with White communities. 74 Black and African American, middle-class Americans are more likely to experience greater exposure to environmental pollutants, such as air pollution, water pathogens, industrial chemical pollution, and potentially toxic elements such as heavy metals than lower-class Whites, 78 noting that these injustices are not tied to solely poverty. 78,79 Superfund sites and ''hyper-polluters'' (i.e., U.S. industrial facilities) 80 have been identified as disproportionately exposing historically marginalized communities to chemical releases and pollutants, 81 and historically marginalized communities are more impacted than White communities by producers who disproportionately create pollution. ...
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Background: Place is a social determinant of health, as recently evidenced by COVID-19. Previous literature surrounding health disparities in the United States often fails to acknowledge the role of structural racism on place-based health disparities for historically marginalized communities (i.e., Black and African American communities, Hispanic/Latinx communities, Indigenous communities [i.e., First Nations, Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian], and Pacific Islanders). This narrative review summarizes the intersection between structural racism and place as contributors to COVID-19 health disparities. Methods: This narrative review accounts for the unique place-based health care experiences influenced by structural racism, including health systems and services and physical environment. We searched online databases for peer-reviewed and governmental sources, published in English between 2000 and 2021, related to place-based U.S. health inequities in historically marginalized communities. We then narrate the link between the historical trajectory of structural racism and current COVID-19 health outcomes for historically marginalized communities. Results: Structural racism has infrequently been named as a contributor to place as a social determinant of health. This narrative review details how place is intricately intertwined with the results of structural racism, focusing on one's access to health systems and services and physical environment, including the outdoor air and drinking water. The role of place, health disparities, and structural racism has been starkly displayed during the COVID-19 pandemic, where historically marginalized communities have been subject to greater rates of COVID-19 incidence and mortality. Conclusion: As COVID-19 becomes endemic, it is crucial to understand how place-based inequities and structural racism contributed to the COVID-19 racial disparities in incidence and mortality. Addressing structurally racist place-based health inequities through anti-racist policy strategies is one way to move the United States toward achieving health equity.
... It is interesting to see, in this context, what strategies are used in environmental justice movements (Blake et al. 2020;Bullard et al. 2008) and by other activist groups that utilize community science methods, putting knowledge into action in alignment with the interest and goals of underserved communities (as detailed by Lorenz 2020). Environmental justice movements and similar communities understand themselves as engaging in particularly problem-driven activities. ...
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In this paper, we bring together the literature on citizen science and on deliberative democracy and epistemic injustice. We argue that citizen science can be seen as one element of “deliberative systems,” as described by Mansbridge et al. But in order to fulfil its democratic potential, citizen science needs to be attentive to various forms of exclusion and epistemic injustice, as analyzed by Fricker, Medina and others. Moreover, to tap the potentials of citizen science from the perspective of deliberative democracy, it needs to move towards a more empowered approach, in which citizens do not only deliver data points, but also, in invited or uninvited settings, participate in discussions about the goals and implications of research. Integrating citizen science into the deliberative systems approach embeds it in a broader framework of democratic theory and suggests the transmission of certain practical strategies (e.g., randomized sampling). It can also contribute to realism about both the potentials and the limits of citizen science. As part of a deliberative system, citizen science cannot, and need not, be the only place in which reforms are necessary for creating stronger ties between science and society and for aligning science with democratic values.
... It is well-established that chemical manufacturing, storage, and waste affect BIPOC and impoverished communities more than the general population [21,22]. ...
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Many environmental pollutants are known to have disproportionate effects on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as communities of low-income and wealth. The reasons for these disproportionate effects are complex and involve hundreds of years of systematic oppression kept in place through structural racism and classism in the USA. Here we analyze the available literature and existing datasets to determine the extent to which disparities in exposure and harm exist for one of the most widespread pollutants in the world – pesticides. Our objective was to identify and discuss not only the historical injustices that have led to these disparities, but also the current laws, policies and regulatory practices that perpetuate them to this day with the ultimate goal of proposing achievable solutions. Disparities in exposures and harms from pesticides are widespread, impacting BIPOC and low-income communities in both rural and urban settings and occurring throughout the entire lifecycle of the pesticide from production to end-use. These disparities are being perpetuated by current laws and regulations through 1) a pesticide safety double standard, 2) inadequate worker protections, and 3) export of dangerous pesticides to developing countries. Racial, ethnic and income disparities are also maintained through policies and regulatory practices that 4) fail to implement environmental justice Executive Orders, 5) fail to account for unintended pesticide use or provide adequate training and support, 6) fail to effectively monitor and follow-up with vulnerable communities post-approval, and 7) fail to implement essential protections for children. Here we’ve identified federal laws, regulations, policies, and practices that allow for disparities in pesticide exposure and harm to remain entrenched in everyday life for environmental justice communities. This is not simply a pesticides issue, but a broader public health and civil rights issue. The true fix is to shift the USA to a more just system based on the Precautionary Principle to prevent harmful pollution exposure to everyone, regardless of skin tone or income. However, there are actions that can be taken within our existing framework in the short term to make our unjust regulatory system work better for everyone.
The literature of spatial inequalities is currently “fragmented” across ethnic segregation and built environment domains. Inequalities in these dimensions are often considered in isolation one from another. For example, ethnic segregated areas are often more disadvantaged in terms of unemployment, housing conditions and access to services. By using a combination of the most recent Census and a series of openly available datasets related to ambient urban environment characteristics at the Lower Super Output Area (LSOA) for the 12 biggest cities in England, we employed a series of multilevel models to explore the within and between city variations in the relationship across ethnic segregation, and key socioeconomic and built environment features of neighbourhoods. The results showed that ethnic minority segregated areas are associated with distinct and remarkably systematic patterns of socioeconomic characteristics, but do not lack access to good quality schools and public transport compared to the predominant white population communities. Ethnically segregated communities seem to consistently experience higher unemployment, long-term illness, higher average household size, and high exposure to pollution compared to white population groups across English cities. These relationships are remarkably similar across ethnic groups evidencing the extent of systematic persistent disadvantage experienced by minority communities relative to white populations. Moreover, the strength of these relationships varies widely across cities, although the overall systematic pattern prevails.
In this essay I explore how regulatory standards for lead—which are designed to ensure the quality of drinking water—permit toxic harm to befall Philadelphia's residents, especially communities of color. The bureaucratic practices of the city's water department, I argue, render knowledge about toxic harm and risk both materially and legally illegible—not always despite, but also because of these standards. A class‐action lawsuit filed against the City of Philadelphia over concerns about lead in the residents’ water supply is used to contextualize and explicate a predominant approach to environmental protection that is centered on creating standards to regulate toxic substances. As the case of Philadelphia shows, such an approach is prone to failure because ultimately the harm caused by a pollutant is only secondary to empirical questions about whether actionable thresholds are crossed and protocols breached.
During the global pandemic and online teaching, we co-taught the keystone course for the new environmental humanities minor at the University of Pennsylvania. Beyond introducing students to transdisciplinary modes of communication and environmental humanities analytical frameworks, we focused the course around building a public engaged collaboration with community organizations and civil society initiatives in Colombia. The final project for the class resulted in a bilingual Digital Environmental Justice Storytelling platform that invites people to learn how different communities in Colombia engage with the arts and sciences in their activism and daily life to navigate environmental health uncertainties, defend territories, and transform urban and rural life conditions. In this article, we share our experience facilitating transdisciplinary international collaboration, bilingual translation, and multimodal methods in the building of the platform. We explain the pedagogical and methodological design of the project, placing emphasis on the flows of learning established between students and their Colombian community partners. The article includes the perspectives of different participants regarding their collaborative process, reflections about the importance of multilingual and hemispheric perspectives for the environmental humanities, and the impact of digital mediums as tools for environmental justice struggles and solidarity building.
The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is a key federal program shifting the nation's transportation fuel mix towards lower-carbon alternatives. A 2014 update to the standard included certain types of renewable electricity as qualifying fuels, supporting vehicle electrification within the RFS for the first time. This study investigates the potential under existing regulatory authority to expand deployment of low-carbon waste-to-electricity pathways, yielding revenue that could be used to subsidize electric vehicle (EV) sales or to support other RFS-aligned climate and transport-sector goals. We find that by accounting for drivetrain efficiency in credit allocation and creating a centralized entity to accrue credits, the RFS could generate $8.7 to $24 billion in revenues annually that could be used to provide EV subsidies of $3600 to $9200 or to otherwise accelerate transport electrification. The economic potential for qualifying waste-derived bioelectricity production could meet EV fleet demand to at least 2029. Absent a federal Low Carbon Fuel Standard, or other technology-neutral fuel policy, the RFS could effectively support widespread vehicle electrification. Expansion of waste-derived electricity could mitigate or increase pollutant exposure for some populations, so policy design and implementation must pay close attention to environmental health, justice, and equity.
Social movement theory emphasizes the importance of resource mobilization and the strategic political processes of struggles within a society. Although it yields useful insights into the dynamics involved in a struggle, social movement theory ultimately is too narrow to grapple with all social struggles. The indigenous environmental movement breaks the mould, revealing unconsidered historical forces and variables involved in social struggles. The economic dynamics of capitalism and the history of internal colonialism must be incorporated into an account of the evolution of the indigenous environmental movement. Struggles over treaty rights and sovereignty are unique to the Native population, making their movement one of the most powerful and effective groups for protecting the environment. Although the indigenous environmental movement is connected to other environmental movements, the Native struggle remains fundamentally grounded in a challenge to the whole of society, as presently constituted, as they fight for the survival of their nations and ways of life.
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