Pollution Prejudice

UM’s Robin Saha found racial and income disparities in the placement of toxic waste facilities.

UM researcher studies how waste facilities target low-income, minority areas

In 1994, Robin Saha visited a predominately African-American neighborhood in Chester, Pennsylvania, where residents lived next to four major waste treatment facilities. He was a summer fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency working for the environmental justice program in the Philadelphia office. On that particular day, he recalls stepping out of the EPA van for the first time to take in the scene. The pollution from the plants – including a sewage sludge incinerator – was thick in the air.

“Within five minutes, my throat was stinging and my eyes were watering,” Saha says.

Saha met with residents-turned-activists in the community, like Zulene Mayfield. Few people in Chester could afford air conditioning, Mayfield told Saha, and in the brutal humid heat of the summer, that was no small thing. But the worst of it was, they couldn’t even open their windows.

“If they did, there would be black soot in their houses,” Saha says. “Kids can’t play outside very often, and they’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of trucks coming through every day with toxic diesel emissions. And that’s in addition to the emissions from these waste facilities.”

The experience in Chester stuck with Saha and became a formative influence in his subsequent work for environmental justice. For his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Michigan, Saha worked with Professor Paul Mohai on the disproportionate siting of waste facilities in Michigan’s minority and low-income neighborhoods. It was a statewide study but an issue of national importance.

Over the past couple decades, Saha, now an associate professor in UM’s Environmental Studies Program, and his former mentor, Mohai, have worked together on issues of environment and race. Recently, they published an important study that’s now getting national attention for addressing the dynamic between waste facilities, like the ones in Chester, and low-income and minority neighborhoods. They looked at two hypotheses: One, that waste companies sought out these neighborhoods as locations to site their facilities. Two, that low-income and minority populations moved into – and affluent whites moved out of – communities with facilities already there.

Interest in these hypotheses has existed since the 1987 landmark report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” which is credited with establishing environmental justice as a national issue and unveiling the unfair share of toxic burdens low-income and minority communities have endured. But the report also has been criticized for not providing direct evidence that the waste industry was targeting these communities for new facilities. Subsequent studies in the 1990s tried to answer the question in the literature.

“It’s sort of the chicken-or-the-egg question,” Saha says.

These studies produced mixed and inconclusive results, but some seemed to support the hypothesis that minorities moved into waste facility neighborhoods.

In 2006, Saha and Mohai published a paper in the journal Demography analyzing the methodological problems with that second wave of studies. Those studies looked at demographics around facilities in terms of units such as ZIP codes. The problem with that unit approach is, for instance, if a facility is located on the edge of a ZIP code – and they often are, Saha says – that facility’s pollution isn’t just affecting people within the single ZIP code, it’s radiating into adjacent ones.

Saha and Mohai proposed a distance-based method instead. Using GIS mapping, they proscribed a circular buffer around each facility and looked at the population living within that radius.

“We re-examined the second-wave studies and showed that you get a completely different result if you standardize the areas around each facility,” Saha says, “and that actually you see racial and income disparities you wouldn’t have found otherwise.”

In 2007, Saha and Mohai contributed to an update of “Toxic Wastes and Race.” The EPA’s database of waste facilities was wildly inaccurate – some were no longer operating and others weren’t listed in the correct location. With grant money from the National Science Foundation, they were able to generate a better database for the new report, “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty,” which found that significant race and income disparities continued to persist.

Last December, Saha and Mohai used the GIS methodology and the updated facilities database to address the chicken-or-the-egg question.

The new study, “Which Came First, People or Pollution?” published in Environmental Research Letters, focused on 319 commercial hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. sited between 1966 and 1995. They looked at the area within a 3-kilometer radius of each site, tracking it within 10-year periods to compare what the demographics were like before and at the time of the siting and how conditions changed afterward. The outcome of the study shows that, in fact, waste facilities were moving into long-standing communities of color and low-income, more so than the other way around.

Answering this question sheds light on an ethical issue.

“These are neighborhoods where there might not be strong neighborhood associations that would stand up and fight them,” Saha says. “Low-income and minority communities often have less political clout and ability to influence decision makers and mount opposition campaigns. It’s important to note that these communities often do fight for themselves – they’re not just helpless victims – but it’s an enormous challenge. Those neighborhoods are seen as the pathways of least resistance, and companies know that.”

In Chester, things have not changed for the better. The town has one of the nation’s largest trash incinerators and medical waste treatment plants, with no shortages of cities around the Northeast that want to send their trash there. But the hope is that studies like Saha’s will spotlight the environmental justice aspect of siting waste facilities in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where property values sink and the quality life is diminished – and even endangered –
by pollution.

Saha, who grew up in Cleveland among racial tensions, remembers, even as a young boy, the civil rights movement and what it promised.

“It’s sometimes hard for me and a lot of people to come to terms with how much more progress we have to make,” he says. “And environmental inequality is a manifestation of a civil rights issue. The right to a clean and healthy environment is part of the Montana Constitution, too, and it’s what environmental justice community groups, activists and scholars, and people working in government who care about environmental justice have sought for decades.

“It is gratifying to shed light on environmental justice problems and to call for effective solutions.”

— By Erika Fredrickson