The Center for Effective Government released a new report and interactive map to coincide with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The report demonstrates that the struggle for social justice is far from over. Across the country people of color and the poor are disproportionately impacted by chemical facility hazards, and in many areas, the amount of inequality is profound.
We mapped all 12,000+ facilities reporting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Risk Management Program (RMP). These facilities use large enough amounts of extremely hazardous chemicals that they must submit risk and response plans to the EPA. Communities near these facilities face the greatest danger from a toxic chemical release or explosion and are often exposed to toxic emissions on a daily basis.
We compared the demographics of people living within one mile of these dangerous facilities to the rest of the population. The results are stark:
- People of color make up nearly half the population near dangerous facilities (11.4 million), and they are almost twice as likely as whites to live near these facilities.
- One in 10 people in poverty live in fenceline zones, and they are roughly one and a half times more likely to live near facilities than people not in poverty.
- Over 5.7 million U.S. children live within one mile of a chemical facility. Almost two-thirds (3.6 million) are children of color. Over one quarter (1.6 million) are children under the age of five, whose developing bodies are especially vulnerable to toxic exposures.
The greatest disparities, however, are among poor children of color.
Poor black children are twice as likely to live in fenceline communities as white children living above the poverty line. Poor Latino children are two and a half times more likely.
Additionally, nearly one in 10 U.S. schoolchildren (4.9 million) attends one of the 12,000 schools located in fenceline zones. Children of color and those receiving free lunch are also more likely to attend these schools than white children or those not receiving free lunch.
We graded all 50 states based on these racial and income disparities. More than half of the states earned D’s or F’s.
While Massachusetts received an F grade, most states that scored badly are in the Southeast and the Midwest. These areas have high concentrations of hazardous facilities, with poor neighborhoods and communities of color more likely to be nearby. Other states with bad scores include Texas, which has a large number of chemical facilities and lacks zoning laws that might prevent locating homes and schools near these dangerous facilities, and California, which has a large concentration of dangerous facilities ranging from refineries to agricultural chemical distributors.
Sometimes, low-income residents cannot afford to move to safer neighborhoods and must live next door to these dangerous facilities. The nearby dangers keep their property values low and make moving to a safer neighborhood even more difficult. In other cases, companies deliberately build next to people of color or the poor, who often lack the political influence to keep these facilities out. Mossville, Louisiana – founded by freed slaves in the 18th century and now surrounded by 14 toxic industrial facilities – is a tragic example of this phenomenon.
We can significantly reduce the dangers to these fenceline communities.
Many facilities can switch to safer chemicals and technologies. For example, water treatment plants and bleach manufacturing facilities, which often use deadly chlorine gas, can instead use liquid chlorine and significantly reduce the danger to surrounding communities. Clorox converted all of their bleach manufacturing facilities a few years ago and removed the danger to 13 million residents.
But until companies are required to assess alternatives and adopt them, most will continue to conduct “business as usual” and put communities in danger. The EPA is currently modernizing its RMP regulations and could significantly strengthen its standards by including a provision requiring all facilities to switch to safer chemical and technologies when feasible.
Additionally, state and local governments can be part of the solution. States and localities can improve zoning laws and require “buffer zones” around new and expanded facilities. This would ensure that schools, homes, and hospitals are not located within close proximity to dangerous facilities. State and local environmental agencies should assess the potential impact of unplanned releases, more serious incidents, and cumulative impacts on the health of fenceline communities, with a focus on environmental justice concerns.
In the meantime, the poor and people of color continue to bear the brunt of America’s chemical hazards.
We clearly have much work ahead to address racial and income disparities in our country. This year, let us pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. by committing to reducing chemical hazards for everyone.