Piles of studies fill the cavernous gap between the have and have-nots in this country. Research shows that lower-income and minority families often have less access to, among other things, health care and quality education. And a new investigation from sociologists Daniel R. Faber of Northeastern University and Eric J. Krieg of Buffalo State College reveals another lack: protection from environmental hazards. The duo analyzed 370 communities throughout Massachusetts and found that hazardous industrial facilities, power plants, municipal solid waste combustors, toxic waste sites, landfills and trash transfer stations were unequally distributed with respect to income and/or racial composition.
"Clearly, not all Massachusetts residents enjoy equal access to a clean environment," Faber says. "Communities most heavily burdened with environmentally hazardous industrial facilities and sites are overwhelmingly minority and lower-income. Governmental action is urgently required to address these disparities." The findings of the studythe first to measure cumulative exposure to environmental hazards of all kinds in the stateare dramatic: communities in which people of color make up at least 15 percent of the population average more than four times the number of hazardous waste sites, compared with communities having less than 5 percent people of color. So, too, areas in which people of color make up at least 25 percent of the total population average nearly five times as many pounds of chemical emissions from industrial facilities per square mile, compared with communities where less than 5 percent of the population are people of color.
Income, too, was strongly linked to exposure levels. Communities with median household incomes of less than $30,000 average nearly seven times as many pounds of chemical emissions from industrial facilities per square mile than communities with median household incomes of $40,000 or more. Those same areas average nearly 2.5 times more waste sites, and more than four times as many waste sites per square mile. The authors make a number of suggestions to remedy the situation, chief among them passing an environmental justice law that will ensure equal protection and additional resources for overburdened areas.