Environmental Racism: Then and Now

In recent weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement has shown a spotlight on police brutality against people of color and has worked to bring about much-needed change. This time is an opportunity to raise awareness about the many facets of discrimination as well as for deep reflection on the challenges that minorities face every day. Thus, this blog post is dedicated to environmental justice.

The United States has a long history of environmental racism. Communities of color have been disproportionately targeted for landfills and chemical plants dating back to the mid-1900s. The ramifications of this history live on, as do systemic acts of environmental injustice.

One of the first environmental justice protests that garnered nation-wide attention took place in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982. North Carolina had decided to relocate polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) filled soil from alongside the state’s highways to Warren County, one of only a few predominantly black counties in the state. Activists fought the decision, marched in protest, and even attempted to block the soil-filled trucks from entering the county, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.

warren county protest
Protesters block trucks filled with PCB-ridden soil in Warren County, North Carolina. Source: NRDC, Rickey Stilley.

Following the protests, Congressman Walter Fauntroy requested that the General Accounting Office investigate hazardous waste landfills. The report showed that three of the four landfill sites assessed, which were spread across eight states, were located in primarily black and low-income communities. This was just the first of many reports of its kind.

Behind acts of environmental injustice is a concept known as “not in my backyard” (NIMBY). NIMBY describes the pattern that people are typically less concerned about pollution until it looks like it may be in their backyards. Then there is resistance. The financial resources and networks available to more affluent, often predominantly white neighborhoods, means that they can effectively protect their environment. Thus, it is easier to pollute low-income, minority communities as they have fewer defenses against such action.

A cartoon showing various “imbys”. Source: KQED News Facebook page.

The environmental justice movement was sparked by events in the 1980s, but recent reports offer strikingly familiar evidence of environmental racism. A 2018 research study found that “geographic areas with greater numbers of Superfund sites tend to have elevated cancer risk across the 48 continuous states, and such counties also have elevated rates of minority populations.” Superfund sites are areas designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as highly contaminated and in need of restoration. The researchers note that there are important confounding variables, such as diet, exercise, smoking, etc. that could affect the results of their study. However, with that said, the sheer amount of evidence from other studies just like this one, make it clear that environmental injustice lives on.

Despite the devastating health effects of living near toxic landfills, manufacturing plants, fracking activity, etc. little is communicated to the members of these communities and sometimes they don’t even know that their health is at risk until they receive a diagnosis.

What are the health implications for living near these toxic areas? Look to “Cancer Alley” in Lousiana, an 85-mile long stretch of land by the Mississippi River filled with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Residents, who are predominantly black, are 50% more likely to develop cancer than the average American, according to Business Insider. As if that weren’t enough, COVID-19 is a disease that primarily attacks those with suppressed immune systems. Having already been exposed to extreme levels of pollution, which affects the lungs and can suppress the immune system, residents have been hit particularly hard by the virus. One of the communities in the alley, St. John the Baptist Parish, which consists of almost 46,000 people, had the highest coronavirus death rate per capita in the United States in April. 

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 11.54.27 AM
This map of cancer alley shows the locations of polluting facilities (each dot is a facility) and the estimated distribution of toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Source: ProPublica.

Again, it’s important to note that there could be other confounding variables such as diet and compliance with social distancing recommendations, but the fact that residents are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than anywhere else in the United States remains startling.

“Cancer Alley” is one of the most prominent areas experiencing environmental injustice. There are many communities of color undergoing similar hardships without public awareness. When I was at Emory University, I researched an environmental justice case in my home state of Georgia for a policy class. When I started looking for a community to investigate, I was faced with a multitude of areas that were experiencing environmental racism, most of which I had never even heard of.

superfund sites
A map showing Superfund sites, some identified as “potentially impacted areas”, others as “no impact identified”. Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Environmental injustice is rampant, systemic, and fueled by misinformation by polluters. Hence, it can be an overwhelming issue to tackle. I urge you to work on a local scale. Learn if you live near a Superfund site (sites deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency to contain hazardous waste and in need of clean up) and what other areas may be experiencing elevated levels of pollution. Then take action. You could call your local representative to express your concerns, raise awareness through social media and other platforms, or volunteer with an environmental organization that works in the area. These actions can make a difference in people’s lives and help repair local environmental health.

If you would like to know if you live close to a Superfund site, you can learn that information here.




Amin, R., Nelson, A., and McDougall, S. (2018). A Spatial Study of the Location of Superfund Sites and Associated Cancer Risk, Statistics and Public Policy, 5:1, 1-9, DOI: 10.1080/2330443X.2017.1408439.

Palmer, B. (2016, May 18). The History of Environmental Justice in Five Minutes. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/history-environmental-justice-five-minutes.

Pasley, J. (2020, April 9). Inside Louisiana’s Horrifying ‘Cancer Alley,’ an 85-Mile Stretch of Pollution and Environmental Racism That’s Now Dealing With Some of the Highest Coronavirus Death Rates in the Country. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/louisiana-cancer-alley-photos-oil-refineries-chemicals-pollution-2019-11.

Ramirez, R. (2020, May 4). Wake-Up Call. Retrieved from https://grist.org/justice/as-coronavirus-ravages-louisiana-cancer-alley-residents-havent-given-up-the-fight-against-polluters/.

Reyna, L. (2020, January 9). Environmental Racism is Killing Black Communities in Louisiana. Retrieved from https://talkpoverty.org/2020/01/07/fare-evasion-subway-racism/.

Skelton, R. and Miller, V. (2016, March 17). The Environmental Justice Movement. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/environmental-justice-movement.

United States General Accounting Office. (1983, June 1). Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation With Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. Retrieved from http://archive.gao.gov/d48t13/121648.pdf.

United States Government Accountability Office. (2019, October 18). EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-73.

Younes, L., Shaw, A., and Perlman, C. (2019, October 30). In a Notoriously Polluted Area of the Country, Massive New Chemical Plants Are Still Moving In. Retrieved from https://projects.propublica.org/louisiana-toxic-air/.



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