Economic Development Vs. Environmental Justice: Who Decides?

Published October 1, 1999

In a country where common sense and practicality once were commonplace, community leaders regularly encouraged companies to build facilities within their borders, creating jobs for residents and economic development in the community.

But that was before “environmental justice” became part of the price of doing business in the United States. Now many community planning officials, fearful of legal action, think long and hard before endorsing projects aimed at economic development.

Environmental justice has yet to be clearly defined, but the ambiguity appears only to have encouraged the filing of lawsuits by those who claim their quality of life has been compromised by the operation of certain “environmentally racist” businesses within their communities. In general terms, the proponents of environmental justice contend that there has been a disturbing trend toward building or expanding industrial facilities in minority or low-income areas . . . a carefully planned strategy, they claim, that places corporate profits ahead of human health concerns.

Environmental Racism: Does it Exist?

“Depending on whom you ask, the existence of environmental racism–or the lack of environmental justice–is well documented, is unsupported by the evidence, or is not intended to be a factual assertion,” writes Michael W. Steinberg in “Making Sense of Environmental Justice,” published by the National legal Center for the Public Interest. Steinberg is an attorney who has practiced environmental law for 20 years.

The debate was launched at the national level in 1982, when a landfill was proposed for Warren County, North Carolina, to accept waste containing polychlorinated biphenyls. The landfill was to be located in a low-income community with a large minority population. The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to approve the landfill sparked numerous demonstrations across the country, some of which resulted in arrests.

Research into the existence of environmental racism soon followed. Professor Robert Bullard, credited by Steinberg as the founder of the modern environmental justice movement, published the first major study in 1983, concluding that environmental racism “had made Houston’s African-American neighborhoods the ‘dumping grounds for the city’s household garbage.'” The U.S. General Accounting Office and United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC) followed with studies of their own.

These early studies, notes Steinberg, have largely been discredited; “their methods were not adequately explained,” he notes, “or their results could not be reproduced with more sophisticated analyses.”

If a facility included in a study was built in an area before that area was populated by minorities or low-income households, asks Steinberg, how could that be categorized as a deliberate racist act? Can the case be made that a disproportionate number of Hispanics, who make up the bulk of migrant workers, are being purposefully exposed to agricultural pesticides? According to Steinberg, more recent, more comprehensive, and more carefully conducted studies reveal that at best, there is weak evidence to support environmental justice claims.

“The belief that there is a widespread and pervasive difference in the overall environmental risks and burdens faced by minority groups is not supported in the aggregate by the most recent and comprehensive studies. . . . It is thus reasonable to question whether the problem of environmental justice–in particular of disparate environmental impacts–warrants substantial public attention and resource commitments.”

Wrong Tool for the Task

Redress for environmental racism claims is most often sought Title VI of the Civil Right Act of 1964–a poor tool for the job, says Steinberg, if the goal is to reduce risks to human health.

“If environmental justice is really about protecting health and the environment, then Title VI is not a good method–in fact it is a bad method–of addressing the problem.”

“Using Title VI to address disparate environment impact claims will require communities and government to devote tremendous resources to a narrow, misguided, and ultimately unsuccessful program of social engineering. If we are really concerned about preventing risks to human health, Title VI is an extremely poor tool for the job,” he writes.

The nation’s civil rights laws, notes Steinberg, were designed to prevent discrimination, not “to remedy disparities of wealth or disparities of socioeconomic living conditions that do not result from discrimination based on race or ethnicity. As the Supreme Court has stated, moreover, a disparate impact claim under Title VI must ‘in operation be functionally equivalent to intentional discrimination’ for it to be actionable.” Environmental racism claims based on Title VI will tend to fail, Steinberg says, because intentional discrimination is rarely at issue.

Suits May Prove Counterproductive

Far from protecting or improving the quality of life in the low-income minority communities alleged to be the target of environmental racism, Steinberg contends the environmental justice movement is doing serious damage to those communities.

“If industries relocate to avoid environmental justice programs designed to internalize the externalities that facilities impose on communities,” he writes, then jobs and other benefits provided by the company, such as lower rents and real estate prices, will be lost. As economic development in a community slows, higher prices for goods and services will be the end result, further hurting the poor.

“Whether on a local or a national level, this issue has become critically important to business and those who want to promote new employment opportunities in depressed areas,” writes Steinberg.

The effects have already been felt in Louisiana, notes Steinberg, where Shintech Inc.’s plans to site a $700 million plastics manufacturing facility were scrapped while EPA was evaluating a Title VI complaint. While the environmental justice advocates may have considered the company’s decision to locate elsewhere a victory for their cause, the affected communities may very well have lost. Notes Steinberg, “the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and roughly 73 percent of local African-American residents supported siting the facility for the jobs, taxes, and other economic benefits the facility would bring.”

In the past, communities were permitted to weigh for themselves the costs and benefits of accepting such nuisances as strip malls, prisons, landfills, and power plants. By short-circuiting that process–indeed, by creating an atmosphere where the process cannot even begin because economic development projects go unproposed–the environmental justice movement may ultimately do far more harm than good for those they claim to desire to help.