Toxic reality facing the poor, Americans of color

Living close to hazardous chemicals puts the poor in danger of a catastrophic disaster, the authors say.

Story highlights

  • People of color and the poor face greater exposure to toxic chemicals, authors say
  • Poor have few housing options, no choice but to live near chemical hazards, they say

Ronald White is the regulatory policy director at the Center for Effective Government. Richard Moore is the national co-director of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance -- Los Jardines Institute (the Gardens Institute). Moore is the recent recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council's 26th annual MLK Award. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)This week, we celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Though King and others have accomplished much for civil rights, there is still work to be done to stamp out injustice in our communities. People of color and the poor -- and especially poor children of color -- continue to face social and economic inequality, including greater exposure to toxic chemicals. And our current state and federal chemical policies are not nearly strong enough to protect them.

A report from the Center for Effective Government finds that people of color are almost twice as likely to live within one mile of our nation's most dangerous industrial facilities compared with white residents. Poor residents are 1½ times more likely than nonpoor residents to live in these areas. Living so close to stockpiles of hazardous chemicals puts these residents in danger of a catastrophic disaster. It also pollutes their air, water and soil.
    The people of Richmond, California, understand these dangers all too well. On August 6, 2012, residents heard a tremendous explosion at the nearby Chevron oil facility, then watched a toxic cloud engulf their neighborhoods. More than 15,000 people sought medical treatment in the following weeks due to breathing problems, chest pains and headaches. Twenty were admitted to the hospital.
    The majority of Richmond's residents are people of color. Neighborhoods surrounding the Chevron facility have poverty rates several times the national average. Such scenarios occur across the country: hazardous, polluting facilities operating alongside communities of color and poor neighborhoods.
    Sometimes, this is a deliberate act of environmental racism. Starting in World War II, chemical companies began building facilities near Mossville, Louisiana, a town founded by freed slaves in the 18th century. Residents lacked the political voice to prevent this development. Today, 14 dirty plants surround the community. Those residents remaining report soaring cancer rates.
    In other areas, poor residents are left with few housing options and have no choice but to live next door to chemical hazards. The Houston Ship Channel's oil refineries pollute nearby neighborhoods, and locals say they suppress home prices. Many of the low-income and Latino residents cannot afford to move to neighborhoods where their children can be safer and breathe cleaner air.
    Federal, state and local policies are not adequate to protect these marginalized communities. States and localities should require "buffer zones" around new and expanding facilities, ensuring that they are not built near homes, schools or playgrounds. Similar buffers should be used when building new residential neighborhoods and schools. States and localities should assess the potential impact of unplanned chemical releases, more serious incidents and the cumulative health impact on surrounding communities, with a focus on environmental justice concerns.
    Additionally, we need the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require facilities to use safer chemicals and technologies when feasible. Doing so can reduce or eliminate the possibility of a catastrophic disaster. A few years ago, the Clorox Co. converted all of its bleach manufacturing facilities to safer chemicals, safeguarding 13 million Americans in the process. The EPA is in the process of updating its rules for hazardous facilities and should include a requirement for facilities to use safer chemicals when feasible in its revisions.
    Roughly half of U.S. residents living within one mile of a hazardous facility -- 11.4 million -- are people of color. We have the solutions at hand to protect these communities by making dangerous facilities safer and preventing industrial development near homes and schools. As we celebrate the life of the late civil rights leader King, let us also pick up the work of fighting injustice and ensure that all Americans can live without fear of a chemical disaster.