Oct. 27, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 5

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    Hazardous waste sites: Where and why?

    Study questions role of environmental racism in choosing of sites in Chicago An examination of hazardous waste sites in Chicago neighborhoods shows that historical forces other than "environmental racism" are responsible for their location, a report issued by researchers at the University shows.

    The researchers presented the results of the study at a meeting with community groups and policy-makers on Tuesday at the University's Downtown Center.

    Critics have contended that some companies deliberately place environmentally hazardous facilities near minority residential areas. Such a practice has been labeled environmental racism. "This study is not meant to imply that racism was not a factor in Chicago's geographical history. Rather, the study shows that, historically, environmental siting was unconnected with other patterns of racial segregation and discrimination that have been well documented elsewhere," said Donald Coursey, Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies and an expert on the environment and public policy. Coursey led a research team that studied environmental fairness in Chicago and produced the report "Environmental Racism in the City of Chicago: The History of EPA Hazardous Waste Sites in African-American Neighborhoods."

    "To make scientific claims about the extent of injustice, a detailed history of each hazardous waste site must be evaluated," he said.

    In order to be useful, the analysis of conditions that could lead to environmental racism must consider factors such as housing segregation and discrimination, evolving information about the environment and public health, and our knowledge about chemical danger, he said. "This report is the first that attempts to integrate all these factors in Chicago," Coursey explained.

    The sites examined are identified as hazardous-waste landfills or contaminated industrial sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund Act. Researchers at the Harris School examined Environmental Protection Agency records, land-use documents and census data to determine to what extent dangerous sites were deliberately placed in African-American neighborhoods.

    The sites are located throughout the city, but are concentrated in industrial areas on Chicago's Southeast Side and along the north branch of the Chicago River. The study comes nearly a year after President Clinton issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to codify what environmental justice should mean for public policy. The agencies were requested to provide by November reports on the implications of civil-rights laws for environmental policy.

    Although some activists have contended that environmentally hazardous sites have intentionally been placed in poor minority communities, the study disputes that contention in Chicago.

    "This research found that, historically, Chicago neighborhoods of African Americans did not attract polluting industries," wrote the researchers in a 60-page paper.

    "As the African-American population increased and segregationist legal instruments were struck down by the courts in the late 1940s, the neighborhoods of high African-American population expanded into areas adjacent to industry," the report said. Much of the expansion occurred after an increase in the 1970s of public awareness of environmental hazards.

    Other research has also disputed claims of environmental racism. A June 1992 report by the Environmental Equity Workgroup of the EPA found that, in most cases, differences in disease and death rates for various racial groups are not linked to the siting of environmentally hazardous facilities.

    Coursey's report is the first to examine the connection between siting of hazardous waste facilities and the racial composition of nearby residential neighborhoods in Chicago in a sequential way. The team chose 30 sites at random to study in detail. By determining the sequence of events associated with a siting, Coursey and his team determined what role racism may have played in the siting.

    If an industry was located in an area, became known as hazardous, and then blacks moved to the neighborhood, the industry would not be responsible for acting in an intentionally racist manner under the team's criteria. If, however, an industry or waste facility known to be dangerous was placed in an existing black neighborhood, the potential would exist for the action to have been racist, the researchers contended.

    Neighborhoods near the Chicago sites are actually as likely to be white as they are to be black, the researchers found. For example, the concentration of blacks in all census tracts in Chicago is 43 percent, while it is 40 percent in census tracts near CERCLA sites. Whites amount to 42 percent of the population in the entire city, while 43 percent of the people living near CERCLA sites are white.

    Despite the evidence that discounts the role of race in environmental policy, Coursey and his team concluded that more work needs to be done to understand the connection between racism and the siting of environmental hazards.

    Improved information is important because EPA data are of limited value in performing a study of environmental justice, the researchers found. Although 192 sites in Chicago are identified by the EPA as CERCLA sites, local EPA officials were unable to locate files on 36 of the sites.

    Research on other types of hazardous sites, such as incinerators, may provide further information about the connection between race and the environment, Coursey noted.

    -- William Harms