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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Race Matters

Air Date: Week of

A recent report by the Associated Press shows poverty and race are still major factors in deciding who inhabits the most polluted parts of the nation. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Pace who reported the story for the AP.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

A report by the Associated Press, based on the federal government’s own statistics, shows that black Americans are almost 80 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial air pollution is a major health hazard.

The AP combined information from the 2000 census and a recent EPA project that mapped industrial air pollution for every square kilometer of the nation, and also found that poor and less educated Americans, black and white, live in the top five percent of polluted parts of the country.

David Pace reported the series. He joins us from Washington, DC. Hello.

PACE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about the role of race here. People say, look, blacks are much more likely to be poor than whites, even though the absolute number of poor people in America is white, and therefore you’d find these facilities in black neighborhoods more likely. Or do you?

PACE: Well, you do, and part of it is the legacy of the way industry developed in this country. Blacks tend to live more in inner cities in areas where industrial plants are located. The thing that surprised us in doing this study was that environmental justice has been an issue on the national agenda for more than two decades now.

And in 1993, President Clinton issued an executive order directing all agencies of the government to start addressing these inequities through existing civil rights laws and environmental laws. And yet, it’s been, you know, 12 years since that executive order has come out and we find, you know, pretty much exactly the same things that first raised this issue two decades ago. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of progress.

CURWOOD: Why haven’t things changed in the 20 years or so since this issue was raised?

PACE: Well, it’s a very difficult issue to get at. Industrial corridors tend to attract other industry; that’s where plants go to be located. Black people and poor people have less political clout than their white suburban neighbors. If a company decided to locate a plant in an affluent area they would face a long battle – a legal battle, a public relations battle – from the community to try to keep that plant from being located there. Black Americans who live in these neighborhoods and poor people who live in these neighborhoods that already are industrial sites, to large degree, don’t have the clout, in many cases, to fight back.

CURWOOD: What are the health risks from the kind of industrial pollution that you looked at? I know that asthma is very high on the list but what else is there?

PACE: Well, respiratory problems of all types are very high. Asthma, bronchitis. A number of these chemicals that are being released are carcinogens, they’ve been found in laboratory tests to cause cancer. There’s a lot of research going on to try to determine if there is a definite link between some of these most toxic chemicals and various cancers. It hasn’t been established yet. There are people who believe it’s there, there are people on the other side who argue it isn’t. But definitely the chemicals being released , some of them, have been tested by the government and determined to cause cancer in humans. You know, at significant doses.

CURWOOD: You went to a lot of places. What was one of the worst situations that you saw? What sticks with you as being, frankly, a tragedy in your mind after this?

PACE: Well the worst situation, I thought, was Camden, New Jersey. Camden has always been sort of the poster child for environmental justice issues. But we visited with a woman there who gave us a tour of her neighborhood, and it was one plant after another. I mean, around the corner was a sewage treatment plant; down the other side of the street was a licorice/mulch factory; behind her house were three scrap metal recyclers. The cement plant’s located within 100 yards of her house.

There’s a Superfund site which isn’t air pollution but it’s a Superfund site that closed decades ago. It was left there by the feds for over 20 years before it was finally cleaned up. That Superfund site is, you know, within sight of her front porch. So she’s just completely surrounded. And she’s not the only one. She lives on a street that’s just, of rowhouses in Camden, and these people are right in the middle of an industrial area.

CURWOOD: Now, the Environmental Protection Agency says, overall, industrial air pollution has declined significantly. And, in fact, in your series you note that total annual emissions of certain toxins are down by one third since 1990. That sounds like some improvement, isn’t it?

PACE: Oh, there’s definitely been improvement. The Clean Air Act has resulted in dramatic reductions in air pollution across the country. And ultimately, if you keep going at that level, you will solve some of the problems in these communities. But the overall reductions mask the fact that some of these communities still are heavily polluted, and they’re not getting the same relief.

You know, I would venture to guess that the overall levels of pollution in these communities are down somewhat from the past three decade now that the Clean Air Act has been in effect. But if you go and walk the streets in the neighborhoods and smell the air and talk to the residents, you find a, you know, a very different story.

People are still living in areas across the country where there is heavy industrial air pollution, where it is, according to them, affecting their health, affecting the health of their children, and it’s something, you know, they would like to see changed.

CURWOOD: David Pace writes for the Associated Press in Washington. Thank you, sir.

PACE: Thank you.



EPA’s Risk Screening Environmental Indicators Project


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