The first report to draw a relationship between race, income, and risk of exposure to pollutants was the Council of Environmental Quality's "Annual Report to the President" in 1971. After protests in Warren County, North Carolina, the United Church of Christ commissioned a report exploring the concept.
In 1979, Robert D. Bullard, a sociologist at Texas Southern University, completed a report describing the futile attempt of an affluent African-American community in Houston, Texas to block the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in their community. This paper provided evidence that race, not just income status, was a probable factor in this local "uninvited" land-use decision. In 1977, Sidney Howe, Director of the Human Environment Center, suggested that people positioned in the poor socioeconomic level of their respective communities were exposed to more pollution than others, and that those creating the most pollution live in the least polluted places. He used the term environmental justice to describe the corrective measures needed to address this disparity.
During the 1980s, African Americans began organizing environmental campaigns to avoid poisoning farm workers with pesticides, lead poisoning in inner-city children, the zoning of toxic facilities such as landfills, polluting industrial complexes, and incinerators. In addition, many Americans questioned the placement of large numbers of nuclear waste dumps on Native-American reservations. Meanwhile, activists, scholars, and policymakers began investigating the link between race and exposure to environmental hazards. Two influential studies exploring this relationship—one by the U.S. General Accounting Office (US GAO) and the other by the United Church of Christ (UCC)—found that African-Americans and other people of color were more likely to live close to hazardous waste sites and facilities than whites. The study by the UCC was particularly important because it made an explicit connection between race and the increased likelihood of being exposed to hazardous wastes. The studies also made the issue of race and the environment more salient in communities of color.
The term environmental racism came into popular use at a conference held at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources in 1990. The conference, which focused on race and environmental hazards, brought together scholars and policymakers to discuss the relationship between racism and the environment. In addition, the term environmental equity movement was used in the late 1980s to describe the growing movement to address racial, gender, and class environmental inequalities.
Forms of environmental racism include but are not limited to greater probability of exposure to environmental hazards; uneven negative impacts of environmental procedures; uneven negative impacts of environmental policies; intentional targeting and zoning of toxic facilities in minority communities; segregation of minority workers in hazardous jobs; minority communities with little access to or insufficient maintenance of environmental amenities, for example, parks; and disproportionate access to environmental services such as garbage removal.
The primary contention issue in the definition is intent. Some definitions hold that only intentional discrimination against minorities in issues regarding the environment is what constitutes environmental racism, while others focus on the presence of unfavorable environmental conditions for minorities, intentional or not.
Benjamin Chavis, African American civil rights leader, highlighted the importance of intent, stating that "environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants for communities of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement".
Those who are critical of this viewpoint suggest that it is restrictive because deliberate racism is just one of a variety of forms of racism. Even if it's not intentional, some groups, for a number of reasons, are more likely to be present in areas of environmental hazard and pollution than others. Thus, lack of intentionality doesn't necessarily mean that it's not environmental racism. The difficulty of proving group intent versus individual intent is one of the reasons why the intentionality requirement found in some definitions is seen as limiting.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), in the U.S., there is a correlation between the location of hazardous waste facilities and the ethnic background of an area's residents. In predominantly minority areas, voter registration and education are often lower than average, and citizens are less likely to challenge proposals or seek financial compensation for environmental and health damages. Implementing techniques to stop hazardous waste sites requires time, money, and political influence or backing. Resources such as meeting places, access to private and public records, and funding for technical assistance are also required for action. Minority groups may not have full access to these tools and resources creating challenges for the groups in fighting against the placement of toxic sites. Further, controversial projects are less likely to be sited in areas expected to pursue collective action. Some studies also suggest that the lack of protest could be due to fear of losing area jobs. Non-minority communities are more likely to succeed when opposing the siting of hazardous waste and sewage treatment facilities, incinerators, and freeways in their areas. Non-minority communities have better opportunities to access these tools and resources for preventing the placement of toxic sites as well as the negative impacts of environmental policy decisions.
While some social scientists see the siting of hazardous facilities in minority communities as a demonstration of intentional racism, whereby these communities are targeted for prejudicial reasons, belief in racial inferiority, or a desire to protect racial group privilege, others see the causes of environmental racism as structural and institutional. The traditional perspective views discrimination as more individualistic, sporadic, and episodic than the institutional perspective. Processes such as suburbanization, gentrification, and decentralization lead to patterns of environmental racism even absent intentionally discriminatory policies. For example, the process of suburbanization (or white flight) consists of non-minorities leaving industrial zones for safer, cleaner, and less expensive suburban locales. Meanwhile, minority communities are left in the inner cities and in close proximity to polluted industrial zones. In these areas, unemployment is high and businesses are less likely to invest in area improvement, creating poor economic conditions for residents and reinforcing a social formation that reproduces racial inequality. Furthermore, the poverty of property owners and residents in a municipality may be taken into consideration by hazardous waste facility developers since areas with depressed real estate values will cut expenses.
Since April 2014, residents of Flint, a city that is almost 57 percent black and notably impoverished, have been drinking and bathing in water that contains enough lead to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's definition of "toxic waste". Before 2014 when the city of Flint switched to their own river as means of water, Lake Huron provided the area with water. Researchers at Virginia Tech discovered in 2015 that the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron. Lead contamination can engender multiple health conditions. A November 2015 class-action lawsuit describes how Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality failed to treat the new water source with an anti-corrosive agent, thereby causing the water to become increasingly discolored. Adding that agent (orthophosphate) would have cost $100 per day, according to CNN, and 90 percent of the problems with Flint's water would have been averted if it had been used.
Racism and environmental justice unified for the first time during the 1983 citizen opposition to a proposed PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. North Carolina state officials decided to bury soil contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls in Afton, a small town in Warren County. Between June 1978 and August 1978, 30,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB)-contaminated waste were illegally deposited along 210 miles of North Carolina roads. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the PCBs a threat to public health and required the state to remove the polluted waste. In 1979, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and EPA Region 4 selected Warren County as the site to deposit the PCB-contaminated soil that was collected from the roadsides.
Warren County is one of the six counties along the "black belt" of North Carolina. The counties residing in the "black belt" are significantly poorer than the rest of the state. In the early 1980s the residents in Warren County earned an average per capita income of $6,984 compared to $9,283 for the rest of the state. In 1980, the population of Warren County was 54.5% African-American. Scientific findings did not support the decision to discharge the PCB contaminated soil in Warren County. The site of the landfill was not scientifically feasible due to the shallow water table, with the drinking water only 5–10 feet below the surface.
In 1982, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit in the district courts to block the landfill. The residents lost the case in court. In September 1982, the outraged citizens of Warren County joined by civil rights groups, environmental leaders, and clergymen protested the first truckloads of PCB contaminated soil. During the protest, over 500 people were arrested and jailed. Despite protests and scientific evidence that the plan would cause drinking water contamination, the Warren County PCB Landfill was built and the toxic waste was placed in the landfill.
After nearly two decades of suspected leaks, state and federal sources paid a contractor $18 million to detoxify the PCB contaminated soil in Warren County.
Warren County is often cited as the first environmental justice case in the United States; however, this movement started years earlier in 1978 with the discovery of toxic waste in Love Canal, New York.
Altgeld Gardens is a housing community located in south Chicago that was built in 1945 on an abandoned landfill to accommodate returning African-American World War II veterans. Surrounded by 53 toxic facilities and 90% of the city's landfills, the Altgeld Gardens area became known as a "toxic doughnut". With 90% of its population African-American, and 65% below the poverty level, Altgeld Gardens is considered a classic example of environmental racism. The known toxins and pollutants affecting the Altgeld Gardens area include mercury, ammonia gas, lead, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and xylene.
The residents of Altgeld Gardens are surrounded by landfills, a chemical waste incinerator, and piles of loose trash. These living conditions have affected the health of the community. In 1984, a study by Illinois Public Health Sector revealed excessive rates of prostate, bladder, and lung cancer. Additionally, medical records have indicated (1) high rates of children born with brain tumors, (2) high rates of fetuses that had to be aborted after tests revealed that the brains were developing outside the skull, and (3) higher rates of asthma, ringworm, and other ailments. Despite evidence of health problems, the residents of Altgeld Gardens have not been relocated to another public housing project.
Chester, Pennsylvania, provides an example of "social, political, and economic forces that shape the disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards in poor communities of color". Chester is located in Delaware County, an area with a population of 500,000 that, excluding Chester, is 91% white. Chester, however, is 65% African American, with the highest minority population and poverty rate in Delaware County, and recipient of a disproportionate amount of environmental risks and hazards.
Chester has five large waste facilities including a trash incinerator, a medical waste incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant. These waste sites in Chester have a total permitted capacity of 2 million tons of waste per year while the rest of Delaware County has a capacity of merely 1,400 tons per year. One of the waste sites located in Chester is the Westinghouse incinerator, which burns all of the municipal waste from the entire county and surrounding states. These numerous waste facilities engender very significant health risks to the citizens of Chester, as the cancer rate in this area is 2.5 times higher than it is anywhere else in Pennsylvania. Also, the mortality rate is 40% higher than the rest of Delaware county and the child mortality rate is the highest. The clustering of all of these polluting facilities in Chester points to environmental racism.
New Orleans, Louisiana, has been cited as an example of past environmental racism. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, 60.5% of New Orleans residents were African American—a rate nearly 50% higher than in the rest of the United States. Pre-existing racial disparities in wealth within New Orleans worsened the outcome of Hurricane Katrina for minority populations. Institutionalized racial segregation of neighborhoods left minority members more likely to live in low-lying areas that were more vulnerable to the devastating effects of the Hurricane. Additionally, hurricane evacuation plans relied heavily on the use of cars and personal vehicles. However, because minority populations are less likely to own cars, some people had no choice but to stay behind, while white majority communities were able to escape. A report commissioned by the U.S. House of Representatives found that political leaders failed to consider the fact that "100,000 city residents had no cars and relied on public transit", and the city's failure to complete its mandatory evacuation led to hundreds of deaths.
In the months following the disaster, political, religious, and civil rights groups, celebrities, and New Orleans residents spoke out against what they believed was racism on the part of the United States government. After the hurricane, in a meeting held between the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Urban League, the Black Leadership Forum, the National Council of Negro Women, and the NAACP, Black leaders criticized the response of the federal government calling it "slow and incomplete" and discussed the role of race in this response.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears may be considered early examples of environmental racism in the United States. By 1850, all tribes east of the Mississippi had been removed to western lands, essentially confining them to "lands that were too dry, remote, or barren to attract the attention of settlers and corporations". Later, during World War II, military facilities were often located conterminous to reservations, leading to a situation in which "a disproportionate number of the most dangerous military facilities are located near Native American lands".
More recently, Native American lands have been used for waste disposal by the United States and multinational corporations, but illegal dumping poses a greater threat. The International Tribunal of Indigenous People and Oppressed Nations, convened in 1992, established to examine the history of criminal activity against indigenous groups in the United States, published a Significant Bill of Particulars outlining grievances indigenous peoples had with the U.S., including allegations that the United States "deliberately and systematically permitted, aided, and abetted, solicited and conspired to commit the dumping, transportation, and location of nuclear, toxic, medical, and otherwise hazardous waste materials on Native American territories in North America and has thus created a clear and present danger to the health, safety, and physical and mental well-being of Native American People".
An ongoing issue for Native Americans activists would be the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline would start in North Dakota and travel to Illinois. Although it does not cross directly on a reservation, the pipeline is under scrutiny because it passes under a section of the Missouri river which is a key water source for Native American tribes such as the Standing Rock Sioux. The pipeline also traverses a sacred burial ground for the Standing Rock Sioux. The tribe is upset because they argue the federal government did not adequately engage the Standing Rock Sioux during the permitting process which is required by the Federal Government.
In 1989, the Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a British, German and American conglomerate, conducted a nationwide search to find the "best" site to build a privately owned uranium enrichment plant. The LES claimed to use an objective scientific method to select Louisiana as the "best" place to build the plant. In response to the selection, the communities of Homer, Forest Grove and Center Springs that are nearby the proposed site formed a group called Citizens against Nuclear Trash (CANT). With the help of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (later changed to Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund), CANT sued LES for practicing environmental racism. Finally after 8 years, on May 1, 1997 a three-judge panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board made their final initial decision. The panel found that racial bias did play a role in the selection process. In response to the victory, on May 11, 1997 the London Times declared, "Louisiana Blacks Win Nuclear War". The courts decision was also upheld on appeal on April 4, 1998.
Environmental racism also exists on an international scale. Environmental racism on a world scale exists between groups in the developed world and groups in the developing world, and between different races and ethnicities on different continents. First world corporations often produce dangerous chemicals banned in the United States and export them to developing countries, or send waste materials to countries with relaxed environmental laws. This has been described as environmental racism.
In one alleged instance, the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau was prohibited from entering Alang, an Indian ship-breaking yard, due to a lack of clear documentation about its toxic contents. French President Jacques Chirac ultimately ordered the carrier, which contained tons of hazardous materials including asbestos and PCBs, to return to France.
In another example of alleged foreign environmental racism, in 1984, both the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, and the PEMEX liquid propane gas plant in Mexico City, blew up, killing thousands and injuring roughly a million nearby residents. The images of the victims in India and Mexico spread interest in environmental racism around the globe. On the other hand, some countries have small "eco laws" and are more prone to accept dangerous industries.
Electronics companies are constantly coming out with new technologies, rendering old models obsolete. These older technologies can be sent to recycling depots for proper dismantling; however, there is a large component of technology that gets shipped overseas to less developed countries for inexpensive, labour-intensive recycling. From the mid-1990s until about 2001, it is estimated that some 50 to 80 percent of the electronics collected for recycling in the western half of the United States was being exported for dismantling overseas, predominantly to China and Southeast Asia. This scrap processing is quite profitable due to an abundant workforce and cheap labour. Proper disposal and recycling of these electronics is difficult, labour-intensive, and therefore expensive. As a result, large quantities of the waste are shipped overseas to places where the labour is cheap and the environmental laws are lax.
These electronics produce vast amounts of waste when not properly dismantled or disposed of. E-waste disposal sites, such as one in Guiyu, China, are also subjects of controversy. In the town heaps of discarded computer parts rise near the riverbanks and their toxic substances, such as cadmium, copper, lead, PBDEs, and numerous persistent organic compounds, seep into and poison the local water supply. Water samples taken by the Basel Action Network in 2001 from the Lianjiang River contained lead levels 190 times higher than WHO safety standards. After the e-waste began arriving the groundwater in Guiyu became undrinkable. As a consequence, the villages must get their drinking water trucked in, which is quite expensive causing people to still use the contaminated water for some activities. These chemicals and toxins bioaccumulate in fatty tissue and biomagnify up the food chain. In Guiyu, labourers with no protective clothing regularly burn plastics and circuit boards from old computers. They pour acid on electronic parts to extract silver and gold, and crush cathode ray tubes from computer monitors to remove other valuable metals, such as lead. Nearly 80 percent of children in the e-waste hub of Guiyu, China, suffer from lead poisoning, according to recent reports.
Much of the area of Guiyu, before the electronic waste, was agriculturally based with many small farmers making their living. Farming has been abandoned for more lucrative work in scrap electronics. "According to the Western press and both Chinese university and NGO researchers, conditions in these workers' rural villages are so poor that even the primitive electronic scrap industry in Guiyu offers an improvement in income". There were more incentives for the residents of Guiyu to move from farming to electronics dismantling. The citizens of Guiyu more than likely did not have significant political influence or the capital to stop electronic waste coming into the area.
Due to their lack of environmental laws, emerging countries like Ecuador have been subjected to environmental pollution, sometimes causing health problems, loss of agriculture, and poverty. In 1993, 30,000 Ecuadorians, which included Cofan, Siona, Huaorani, and Quichua indigenous people, filed a lawsuit against Texaco oil company for the environmental damages caused by oil extraction activities in the Lago Agrio oil field. After handing control of the oil fields to an Ecuadorian oil company, Texaco did not properly dispose of its hazardous waste, causing great damages to the ecosystem and crippling communities.
The main corporation, Union Carbide Corporation, is the parent company of Union Carbide India Limited. The company outsourced its production to another country. Union Carbide India Limited was located in Bhopal, India and primarily produced the chemical methyl isocyanate used for pesticide manufacture. On December 3, 1984 a cloud of methyl isocyanate leaked as a result of the toxic chemical mixing with water in the plant in Bhopal. Approximately 520,000 people were exposed to the toxic chemical immediately after the leak. Within the first 3 days after the leak an estimated 8,000 people living within the vicinity of the plant died from exposure to the methyl isocyanate.
Some people survived the initial leak from the factory, but due to improper care and improper diagnoses many have died. As a consequence of improper diagnoses, treatment may have been ineffective and this was precipitated by Union Carbide refusing to release all the details regarding the leaked gases and lying about certain important information. The delay in supplying medical aid to the victims of the chemical leak made the situation for the survivors even worse. Many today are still experiencing the negative health impacts of the methyl isocyanate leak, such as lung fibrosis, impaired vision, tuberculosis, neurological disorders, severe body pains, and many more medical conditions.
The operations and maintenance of the factory in Bhopal contributed to the hazardous chemical leak. The storage of huge volumes of methyl isocyanate in a densely inhabited area, was in contravention with company policies strictly practiced in other plants. The company ignored protests that they were holding too much of the dangerous chemical for one plant and built large tanks to hold it in a crowded community. Methyl isocyanate must be stored at extremely low temperatures, but the company cut expenses to the air conditioning system leading to less than optimal conditions for the chemical. Union Carbide India Limited never created disaster management plans for the surrounding community around the factory in the event of a leak or spill. State authorities were in the pocket of the company and therefore did not pay attention to company practices or implementation of the law. The company also cut down on preventative maintenance staff to save money. The company cut corners in order to save some money, creating conditions for the leak to occur.
In Nigeria, near the Niger Delta, cases of oil spills, burning of toxic waste, and urban air pollution are problems in more developed areas. In the early 1990s, Nigeria was among the 50 nations with the world's highest levels of carbon dioxide emissions, which totaled 96,500 kilotons, a per capita level of 0.84 metric tons. The UN reported in 2008 that carbon dioxide emissions in Nigeria totaled 95,194 kilotons.
Numerous webpages were created in support of the Ogoni people, who are indigenous to Nigeria's oil-rich Delta region. Sites were used to protest the disastrous environmental and economic effects of Shell Oil drilling, to urge the boycotting of Shell Oil, and to denounce human rights abuses by the Nigerian government and by Shell. The use of the Internet in formulating an international appeal intensified dramatically after the Nigerian government's November 1995 execution of nine Ogoni activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was one of the founders of the nonviolent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).
There are many proposed solutions to the problem of environmental racism. Activists have called for "more participatory and citizen-centered conceptions of justice".
According to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, one possible solution is the precautionary principle, which states that "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation". Under this principle, the initiator of the potentially hazardous activity is charged with demonstrating the activity's safety. Environmental justice activists also emphasize the need for waste reduction in general, which would act to reduce the overall burden.
Concentrations of ethnic or racial minorities may also foster solidarity, lending support in spite of challenges and providing the concentration of social capital necessary for grassroots activism. Citizens who are tired of being subjected to the dangers of pollution in their communities have been confronting the power structures through organized protest, legal actions, marches, civil disobedience, and other activities. There should be more avenues for public participation and public consultation in the decision making processes.
Other strategies in battling against large companies include public hearings, the elections of supporters to state and local offices, meetings with company representatives, and other efforts to bring about public awareness and accountability. In general, political participation in African American communities is correlated with the reduction of health risks and mortality.
The protests in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, to prevent the siting of a polychlorinated biphenyls landfill in the county became the driving force to a 1983 US General Accounting Office study, "Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities". The study revealed that "three of the four commercial hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast United States were located in majority black communities." The General Accounting Office Study, or GAO study, solely studied off-site hazardous waste landfills in the Southeastern United States limiting the scope. In response to this limitation the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, or CRJ, directed a comprehensive national study on demographic patterns associated with the location of hazardous waste sites. The CRJ national study conducted two examinations of areas surrounding commercial hazardous waste facilities and the location of uncontrolled toxic waste sites. The first study examined the association between race and socio-economic status and the location of commercial hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities. After statistical analysis, the first study concluded that "the percentage of community residents that belonged to a racial or ethnic group was a stronger predictor of the level of commercial hazardous waste activity than was household income, the value of the homes, the number of uncontrolled waste sites, or the estimated amount of hazardous wastes generated by industry". The second study examined the presence of uncontrolled toxic waste sites in ethnic and racial minority communities, and found that 3 out of every 5 African and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled waste sites.
Other studies like the 1987 "Toxic Waste and Race in the United States" by the Commission for Racial Justice found race to be the most influential variable in predicting where waste facilities were located.
The export of hazardous waste to third world countries is another growing concern. Between 1989 and 1994, an estimated 2,611 metric tons of hazardous waste was exported from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries to non-OECD countries.Two international agreements were passed in response to the growing exportation of hazardous waste into their borders. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was concerned that the Basel Convention adopted in March 1989 did not include a total ban on the trans-boundary movement on hazardous waste. In response to their concerns, on January 30, 1991 the Pan-African Conference on Environmental and Sustainable Development adopted the Bamako Convention banning the import of all hazardous waste into Africa and limiting their movement within the continent. In September 1995, the G-77 nations helped amend the Basel Convention to ban the export of all hazardous waste from industrial countries (mainly OECD countries and Lichtenstein) to other countries.
Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is a process that places a monetary value on costs and benefits to evaluate issues. Environmental CBA aims to provide policy solutions for intangible products such as clean air and water by measuring a consumer's willingness to pay for these goods. CBA contributes to environmental racism through the valuing of environmental resources based on their utility to society. The more someone is willing to pay for a resource such as clean water or air benefits society more than when people are not willing to pay for these goods. This creates a burden on poorer areas, however, by relocating toxic wastes and other environmentally hazardous goods through the justification that they are not willing (or able) to pay as much as a wealthier area for a clean environment. The placement of toxic wastes near poor people lowers the property value of already cheap land. Since the decrease in property value is less than that of a cleaner, wealthier area the monetary benefits to society are greater by dumping the toxic waste in a "low-value" area.