The Color of Toxic Waste

By Guest Columnist Jul 10, 2009

Written by: Anusuya Sivaram How much do you need to spend to rob a community of its health and safety for the next few generations? If you want to do it to Perry County Alabama, the answer is: not much. In December 2008, over 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash were released when a dike burst at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant near Kingston, Tennessee. The company contracted with several landfills to dispose of the waste, which had leaked into the Emory River. In return for paying a few million dollars in dumping fees, and creating some 50-odd jobs at a local landfill, the EPA authorized TVA to ship over 3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash to the Arrowhead Landfill near Uniontown, Alabama, a town that is 88% Black Though coal ash is essentially the same material as coal, the processes it goes through concentrate it, making it more toxic than some nuclear waste. Coal ash’s ability to contaminate surface and groundwater with heavy metals and metalloids is the biggest cause for concern. While government agencies maintain that the Arrowhead Landfill is capable of containing the ash, opponents to the move maintain that a huge risk still remains. If any portion of the landfill is unable to handle the massive quantity of toxic waste, the environmental damage, and associated human cost, could be catastrophic. The most disturbing part of the scenario is who would be affected. According to the US Census Bureau, Uniontown, the city closest to the landfill, is predominantly comprised of people of color. Though people might like to believe so, it’s not a coincidence. Paul Mohai, the founder of the Environmental Justice Program at the University of Michigan, states,

“…it is virtually impossible that the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities are distributed disproportionately in minority communities merely by chance…Among others [the] factors [contributing to deliberate placement in minority communities] include: 1) the availability of cheap land, often located in minority communities and neighborhoods; 2) the lack of local opposition to the facility, often resulting from minorities’ lack of organization and political resources as well as their need for jobs; and 3) the lack of mobility of minorities resulting from poverty and housing discrimination that traps them in neighborhoods where hazardous waste facilities are located.”

Empirical studies further bolster this shocking claim. The United Church of Christ recently published a follow-up report to its 1987 study on toxic waste disposal. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty uses more accurate distance analysis to measure the impact of hazardous waste disposal. The 2007 study found that:

“More than nine million people…are estimated to live in circular host neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of the nation’s 413 commercial hazardous waste facilities. More than 5.1 million people of color…live in neighborhoods with one or more commercial hazardous waste facilities. Host neighborhoods of commercial hazardous waste facilities are 56% people of color whereas nonhost areas are 30% people of color…Racial disparities for people of color as a whole exist in nine out of 10 U.S. EPA regions…Forty of the 44 states (90%) with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color in circular host neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of the facilities.”

How can we decrease the inequity that accompanies the mounting human cost of toxic waste? For starters, the Obama Administration needs to reverse a Bush Administration decision that reclassified 1.5 million tons of toxic waste so that it was no long overseen by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Instead of giving waste disposal corporations a blank check to pollute, the EPA should exercise more control over how known health hazards are recycled and disposed. Additionally, the EPA should interpret President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 more strictly, and actually implement its directive of erasing racial discrimination in environmental policy. The EPA should aim to increase transparency when it implements policy—rather than hide important internal audits from external agencies, it should be upfront about its shortcomings instead of masking the harm done to marginalized communities. Lastly, until we find a way to derive our energy from cleaner sources, we should seek to isolate dangerous waste from all communities, not just white communities. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a more equitable one.