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"Key Research and Policy Issues Facing Environmental Justice,"

by Bunyan Bryant July/August 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

Environmental justice refers to those cultural norms, values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies and decisions that support sustainable communities, where people can interact with confidence that their environment is safe, nurturing and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential, without experiencing "isms." Environmental justice is supported by decent-paying and safe jobs, quality schools and recreation, decent housing and adequate health care, democratic decision-making, personal empowerment, and communities free of violence, drugs and poverty. These are communities where both cultural and biological diversity are respected and highly revered and where distributive justice prevails.

The environmental justice movement has generated a good deal of attention and debate. The arguments presented below are those I have encountered in various forms in conferences and in my work with community groups across the country. These arguments are by no means conclusive.

Argument One: Policy decisions should be based on a demonstration of a causal relationship, between a given chemical and a corresponding health effect.

Response: Causal relationships are most difficult to establish, even under the most ideal research conditions. The use of control groups using human beings to test the effect of certain toxic chemicals is unethical, thus rendering it extremely difficult to demonstrate causality. The best we can do in many instances is simply to demonstrate an association between certain chemicals and certain corresponding health effects. Given these uncertainties, an alternative view is to focus on pollution prevention.

Argument Two: Pollution control of fugitive emissions by 90% is a reasonable policy to implement because it reduces emissions to acceptable risks and allows for reasonable profits.

Response: Not everyone agrees that pollution control of fugitive emissions by 90% is safe, because some chemicals are persistent and fat-soluble. Synthetic chemicals, such as the pesticide DDT, some radioactive materials, and toxic mercury and lead compounds become more concentrated in fatty tissues of organisms at successively higher trophic levels in various food chains and food webs. These bioaccumulate or amplify themselves hundreds of thousands of times as they move up the food chain. By the time these chemicals reach the top of the food chain, they are highly concentrated and present a public health problem. This is a key reason many environmental justice groups champion pollution prevention rather than pollution control.

Argument Three: Income is a greater explanatory variable than race in determining where pollution sources are located.

Response: The results of 16 urban, regional and national studies demonstrate a consistent pattern: Where the distribution of pollution has been analyzed by both income and race (and where it has been possible to weigh the relative importance of each), race has been found, in most cases, to be more strongly related to the incidence of pollution than income.

One response by industry is that their sitings are motivated not by race, but only by an attraction to low land values. However, it is possible to establish a racial motivation so long as there is a pattern of locating LULUs (locally unwanted land uses) in communities of color more so than in poor white neighborhoods. Moreover, it is also important to compare the introduction of LULUs to Census data indicating the racial composition of a particular neighborhood over the same time period.

Argument Four: Census tract rather than zip code data is a more critical unit of analysis to test hypotheses regarding disparate impact.

Response: In recent years, an epistemological debate has been taking place about how to measure whether a particular practice or set of practices has disproportionately harmed communities of color to a degree that far exceeds their percentage of the population. Many studies that attempt to show "disparate impact" have used either census tracts or zip codes as the unit of analysis. When census tracts are used, the relative weight of income often becomes a greater explanatory variable than race. When zip codes are used, we often get the opposite effect: the relative weight of race often becomes the greater explanatory variable. While some critics claim that census tracts are too small to yield meaningful results, other critics claim that zip codes are too large to yield meaningful results. There are compelling arguments on both sides. The question is: what is the appropriate unit of analysis to show disparate impact?

Argument Five: Too many environmental regulations hinder efficient business practices, causing loss of valuable time and profits.

Response: This assumption is not necessarily true. For example, although Germany and Japan have some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the world, their regulations have motivated industry to become more creative about developing pollution prevention and abatement technologies. Further, the development of technology helps move us toward an environmentally just society by creating safe, decent-paying jobs, and balances the national debt by exporting pollution prevention, abatement and control technologies to Eastern Europe and developing countries. Finally, loss of environmental regulations often leaves people of color and low-income groups who live close to LULUs vulnerable and overexposed to toxic waste in the interest of corporate profits.

Argument Six: Government officials assume that community people are too irrational and that environmental problems are too complex for the public to understand. Therefore, policy decisions should be left to the experts.

Response: Community members can and must be intimately involved in shaping environmental policy. Few policies with local impacts will work without the affected community possessing a vested interest in their success. In fact, studies have shown that the vast majority of community groups interact successfully with scientists (89%) and health professionals (73%). One scientist, Nicholas Freudenberg, found that these groups had a sophisticated understanding of the limits of scientific studies, issues of toxic waste and waste site remediation, and alternatives to area spraying of pesticides. He also found that these activist groups were more complex than policymakers realized.

Argument Seven: Positivism is a better way of knowing because it embraces a specific scientific methodology that reduces complex phenomena to hypotheses to be tested and quant fled.

Response: It is often difficult for environmental justice to prevail when the locus of control is placed with the outside researcher. Positivism or traditional scientific methodology is not the only effective method of problem-solving. Positivism or traditional research is adversarial and contradictory: it often leaves laypeople confused about the certainty and solutions regarding exposure to environmental toxins.

Often scientists or policymakers cannot be certain about the singular or synergistic effects of chemicals on the health of people. This inability has created both anger and distrust of scientists and government officials and has led affected groups to question traditional science as the only legitimate and effective way of problem-solving.

Participatory research enables community people to become an integral part of the research process. Affected groups feel that environmental justice is better served if they themselves are involved in a participatory research process, where they at least share in the locus of control of the research process along with researchers and policy-makers. They want to be involved in problem identification, questionnaire construction, data collection and data analysis. Often the process outcomes of inclusion, decision-making and respect for the affected populations may .~e more important and weigh heavier on satisfactory outcomes than content outcomes.

Argument Eight: Building incinerators or landfills will provide jobs and economic growth for local communities.

Response: Although new landfills and incinerators will provide jobs, the number of jobs they provide is relatively few. Technical jobs have a tendency to go to people outside the relevant community. Further, there exist serious potential health effects of exposing people to pollutants that arise from capacity expansion. The relevant question is not one simply of job quantity but rather of job quality.

In conclusion, we need to expend greater resources to clean up our pollution. If the effects of certain illnesses disappear, we then know that we have dealt with the general causes, ever though we may never know the specific cause and effect outcomes. Second, w~ need to devote more research money t pollution control technologies. Third we must ask ourselves the role population and consumption play in disparate impacts of pollution on communities o color.

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