Sign Up for Our Newsletter


Not in Anybody’s Backyard
The EPA’s new oil refinery rules are another half-step toward environmental justice.

The most polluted communities in the country are more likely to be home to people of color. That’s been true for decades, despite many efforts (albeit ineffective ones) to change it. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is trying again, with a proposed rule that would require oil refineries—many of which border poor and largely minority neighborhoods—to measure some forms of pollution along their boundaries and upgrade their facilities.

It’s a step in the right direction. But when viewed through the lens of history, it seems long overdue and rather feeble. Consider how long we’ve recognized the problem:

  • In 1983, the U.S. General Accounting Office observed that three out of four communities near hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast were predominantly African-American, though the general population of the region was only 21 percent black.
  • A 1987 report by the United Church of Christ found that, in communities near large landfills or hazardous waste sites, the proportion of minorities was three times higher than in other communities.
  • In 1993, zip codes containing no commercial hazardous waste facilities were 86 percent white. Those with one such facility were 70 percent white. Zip codes with three or more hazardous waste sites were majority black and Hispanic.

Findings like that led, in 1994, to President Clinton signing an executive order directing federal agencies to provide environmental protection for poor and minority communities. The order, however, included neither concrete requirements nor the means to enforce them. It didn’t prohibit companies from placing polluting sites near minority communities, nor did it require racial balance when considering waste site locations. Two decades later, many agencies still haven’t fulfilled even their minor obligations under the order, such as developing a formal environmental justice strategy.

As a result, the dates have changed, but the statistics remain the same. In 2007, the United Church of Christ released a reprise of its 1987 study, revealing nearly identical findings. This chart, taken from a 2014 report by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, shows that the proportion of minority residents residing within a zip code increases in almost perfect lockstep with the area’s pollution levels.

Race-Ethnicity Proportions of California ZIP Codes by CalEnviroScreen

The same is true in many other states. Michigan’s most polluted zip codes are overwhelmingly populated by minorities. Same with Georgia. Same with Louisiana. And even within heavily polluted zip codes, data suggests that minorities live closer to the sources of pollution. (For a look at how this plays out in one particular community, read OnEarth editor-at-large Ted Genoways’ award-winning profile of Port Arthur, Texas.)

Forcing refineries to measure and limit the pollutants that waft into their neighbors’ backyards, as proposed by the new EPA rule (which is still open for public comment), is a good idea, but it won’t change who lives there. The neighborhoods around the sites will still be mostly poor and minority, and it’s not even clear how much less polluted their air will become.

The state of the science also factors in here. Showing that minority communities bear the brunt of pollution emissions is child’s play. We also know that those pollutants have the potential to damage human health. The hard—and expensive—part is proving indisputably that these pollutants directly contribute to the disproportionate amount of health problems and deaths observed in exposed communities.

So far, we are a little light on this kind of real-world epidemiological research. It’s not because the pollutants don’t cause disease; it’s just very difficult to prove (see “Cracking Open a Cancer Cluster”). Researchers might not always know what they’re looking for, because some pollutants can cause a wide variety of ailments. Other effects, like cancer, can take a long time develop, so they might not show up in the data for decades. There is also a sample size problem. If exposure to benzene from a nearby oil refinery raises your lifetime cancer risk by, say, 10 percent, will enough people develop cancer to establish statistical significance? Not unless you watch a lot of people for a very long time. Increasing funding for this research could give regulators a stronger hand in addressing environmental justice in the future.

That doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t act now, though. “Studying the effects of pollution on people’s health should always be a priority,” says Al Huang, a senior attorney in the environmental justice program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth). “But we should reduce toxic pollutants now rather than waiting for the science to be absolutely complete. By then, a lot of people will already be sick and dying.”

A more aggressive option would be to force states to consider impacts on minority communities when issuing permits for oil refineries and hazardous waste sites. A few states, like California and Oregon, are experimenting with this idea. But many other state agencies, like in Alabama, are formally prohibited from considering disparate impacts on minorities. The federal government could try to change those policies, but measuring community impacts isn’t a surefire solution—some sociologists believe that minorities tend to move in after polluters depress real estate prices. Even so, it may be worth trying.

February marked the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s executive order to address environmental injustice. The EPA celebrated the occasion with parties, a blog, and videos honoring the agency’s commitment to the cause. Perhaps an apology would have been better.

Like this article? Donate to NRDC to support OnEarth's groundbreaking nonprofit journalism.

Brian Palmer covers daily environmental news for OnEarth. His science writing has appeared in Slate, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other publications. MORE STORIES ➔