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May 16, 2014
Groups demand environmental justice at chem plants

Several environmental and public advocacy groups are calling on the federal government to take action to protect disadvantaged communities clustered around industrial facilities containing hazardous chemicals. 

The Environmental Justice and Health Alliance, the Center for Effective Government, and Coming Clean call their report the “first-of-its-kind” analysis of the disproportionate risks endured by more than 134 million Americans who live in the danger zones of 3,433 facilities that store or use chemicals that have been found to contribute to cancer and heart disease, asthma, learning disabilities, childhood leukemia, and neurological illnesses.  The groups offer multiple recommendations to address these instances of “environmental injustice,” primarily requirements that facilities be required to eliminate or substantially reduce risks by substituting safer alternatives to high-risk chemicals and processes. 

RMP facilities

The groups say they used geographic information systems (GIS) software and the most recent U.S. Census Bureau population data to estimate residential populations living near enough to facilities to be exposed to health hazards posed by chemical releases.  This information was combined with chemical risk management plans (RMPs) submitted by facilities to the EPA as required by Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act.  The analysis was limited to RMP facilities in several basic industries—water treatment, wastewater treatment, bleach manufacturing, electric power generation, petroleum refining, pulp and paper production, and chemical manufacturing.

Below average

The following findings were reported for residents living in facility fenceline zones (the areas closest to the facilities, about one-tenth the size of the RMP vulnerability zones):

  • Home values are 33 percent below the national average.
  • Average household incomes are 22 percent below the national average.
  • The percentage of Blacks is 75 percent greater than for the United States as a whole, while the percentage of Latinos is 60 percent greater than for the U.S. as a whole.
  • The percentage of adults with less than a high school diploma is 46 percent greater than for the U.S. as a whole, and the percentage of adults with a college or other postgraduate degree is 27 percent lower than for the U.S. as a whole.
  • The poverty rate is 50 percent higher than for the U.S. as a whole. 

“These and other findings in this report document a pattern of disproportionate exposure to chemical hazards created over a long period of time, which should be considered discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” state the groups.  “The time to address these dangers was also 20 years ago, when President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice.”

Prevention over management

The following recommendations were made:

  • Implement national, state, local, and industry systems based on prevention and safety (rather than incident management, as required by the RMP) that require chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and processes whenever feasible to reduce the frequency and severity of chemical facility releases.
  • Prioritize the most endangered and vulnerable populations by passing and implementing laws that protect the health and safety of workers, first responders, people of color, low-income communities, women and children, and the communities surrounding these facilities.
  • Recognize, implement, and enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect communities from the disproportionate impacts of chemical disasters and lack of appropriate regulations.
  • Adopt and strengthen statutes and regulations—including the Secure Chemical Facilities Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act—to promote chemical safety.
  • Fully implement Executive Order 12898 (Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations) and Executive Order 13650 (Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security).
  • Require full disclosure to workers and communities of the types and amounts of chemicals stored at facilities and of alternatives that could reduce or remove hazards.

Who’s in Danger? A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones

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