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April 30, 2001

Study looks at which came first: Toxics or minorities

By Jennifer McNulty

Which came first, minority neighborhoods or toxic storage facilities? A new study of metropolitan Los Angeles documents that neighborhoods that were selected to house toxic storage and disposal facilities (TSDFs) were more minority, poorer, and more blue-collar than census tracts that did not receive TSDFs.

Manuel Pastor, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies, studied toxic storage and disposal facilities in Los Angeles County. Photo: r. r. jones
The study charts the arrival of all high-capacity TSDFs in Los Angeles County against changing neighborhood demographics over the 1970, 1980, and 1990 census surveys. Titled "Racial/Ethnic Inequality in Environmental Hazard Exposure in Metropolitan Los Angeles," the research was conducted by Manuel Pastor, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UCSC, and was sponsored by the California Policy Research Center.

Simple comparisons looked at the character of an area before a TSDF siting and the demographic and other shifts that occurred in the years after a siting, as compared to the rest of the county. Subsequent complex statistical exercises confirmed that the racial/ethnic makeup of a given neighborhood mattered in the timing of a TSDF siting, while a similar analysis of demographic changes offered no evidence that TSDFs attract minorities.

Pastor's previous research established that TSDFs were concentrated in minority communities in Los Angeles as of 1990. As similar research results have accumulated, some people have suggested that perhaps the disproportionate concentration of toxic hazards in minority neighborhoods is not the result of discrimination in siting decisions but is rather a matter of minorities choosing to move into neighborhoods with toxic facilities, perhaps in search of lower housing costs.

"Our study looks back over time to answer the question 'Which came first? Toxics or minorities?' and our results are clear: Minorities don't want to live next door to toxic facilities any more than anyone else," said Pastor, director of UCSC's Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community. "Our study documents that these potentially hazardous facilities are much more likely to end up in poor and minority neighborhoods than in well-to-do white areas. There's a clear role for policy makers who want to do better in the future."

In addition to being more minority, poorer, and more blue-collar, the neighborhoods that got TSDFs had lower initial home values and rents, had significantly fewer home owners, and had a significantly lower percentage of college-educated residents, suggesting to Pastor that educational skills and an informed populace might play a key role in resisting the placement of hazards.

"Numerous studies have shown that minority residents in California, particularly in southern California, are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of living near environmental hazards and pollution," said Pastor. "Coupled with new evidence that these facilities 'chase' minorities and the poor, rather than the other way around, policy makers have a clear role to play in creating a more equitable distribution of environmental hazards in our communities."

The four policy recommendations outlined in the report are:

1. Bring more community members into the environmental planning process by improving outreach efforts and reforming representation structures, especially the local assessment committees for toxic facilities, to include more residents from immediately affected areas. The provision of information by state agencies about both the nature and location of hazards should be improved. Higher levels of participation and community involvement early on in the decision-making process will help to reduce conflicts and lawsuits while improving business-community relationships.

2. Develop rules to protect communities that are likely to be too weak to launch effective participation efforts. For example, a simple regulation that no new facility would be allowed that would worsen current levels of inequality by race or income in the distribution of hazards--a conservative measure that would allow the current disparities to persist as long as they did not grow larger--would have prevented or changed the siting of nearly half of the TSDFs that came into Los Angeles County between 1970 and 1990. Collecting demographics on areas targeted for siting could trigger a higher level of review and allow government, business, and community organizations to go beyond the current hazard-by-hazard, neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach.

3. To compensate communities for the current pattern of hazard distribution, focus efforts on cleaning up existing facilities, developing economic recovery strategies, and ensuring that any taxes and other mitigations go directly to the localities affected.

4. The state should develop a broad environmental justice mandate, as required by SB 115, which was passed into law in late 1999, and encourage new research on the demographic patterns and health risks of various environmental hazards. SB 115 designates the Office of Planning and Research as the coordinating agency on environmental inequity and directs the California Environmental Protection Agency to develop a model environmental justice mission.

"There's a lot we can do now to help protect the state's most vulnerable and contaminated neighborhoods," said Pastor. "California has been proud to lead the nation in environmental protection, and this is our chance to take a similar leadership role in environmental justice."

The California Policy Research Center, sponsor of the report, was established in 1977 as a research and public-service program charged with applying the extensive research expertise of the University of California system to the analysis, development, and implementation of public policy.

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