Much has changed with respect to racial equality since the passage of the Civil Rights Act more than five decades ago. We have a black president. Black college enrollment has substantially increased, and black women are opening businesses at a rate several times the national average. But despite these achievements, America’s black population continues to face significant roadblocks and disadvantages, including greater exposure to environmental hazards than whites.
Take Flint, Michigan. Families in this majority black community urged local authorities for months to address the filthy water coming from their taps. They experienced hair loss and skin rashes. But state officials ignored their pleas and assured the community that the water was safe, despite knowing full well that it was contaminated with lead. Now many of Flint’s children have been poisoned by lead and face irreversible damage to their IQs and development.
Living near chemical hazards puts these communities in danger of a catastrophic chemical release or explosion. Facilities in communities of color have nearly twice the rate of leaks, fires, explosions, and other incidents than those in white neighborhoods. Industrial facilities also pollute the air and water, leading to cancer clusters and contributing to high asthma rates.
It’s not a coincidence that Flint is majority black or that blacks are more likely to live near dangerous chemical facilities. Because of long-standing inequities and institutionalized discrimination, the net worth of black households is roughly one-eighth that of white households. Blacks are also nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than whites. Low-income communities have less political influence, making it difficult for them to prevent dangerous facilities from being built in their backyards.
Additionally, blacks are grossly underrepresented in local government, which is important because local officials often make decisions about where industrial facilities are built. This can make it easy to ignore black voices and perpetuate systematic racism. In just one example, residents of Mossville, Louisiana – a majority black community founded by freed slaves more than two centuries ago – has been engulfed by industrial development since World War II, leading to abnormally high cancer rates among residents. The town is now battling a foreign chemical company for just compensation to buy out the remaining homes in this highly polluted area.
What can be done to fight these environmental injustices and safeguard communities from chemical hazards? Many industrial facilities that rely on hazardous chemicals can instead use safer chemicals and technologies. Washington, DC’s water treatment plant achieved this several years ago when it replaced chlorine gas with liquid bleach. This move protects millions of residents from a deadly release at a cost of roughly 25 cents per household per month.
But until facilities are required to adopt safer chemicals and technologies, most will continue to put nearby communities in danger. That’s where federal agencies can step in. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently modernizing its regulations for high-risk facilities and should require all facilities to adopt safer chemicals when feasible.
State and local governments also play a role. They can improve zoning laws and require “buffer zones” around new and expanded facilities to ensure they are not built near homes, schools, or playgrounds. Similarly, new homes and schools should not be sited near dangerous chemical plants. They should also engage local communities in the planning process and undertake environmental justice reviews to ensure that industrial development is not unequally impacting communities of color.
Too often industrial facilities unnecessarily endanger black communities - let's work with our local, state and federal governments to end this injustice.
Egland is a member of the NAACP National Board and chair of the NAACP Board Environmental and Climate Justice Committee. White is director of Regulatory Policy at the Center for Effective Government.