Environmental justice is a familiar concept to the communities that CHEJ works with, who experience racial and socioeconomic disparities in health as a part of daily life. Among the general public, this concept is not always understood. If there is any positive associated with the tragic water contamination in Flint, MI, it is that environmental injustices may continue to gain more research attention and spotlight in the national media as a result.
Today, EJ research was front-page news. Just a few days ago, researchers with the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland, released a study that combined computational science and sociology to investigate the impacts of a class of polluters known as ‘Super Polluters.’ These sources are responsible for disproportionate amounts of air pollution. The study was a huge undertaking, assessing the emissions of 600 chemicals from close to 16,000 facilities, and the results were unsurprising: the highest-polluting facilities were located in low income communities and communities of color.
Though the study demonstrates a known concept within the environmental justice community, it supports past findings with a massive body of data, and demonstrates that the effects of super-polluters on low-income and minority communities are worse than previously thought. As one of the researchers shared on SESYNC’s blog, “If you’re non-white or poor, your community is more likely to be polluted by arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other dangerous toxins from industrial production…What’s new and surprising is that industry’s worst offenders seem to impact these communities to a greater extent than might already be expected.”
The study also sheds light on who to blame for the situation. According to the study, fewer than 10% of the facilities they assessed were responsible for more than 90% of human health risks from excess pollution. These findings are relevant for policy-making; if a subset of facilities are causing the majority of the harm, it’s possible that targeted emissions-limiting efforts could be more impactful for promoting environmental justice than large-scale regulatory efforts. Placing more emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable communities, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with reducing the most extreme of environmental pollution in the U.S.
The Washington Post reported on the study today, while placing the Flint tragedy in the context of the larger problem of environmental injustice. This study contributes to our growing understanding of environmental injustice, and will hopefully continue to shed a spotlight on vulnerable communities like Flint, MI. As Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland commented to the Post that the Flint situation “is really going to raise attention around environmental justice issues around the country, and also how you have these other environmental justice disasters that are looming out there.”