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America's Most Polluting Incinerators Disproportionately Affect Low-Income Neighborhoods and Communities of Color

For decades, the federal government has attempted to better prioritize equity in environmental initiatives. A new report highlights one area in which those efforts have fallen short.
Fairmont City, Illinois: A slag pile on the grounds of the old American Zinc plant, which is now designated as a Superfund site by the EPA.

A slag pile on the grounds of the old American Zinc plant, which is now designated as a Superfund site by the EPA, in Fairmont City, Illinois.

A new report from the Tishman Environment and Design Center at New York City's New School found that 1.6 million Americans—disproportionately low-income and minority residents—live near the country's 12 most polluting incinerators. And in total, 4.4 million Americans live within three miles of an incinerator.

According to the report, which was commissioned by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and used Environmental Protection Agency data, 79 percent of all municipal solid waste incinerators are located within three miles or less of communities of color and low-income communities. (The authors refer to these as "environmental justice communities.") The placement of incinerators in these communities is not a coincidence, the authors write, arguing that, in fact, it is the result of structurally racist policies such as segregation and expulsive zoning at federal, state, and local levels.

 Incinerators release highly polluting emissions, such as mercury, lead, particulate matter, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and carbon monoxide. The pollution, which affects surrounding neighborhoods, can cause a variety of health problems for residents, including asthma, heart disease, elevated blood lead levels, and cancer. However, these incinerators negatively impact the health of surrounding communities even when they abide by their permits and regulations, the authors told the Guardian.

Incinerators are often only one of many sources of pollution in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, all of which can detrimentally affect the health of nearby residents, in addition to other harms such as devaluing property, according to the researchers.

The report also addresses the age of America's incinerators. Because many incinerators in the United States were built in the 1980s—and have a life expectancy of roughly 30 years—many are reaching the end of their lifespans now. As the facilities age, they become costly to maintain or upgrade, and the financial burden for upgrades is often shifted onto local taxpayers, according to the report. Aging facilities can lead to fires and other accidents, which puts neighboring communities further at risk.

Reporting for Pacific Standard in 2018, Kevin Stark and Winifred Bird investigated the environmental justice implications of the federal Superfund program: a billion-dollar EPA initiative established in 1980 to clean up areas with disproportionate environmental contamination (such as neighborhoods in close proximity to incinerators). While the federal government has previously attempted to better prioritize equity in environmental initiatives (such as President Bill Clinton's executive order mandating that federal agencies like the EPA better protect poor and minority communities that experience higher environmental contamination), these efforts have fallen far short of that goal, Stark and Bird report:

A 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation revealed that the EPA's Office of Civil Rights rejected or dismissed over 90 percent of Title VI complaints alleging environmental discrimination and hasn't ever formally found a violation of the Civil Rights Act. In 2016, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report that found the EPA had never found a violation of Clinton's 1994 executive order and was not meeting its civil rights obligations. It also found that communities suffering from industrial pollution experienced extreme delays and inaction on the part of the agency.

These revelations came before President Donald Trump began his environmental rollbacks. Trump has made strides to gut the Clean Air Act, which will likely have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. In addition, the proposed budget for 2020 slashes the EPA's funding by 31 percent. And although the drastic cuts to the Superfund program that were included in the 2018 budget are not slotted for 2020, overall reductions in the EPA budget make it more difficult to police environmental violations—violations that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.