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Americans, and 60 percent of Hispanics live in the 136 counties in which two or more air pollutants exceed standards. The percentages living in the 29 counties designated as nonattainment areas for three or more pollutants are 12 percent of whites, 20 percent of African Americans, and 31 percent of Hispanics. Finally, 5 percent of whites, 10 percent of African Americans, and 15 percent of Hispanics live in the seven counties that exceed standards for four or more
substandard air quality come from many and varied sources including traffic, industry, and even that cozy fire in the fireplace. Industrial and electricity-generating facilities are major sources of some of the contaminants of concern. For that reason, the relationship between minority population percentages and concentrations of such facilities is also of interest.
Air-polluting facilities are not evenly distributed over the four regions of the country or between urban and rural counties. Almost half of the nearly 3,000 major air-polluting facilities nationwide are in the South, followed in order by the North Central, West, and Northeast regions. Likewise, 63 percent of the facilities are in urban (Metropolitan Statistical Area) counties. Of all U.S. counties considered urban, only 12 percent have high percentages of minorities (greater than 31 percent), but these high-minority counties contain 21 percent of all urban facilities. Thus, the air-polluting facilities are disproportionately concentrated in counties with high percentages of minorities. Specifically, among urban counties, those with high minority population concentrations have more than twice as many air-polluting facilities as those with below-average (less than 14 percent) minority populations.
We find that air quality trends and the distribution of air-polluting facilities analyses tell the same story: Minorities live in greater concentrations both in areas with above-average numbers of air-polluting facilities and in air-quality problem areas. Why this is the case is the focus of our continuing research.
Whatever the reason(s), these patterns have important implications because of the different distribution of the costs and benefits of these facilities. The gasoline, electricity, chemicals, and other goods from these facilities may benefit individuals around the world, but the pollution-related health and economic costs of the facilities are more likely to be borne by the people in the adjacent areas, who are identified by this research as disproportionately African Americans and Hispanics. O
pollutants. In short, the percentage of minority populations in these areas is consistently greater than the percentage of whites as the number of air pollutant criteria that are exceeded increases from one to four or more.
The rightmost bar of the chart shows the percentages of the population with incomes below the poverty level in relation to the number of pollutants that exceed standards. Regardless of the number of pollutants that exceed standards, lower percentages of poor people (from all population groups) are potentially exposed to substandard air quality than percentages of either African Americans or Hispanics. This is the case for one or more pollutants as well as for four or more pollutants.
This is noteworthy because both African Americans and Hispanics have above-average percentages of their populations with incomes below the poverty line. One might expect such income differences to cause the differences in percentages of the population living in substandard air quality areas shown here and, indeed, low income may contribute to the patterns observed. However, a comparison between poor, African American, and Hispanic percentages shows that these minority groups are more concentrated in such counties than the poor population in general. This suggests that more than low income is a factor in the above-average percentages of African Americans and Hispanics in areas with reduced air quality.
Air pollutants that cause
activity included, depends. It is emerging as an issue because studies are showing that certain groups of Americans may disproportionately suffer the burdens of pollution. And it is emerging because across America people of color are forging a
constituency to put this issue squarely by William K. Reilly
on the national agenda.
The debate surrounding equity is deeply rooted in American history, for
our tradition suggests, as Alexander Protection Should be Applied Fairly
Hamilton stated, “that every individual of the community at large has an equal
right to the protection of government." have a certain idea about
people infuriate me. I am determined Despite notable gaps between ideal environmental protection: It is about to get to the bottom of these charges, to and practice, this principle continues all of us; it benefits all of us. In fact, it refute or respond to them.
to undergird our notions of proper improves our health, defends our
At its core, environmental equity governance. natural systems, and involves us in the means fairness. It speaks to the
A conference in Michigan and a humanly defining enterprise of
impartiality that should guide the report by the United Church of Christ stewardship. That's why talk of
application of laws designed to protect raised my concern about the equity environmental racism at EPA and
the health of human beings and the issue. They indicated that certain charges that the Agency's efforts pay productivity of ecological systems on less regard to the environments of poor which all human activity, economic
(Reilly is Administrator of EPA.)
Mississippi Choctaws protest proposed toxic waste dump.
waste facilities tended to be sited disproportionately in poor and minority communities. I formed an Environmental Equity Workgroup, comprised of 40 professionals from across the Agency who were tasked with assessing the evidence that racial minorities and low-income communities are exposed to higher environmental risks than the population at large. I also wanted to know: What could EPA do to address any disparities that were identified?
It was already clear that EPA had entered a pivotal period in our history, a time of transformation, formidable challenges, fresh directions. The concept of risk—its assessment and management-is a pervasive theme. This follows more than two decades of doggedly pursuing an improved environment. The United States has spent approximately $1.5 trillion to attack contamination of the air, water, land, and food supply, registering, in many cases, substantial progress and more than a few triumphs. No other country comes close to this record.
In one of my first actions as Administrator, I asked EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) to suggest ways to improve the process of identifying, assessing, and comparing multiple risks. The SAB report, published in 1990 and entitled Reducing Risk: Setting Priorities and Strategies for Environmental Protection, urges EPA to target the most promising opportunities for reducing the most serious risks to human health and the environment. The health risks emphasized in the report include ambient air pollution; exposure to dangerous chemicals, especially workplace exposure; indoor air pollution; and contamination of drinking water, particularly by lead.
Risk is central to equity, and the Environmental Equity Workgroup started with some basic questions: How is environmental risk distributed across population groups? How have EPA programs addressed differential
risks in the past? How can we do so in the future?
Of course, these questions are not new. Over 20 years ago, a group of African Americans inhabiting South Carolina's Gullah Islands sent an early warning signal through the environmental movement. Although living at subsistence levels on fish and garden produce and still speaking a Creole dialect deeply enriched by African words, the Gullah community showed great skill in mobilizing public opinion and using the legal system to defeat a German chemical company's efforts to build a major processing plant that would have disturbed the delicate ecology of the wetlands and shallow seas around their islands.
In 1982, a demonstration against the siting of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in predominantly black Warren County, North Carolina, became a watershed in the movement to link environmental issues with social justice. In response to the protests, Representative Walter Fauntroy (DC) requested the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate the race and income dimensions of locating dangerous and dirty facilities. Answer: Blacks were disproportionately represented in three of the four sites that were surveyed.
By January 1990, the debate over environmental equity had progressed sufficiently for the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources to hold a conference on the relationship between race and the incidence of environmental hazards. In its aftermath, a group of social scientists and civil rights leaders informally joined together as the Michigan Coalition. It was the arguments of this group that prompted me to create the Environmental Equity Workgroup.
At EPA, our approach to environmental equity is drawing on three interwoven strands: the Agency's strengthened relationship with minority academic institutions; ambitious goals we have for hiring many more racial minorities in policy and decision-making positions at the Agency; and plans to address the distribution and management of environmental risk. Prior to the workgroup's appointment, EPA had developed specific programs to
increase employment opportunities and reach out to minority academic institutions. The workgroup, consequently, focused on the distribution of risks.
In my charge to this workgroup, I emphasized EPA's basic goal of making certain that the consequences of environmental pollution should not be borne unequally by any segment of the population. EPA has a responsibility to identify such risks and target our scarce resources to address them.
The workgroup's draft report has now been published. It found that data on the incidence of health effects among different race and income groupings are poor—with one notable exception, lead poisoning. A much higher percentage of African American children have unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood. Moreover, our analyses suggested, some low-income and minority communities may experience greater exposure to other pollutants.
Using what data are available, then, the task force on environmental equity has turned up only one instance of environmental contamination that correlates with race: high blood lead in African American children.
Income levels are a somewhat clearer case, although again data from systematic studies are lacking. Property values and rentals are generally higher in less polluted areas. Supply and demand EPA cannot reverse. But we can improve the overall quality of air in cities.
What about poor rural areas? A March 1990 study by Clean Sites, Inc., a private nonprofit group, identified 470 rural poor counties in the United States. Although 15 percent of all counties in the United States are rural and poor, these counties contain only 4 percent of the total sites contaminated by hazardous waste, 2 percent of the active hazardous waste storage and treatment facilities, and 2 percent of the nation's Superfund sites. The study concluded that when Superfund sites are identified in rural poor counties, they receive about the same level of federal attention as Superfund sites nationally.
EPA's workgroup on environmental equity made several recommendations to elevate and improve the Agency's
Copyright Sam Kittner.
response to environmental equity
EPA alone cannot correct whatever
EPA is not wasting any time, however, waiting on the efforts of others or even on the results of the changes we, ourselves, are making. We have active programs underway to increase the hiring of minorities and to involve minority academic institutions in environmental research. And over the past two years, each of EPA's 10 regional offices has launched one or more special projects to investigate problems of environmental inequity and to take steps to remedy them. From bringing enforcement actions to improve drinking water in migrant farm worker camps in California to assuring equitable enforcement across communities regardless of income level to targeting lead for aggressive reduction efforts, many EPA offices were well engaged in equity issues even before the task force convened. (See the article on pages 54-57.)
In the final analysis, lasting progress will depend on having the right people in the right place. In the case of environmental equity, this means having more representatives from
Summary of Findings
• There is a general lack of data on EPA's Environmental
environmental health effects by race
and income. Although there are clear Equity Workgroup
differences between racial groups in terms of disease and death rates, there
is an absence of data to document the Convened by Administrator Reilly, EPA's Environmental Equity
environmental contribution to these Workgroup was asked to assess the
differences. For diseases known to evidence that racial minority and
have environmental causes, data are low-income communities bear a higher not typically disaggregated by race and environmental risk burden than the
socioeconomic group. The notable general population and to consider
exception is lead poisoning. (See story what EPA might do about any
on page 42.) identified disparities,
• While there are large gaps in data on The workgroup prepared a report to actual health effects, it is possible to the Administrator which was
document differences in observed and submitted to him in February 1992 and potential exposure to some made public. The report reviewed environmental pollutants by existing data on the distribution of
socioeconomic factors and race. environmental exposures and risks Exposure is not the same as health across population groups. It also
effects, but this finding is nevertheless examined EPA programs with respect a clear cause for concern. to racial minority and low-income
• Environmental and health data are populations. It should be stressed that the
not routinely collected and analyzed
by income and race. Nor are data findings and recommendations in the
routinely collected on health risks workgroup report_summarized below-constitute only a first step in
posed by multiple industrial facilities,
cumulative and synergistic effects, or the Agency's response to environmental equity concerns. They
multiple and different pathways of
exposure. Risk assessment and risk are intended to contribute to the national dialogue on environmental
management procedures are not in equity and to suggest further steps for themselves biased against certain EPA. There is much that we still need income or racial groups; however,
improvements can be made in data to learn, through both internal study
collection procedures. and public debate.