Environmental Racism: How Communities of Color Bear the Greatest Burden of the US’s Waste

Protest against the arrival of the first tuck, 1982. Photograph By: Jenny Labalme

In September 1982, citizens of the very poor, predominantly black, Warren County in North Carolina marched against establishing a PCB (highly toxic chemicals which were previously used in electrical equipment such as transformers and capacitors before they were banned in 1979) landfill in their community. Six weeks later, after the last truck loaded with contaminated soil arrived at the landfill location, the police had arrested 523 people protesting the toxic dump, including Democratic Congressman Walter Fauntroy. The situation also marked the first official documented use of the term “environmental racism”—a phrase that  implies race plays a factor in overlooking environmental and health concerns in neighborhoods occupied primarily by people of color. Although the term itself was coined quite a long time ago, this problem remains controversial today. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, racism is “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race.” By extension, environmental racism is often defined as “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.”

Following the fight in Warren County, the United Church of Christ, which was established in 1957, and strongly supports values of justice, conducted a study into the correlation between race and proximity to toxic sites. The final report, titled “Toxic Waste and Race” and published in 1987, found that three landfills accounting for 40 percent of the commercial hazardous waste of the United States were located in neighborhoods populated mostly by black and Hispanic people. It also found that “three out of every five Black or Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.” Additionally, half of Americans who are Asian Pacific Islanders and Native Americans live in communities with similar conditions. According to this research, race consistently came up as the common factor between the different landfill locations, with social and economic status coming in second.

Harlem, New York, is a neighborhood populated by a majority of Black or other non-white people. Harlem currently also has a six-lane highway, an exposed high-speed rail line, and a dysfunctional sewage treatment plant through which almost half of Manhattan’s sewage flows. A community park lies on top of the sewage plant to compensate the neighborhood for placing it there, however, many residents expressed that they would refuse to let their kids play there due to how strong the smells coming from the plant are. The original proposal, back in 1962, was to place the sewage treatment plant on the Upper West side, a neighborhood known among New Yorkers for being predominantly white and wealthy. After a ten year fight during which Upper West Side residents used their resources, money and political clout, the plant was moved to the poorer, less privileged Harlem. In 1989, the New York Times reported that the citizens of Harlem angrily complained about terrible odors coming from the plant. According to Metro, Harlem was ranked the second most toxic neighborhood in NYC in 2013. Additionally, Harlem is regarded by the Department of Health as a problem area due to the high numbers of asthma cases.

However, Harlem is not the only place in NYC with a heavy burden when it comes to toxic waste. The South Bronx, a predominately Black, low-income area of the city, has also suffered from the consequences of dumping toxic commercial and industrial waste within its borders. In her “Greening the Ghetto” talk in 2006, Majora Carter, an activist and advocator for environmental justice, talked about her personal experience being born and raised in the South Bronx and personally witnessing how her community was affected by the environmental burden it was bearing. In an area that is about 58 square miles, this area handles more than 40 percent of the entire city’s commercial waste. There is also a sewage treatment plant, four power plants, the world’s largest food distributing center – the Hunts Point Food Market, as well as other industries which in total bring in over 60,000 tucks of diesel into the area each week. She further explained the health issues such as asthma, diabetes and obesity that resulted from the existence of those factories and plants. She also mentioned that, as a black person, she is highly more likely to be living next to hazardous waste facility than any other non-black person and especially a white person.

Ever since environmental racism was acknowledged as an issue both in the United States and internationally, people have been striving to find a solution. In 2001, Majora Carter founded a non-profit organization called Sustainable South Bronx, which attempts to provide solutions and proposals to the current environmental issues in the area, as well as raise consciousness and awareness of these issues. Similarly, in 1988, community leaders in Harlem founded the WE ACT for Environmental Justice organization to make sure people of color and low-incomes are treated equally to others when it comes to environmental decisions and policies. While these organizations have had some very successful campaigns and have done much appreciated work in fighting against environmental racism, the issue remains that communities populated by people of color suffer disproportionately from hazardous and toxic waste placement in their communities when compared with others.


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