EPA's Environmental Injustice

By Stephen B. Huebner
Copyright 1998 Investor's Business Daily
April 22, 1998

Earth Day on Wednesday reminded many Americans of the country's progress in protecting the environment. But some poor and minority citizens may have less to cheer about, thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA's Office of Civil Rights will rule soon on a Louisiana case that could alter how the law treats discrimination in deciding where to build industrial facilities, such as landfills, incinerators and waste treatment plants. The change could have a major impact on minority and low-income communities.

At issue: Whether the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality violated the civil rights of a rural, mostly black community by granting permits to Texas-based Shintech Inc. to build a polyvinyl chloride plastics factory in Convent, La.

A handful of Convent residents, aided by Greenpeace and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, argue that the plant would create a ''disparate impact,'' or ''discriminatory effect,'' on their community.

In short, they see environmental racism afoot. That claim is based on the observation that industrial facilities seem to spring up in minority neighborhoods. That's led some critics to conclude that discrimination is to blame. Their solution? Stop such plants from locating in minority communities.

But this well- intended effort is a straw man. In fact, a disparate-impact standard may actually harm minority neighborhoods by preventing them from bringing in new jobs and reaping other economic benefits.

Until now, environmental justice complaints had to show intentional discrimination. If the EPA rules against Shintech, it would mean that ''intent'' has given way to a new standard of ''effect.''

EPA's ruling in the case is likely to be shaped by a paper the agency released in February affirming that a ''discriminatory effect'' standard should be applied in environmental permit complaints.

The trend toward this relaxed burden of proof is evident elsewhere. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled recently that disparate impact must be considered in the decision to license a uranium enrichment facility in Louisiana. And the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that plaintiffs may challenge permits in federal court using EPA's civil rights rules against disparate impact, without seeking relief from the agency first.

But is discrimination really to blame here? A recent study by the Center for the Study of American Business suggests not. The study looked at changes in the racial and economic makeup of neighborhoods in St. Louis with waste facilities.

What happened? Minority populations rose in neighborhoods surrounding the plants after they were built, as property values fell and housing market dynamics changed the makeup of the area.

Contrary to EPA wisdom, the St. Louis experience suggests that government efforts to limit industrial development in minority and poor areas won't end environmental inequity in the long run. Over time, the non-minority neighborhoods where industrial facilities are allowed to locate will likely experience an influx of poor minorities as St. Louis did.

Meanwhile, residents in minority areas lose out on high-paying jobs, training opportunities and higher tax revenues. In the Shintech case, most local residents support building the plastics plant. They know it would provide 165 permanent jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the economically depressed community.

And the health risks that residents would avoid by giving up these economic benefits are close to zero. Tough EPA rules ensure that a new facility would pose negligible risks to their neighborhood.

Better to leave the decision of whether to build these plants to the affected communities and facility planners. This would boost the community's role in the siting process. And it would ensure that local residents receive benefits in return for the inconvenience and lower property values that come from an ''undesirable'' facility.

Stephen B. Huebner is the Jeanne and Arthur Ansehl Fellow in Environmental Policy at the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of ''Are Storm Clouds Brewing on the Environmental Justice Horizon?''

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