Minorities in Los Angeles County are three times more likely than whites to live within half a mile of hazardous waste treatment or dumping centers, according to a new study by researchers at Occidental College.
The study, using sophisticated computer and geographic satellite techniques, shows with statistical precision what many have long argued: Minorities and poor people are far more likely to live near potential environmental hazards.
Although that general conclusion was not surprising, the study’s statistical analysis was able to show in Los Angeles that race was even more important than income in determining whether a neighborhood had a toxic waste dump.
“These are people with less power or less privilege. They are more exposed to environmental threats,” said Jim Sadd, an author of the study and chairman of the Environmental Science and Studies program at Occidental.
About 493,000 blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans and 107,000 whites live within half a mile of major hazardous waste sites, the study found. Los Angeles County’s population is 59% minority.
Areas within half a mile of major sites had fewer registered voters and more people with a high school education or less, the study found.
The study examined the 82 hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal facilities registered with the state department of toxics in Los Angeles County. It did not attempt to locate or analyze sites where hazardous wastes are dumped illegally. Hazardous sites are defined by the state as containing toxic, flammable, corrosive or explosive chemicals, or potential carcinogens. The study did not address the question of whether the sites were placed in minority neighborhoods or whether the minorities came after the facilities were already there.
The study was initiated and researched by Occidental undergraduates Tom Boer, a public policy and environmental studies major, and Lori Snyder, an economics major. Sadd helped with high-tech mapping and statistical techniques.
In visiting some of the sites, the team found that some were “nestled between houses,” Boer said. In some areas of South-Central Los Angeles, “some populations are in a one-mile radius of six or seven” hazardous waste sites, he said.
Inner-city environmental activists said the results of the study confirmed what they have been arguing for years. One problem in southeastern and eastern Los Angeles County is that two industrial cities that create hazardous wastes, Vernon and Commerce, have very small populations and yet have significant impact on neighboring cities with mostly poor and minority populations, said Carlos Porras, Southern California director of Citizens for a Better Environment.
Although some activists argue that hazardous facilities tend to be placed in minority communities, the state Environmental Protection Agency contends there is no racism in its permitting process, and notes that siting decisions belong to local authorities.
“We do not use race as a factor in the permitting process. It’s not a consideration,” said EPA spokesman Dan Pellissier.
Information on new sites is distributed in languages that the local communities can understand, he said. Pellissier said that living near a hazardous waste site is not a reason for alarm.
“The risks people face in daily life, such as driving cars or smoking cigarettes, are far and away more important than the risk from properly operated hazardous waste facilities,” he said.
The methodology of the study demonstrates the new tools available to researchers to rigorously analyze questions of potential environmental hazards. Geographic information systems--high-tech mapping techniques that link huge amounts of demographic and other information to maps--make it possible to crunch numbers quickly and accurately, reducing reliance on merely anecdotal evidence.
The students used satellites developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to aim nuclear missiles in order to pinpoint hazardous waste sites not in the commercial database. They visited these facilities with a hand-held global positioning device that read signals from a satellite to give precise longitude and latitude of the site.