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01/20/2014 03:52 pm ET | Updated Mar 22, 2014

A Look at Environmental Justice in the United States Today

MLK "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." -Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

On this Martin Luther King Day, TheGreenGrok asks, are the underrepresented over-represented when it comes to environmental risk?

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "plant[ed] the seeds of the environmental justice movement" and that environmental justice is "a civil rights issue." In that spirit, let's take a moment on this day celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King to look at some metrics on how equitable environmental risk is distributed in the United States.

The Birth of the Environmental Justice Movement

North Carolina's Warren County is considered by many to be the "birthplace of environmental justice." Though there had been earlier fights against pollution problems in communities dominated by people of color and lower-income people, it was the siting of a landfill in a poor part of North Carolina that sparked such a fight that it is often cited [pdf] as the impetus for the movement.

The story began after tons of polychlorinated biphenyls better known as PCBs were dumped along more than 240 miles of the state's roads, which the federal government designated a Superfund Site. When cleanup began, the state chose Warren County, which had a majority black population [pdf], as the dump site for some 60,000 tons of soil contaminated by the PCBs, a persistent pollutant shown to be carcinogenic in animals and dangerous to human health. In 1982 the opening of the dump site sparked demonstrations of civil disobedience and protests that helped catalyze a national movement. The fight ultimately helped lead to government policies and regulations to provide equal protection from environmental pollution for all. (See video on PCBs.)

But that was all back in the 1970s and 1980s. How successful has the movement and government actions been? Consider the following facts.

Coal Ash Dump - Headed for Mostly Black, Poor Town

Uniontown, Alabama: Site of landfill selected for dumping an estimated three million tons of coal ash spilled from a retention pond in Kingston, Tennessee, on December 22, 2008.  (See here and here.) The residents of Uniontown are mostly African American and poor.

Air Quality - Better If you Live Non-Poor Area

Based on air quality data from 2005 to 2007, Marie Lynn Miranda, adjunct professor of the Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, et al. found that

"non-Hispanic blacks in the United States suffer worse air quality across multiple metrics, geographic scales, and multiple pollution metrics. Hispanics also suffer worse air quality with respect to particulate matter, but not necessarily so for ozone. It also appears that environmental justice concerns are more prominent along race/ethnicity lines, rather than measures of poverty."

In other words, people of color are more likely to live in areas with higher amounts of air pollution than poor people.

Super Dirty Coal-Fired Power Plants - Located in Poor, Non-White Areas

Percentage of the two million residents living within three miles of one of the 12 "worst plants" that are people of color: 76%

Average per capita income of these residents: $14,626

Source: NAACP [pdf]

Mortality from Asthma - Black Children Most Affected

"Today in the United States, low-income households and people of color are disproportionately affected by indoor and outdoor air pollution."  (Source: Medscape)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [pdf], in 2011:
  • Percentages of black children that have been diagnosed with asthma and still have asthma: 21% and 16%, respectively.
  • Percentages of Hispanic children that have been diagnosed with asthma and still have asthma: 15% and 10%, respectively.
  • Percentages of non-Hispanic white children that have been diagnosed with asthma and still have asthma: 12% and 8%, respectively.
  • Percentages of children in poor families that have been diagnosed with asthma and still have asthma: 18% and 13%, respectively.
Also according to Medscape:

"Three times as many blacks compared with whites die from asthma; among children, this rate increases to 5:1. In some inner-city communities, one third of all black children have been diagnosed with asthma."

Exposure to Toxic Chemicals in Flame Retardants - High if Non-White 

The ratio of polybrominated dephenyl ethers (PBDEs -- see my post on these baddies) in blood of black and Latino toddlers to that of white toddlers: almost 2 to 1

Drinking Water - More at Risk in Poorer Communities 

According to a study based in San Joaquin Valley, California, of communities served by community water systems:

"communities with lower rates of home ownership and greater proportions of people of color had higher odds of having an MCL [maximum contaminate level] violation... [and] are consistent with previous findings that ... [community water systems] with higher arsenic levels serve customers with lower income levels."

(See also here.)

Lead Poisoning - Higher in Non-White, Poorer Homes

Major risk factors leading to higher blood lead levels in children: residence in older housing, poverty, age, and being non-Hispanic black (our emphasis).

Seems like environmental justice in the United States is a work in progress.

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