The term “environmental racism” originated with the environmental justice movement that began developing in the United States in the 1970s. The movement argues that environmental racism is a clear reflection of systemic racism, being a product of often interrelated institutional rules, regulations, and policies coupled with governmental and/or corporate decisions that knowingly target certain communities to bear the burden of environmentally undesirable environments. In addition, the harm of those policies may be increased by the lax enforcement of existing laws and regulations as well as other governmental policies such as zoning. In the end, the affected areas are exposed to a significantly higher degree of hazardous waste and other types of pollution.
While there has long been a recognition that there are risks associated with certain industrial processes, the acknowledgement of environmental racism reflects the fact that, even with that knowledge, decisions are still made that certain areas and certain people will be the ones exposed to those risks. Numerous studies have documented the fact that both low-income communities and communities with heavy concentrations of people of color are the ones who bear the most significant effects of high-polluting industries.
The environmental movement has grown considerably as public awareness has increased. Numerous interest groups have formed, and the federal government has also weighed in, beginning with the November 1992 establishment of an Office of Environmental Equity (later renamed the Office of Environmental Justice) in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The office was intended initially to address environmental justice issues as well as coordinate public outreach programs, but following a series of investigations and preliminary reports, the administration of President Bill Clinton set up a more comprehensive program to expand the scope of environmental justice policies across all federal agencies. The change was set forth in a 1994 executive order that aimed to do three things: first, focus the attention of federal agencies on both human health and environmental conditions in minority and low-income communities; second, foster non-discrimination in all government programs that substantially affect human health or the environment; and, third, give minority and low-income communities greater opportunities to be involved in and informed about matters relating to human health and the environment.
At the same time that the federal government was trying to reverse decades worth of discriminatory policy and neglect, a number of states, having themselves come to recognize and acknowledge the threat posed to their communities by environmental racism, began enacting legislation seeking to address the issue.
Arkansas began one of the earliest state legislative efforts to address the problem, enacting Act 1263 of 1993, which has been called the first and most substantive “environmental equity” legislation passed in the United States. According to the legislative intent section of the act, the law was “enacted…in response to the proliferation of solid waste disposal facilities in lower income and minority communities.” Beyond that, drawing upon the various studies conducted by the General Accounting Office, the Center for Policy Alternatives, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others, that had identified low-income and minority communities as the most common sites for these facilities, the law sought to prevent the further accumulation of waste management facilities in such locales.
One site in Arkansas has received considerable attention as a stark example of the complicated nature of addressing environmental racism. Crossett (Ashley County) is home to a Georgia-Pacific Paper Company mill. In 2022, approximately thirty-six percent of the population of Crossett was African American. Most of the town’s residents make their living working for the paper mill. Over the course of a year, the paper plant emits 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals, emissions that include a steady stream of hydrogen sulfide into both the air and water treatment systems. It has been reported that breathing the air in Crossett on a windy day will both singe the nose and burn the eyes of workers and residents alike. In addition, the toxins have harmed the residents’ health, with almost all of the town’s residents over sixty having had cancer.
None of this was a secret, and in 2018 Georgia-Pacific entered into a settlement with the EPA in response to allegations that the company violated the Clean Air Act. The settlement terms included $600,000 in civil penalties, $2.9 million to reduce the hydrogen sulfide emission in wastewater, and $2 million that was to be diverted into three environmental projects, including ones that would reduce the hydrogen sulfide emissions and monitor the air. While causation can be a challenging thing to prove when talking about environmental racism, the combination of the population and the location of the mills makes it appear to be a prime example of the phenomenon.
The situation in Crossett reflects the competing interests that are a central part of the reality of environmental racism and shows why it is not as easily addressed as one might expect. On one hand, there is clearly no upside to the pollution and its impact on the health of the residents of Crossett. And as bad as it is, like the situation in many such places, the full extent is not even fully known. At the same time, the jobs are the lifeblood of the town—as became clear in the summer of 2019, when it was reported that due to the huge fine levied by the EPA, Georgia-Pacific was going to partially shut down its plant, an action that would cut its workforce almost in half and leave the community with the loss of over 500 jobs. As one observer noted, the situation is a textbook case of politics in America. The EPA, whose responsibility it is to regulate, oversee, levy fines, and punish as appropriate, receives funds allocated by Congress. Congresspeople answer to their constituents, whose jobs may well be in jeopardy if the EPA is too zealous in its efforts. In the end, no one—whether it is EPA staffers, members of Congress, local workers in the town, or corporate executives—wants to put their job at risk.
The situation in Crossett illustrates the trade-offs and competing pressures that are at the heart of the issue. After Georgia-Pacific bought the local paper mill in 1962 and turned it into a paper, chemical, and plywood plant, the whole economic dynamic of the area changed. In addition to the creation of about 1,200 jobs, the town saw annual tax revenues jump to over $6 million, while a new zoo was built and other upgrades like a 3-D printer for the library were enjoyed. Yet at the same time, longtime residents can give tours of the town marked by identifying the homes of those who have died of cancer.
Not long after the 2019 cuts in Crossett were announced, Georgia-Pacific stated that it was preparing to expand its main plant and upgrade facilities in Gurdon (Clark County), although it was not clear whether the improvements would directly result in any additional jobs there. Meanwhile, the following year, the EPA and Georgia-Pacific entered into an amended consent decree related to the earlier Crossett violations. But none of that directly impacted the many who had been exposed to the dangers that the violations represented.
For additional information:
Frazier, John W., Florence Margai, and Eugene Tettey-Fio. Race and Place: Equity Issues in Urban America. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Hart, Stacy R. “A Survey of Environmental Justice Legislation in the States.” Washington University Law Review 73, no. 3 (1995). Online at https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1689&context=law_lawreview (accessed July 15, 2022).
Lin, Emily Crane. “How a Paper Plant in Arkansas Is Allegedly Poisoning the People of Crossett.” Newsweek, April 12, 2016. Online at https://www.newsweek.com/crossett-arkansas-georgia-pacific-factory-pollution-446954 (accessed July 15, 2022).
Mayer, Jane. “A Whistle-Blower Accuses the Kochs of ‘Poisoning’ an Arkansas Town.” New Yorker, September 9, 2016. Online at https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-whistle-blower-accuses-the-kochs-of-poisoning-an-arkansas-town (accessed July 15, 2022).
William H. Pruden III
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