News: Pollution for the Poor

Should environmental health depend on race and income?

Feb 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Natalie Hager

Councilman David Crowley wants an environmental justice policy for Cincinnati.

Many people across the country know the Zip code area 45232 as a "toxic donut," with the residential neighborhoods of Winton Hills, Winton Place and Spring Grove surrounded by more than 50 polluting industrial facilities, according to local activists.

Yet many Tri state residents remain unaware of the way in which these low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods are subjected to a disproportionate amount of pollution.

"This is a local issue that we've been championing for a good while," says Eileen Frechette, a citizen activist and board member of Communities United For Action (CUFA). "This area is considered an over-burdened area, and it's not just the (Gray Road) landfill. There are other big places down here that pollute."

Late last year the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) announced a settlement with Cognis Corp. and Cognis Oleochemicals over air pollution violations at the Winton Place facility. In addition to paying a $290,000 fine and conducting a $20,000 pollution prevention study, the company must test air pollution equipment in the presence of state or county environmental officials. The law department of the city of Cincinnati has levied an additional fine of $25,000.

All of this was the result of 50 citizen complaints, but the success is bittersweet because the company hasn't been ordered to implement any new environmental safety practices, Frechette says. Nor does she know if any of the money will be returned to the neighborhood to remediate environmental damage.

"Among those of us who have been working on this and living in the community, a question is, 'Where does that money go? What's it used for?' " Frechette says. "We've been working with the Cincinnati Health Department to get a health risk assessment done. One of the problems is there's not enough money to get that assessment done. Could any of that money be used to support the employ of a toxicologist?"

Drafting a state policy
Ohioans for Health, Environment and Justice (OHEJ) would like to see more access to information and less concentration of pollution in poor and minority neighborhoods.

"In 2007 and 2008 we aim to develop, on a grassroots level, a draft of a state-wide environmental justice policy," says Mary Clare Rietz, campaign organizer for OHEJ.

The U.S. EPA defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies."

Neighborhoods with a high minority population and low-income areas typically have more polluting industry and lower rates of enforcement than other communities. This disparity is the reason groups such as the OHEJ are calling for a policy on environmental justice.

Writing a state policy that's in sync with federal and local standards is essential to ensure consistent application and enforcement, according to Rietz. OHEJ is hosting three community forums to gather input for an Ohio environmental justice policy. The first was in Columbus, the next is in Cincinnati on March 8 and the third is in Cleveland.

"The next step later in '07 and into '08 will be to hold field hearings, taking this draft policy around, asking legislators and agencies to be present for these hearings where CUFA and others who serve the community will testify to the need for this (environmental justice) policy," Rietz says.

Cincinnati City Councilman David Crowley has been working with other community leaders to draft an environmental justice policy for Cincinnati at a time when the U.S. EPA has been criticized for not enforcing Executive Order 12898 ( library/direct/orders/264a.html), issued by President Clinton in 1994. That mandate sets the criteria to be used in identifying an area in need of environmental justice assistance.

"It's well documented that America's communities of color bear a disproportionate share of exposure to hazardous substances due to discriminatory land use, siting and permit decisions," says Edith Thrower, president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP.

The role of race
The NAACP has voted against supporting Crowley's proposed policy because it doesn't include race as one of the criteria used to identify areas needing environmental justice protection. Dramatic statistical evidence shows an income-only based law will fail to protect vulnerable communities, Thrower says.

"There are studies that show in predominantly minority areas where there is a higher income ... there are still disparities, so you cannot base it on income. People of color get less environmental protection due to discriminatory enforcement and remedial actions," she says.

Crowley says he fought the suggestion to remove race from the criteria when the idea was first proposed, but he and his co-chair, D. David Altman, a local environmental attorney, agreed to the change after it became clear that any legislation that includes race will likely be challenged as unconstitutional.

"More and more decisions are being made saying you can't base programs on race or gender factors," Crowley says. "Income is objective. It doesn't deal with race or sex or anything else.

"We did a map and did an overlay of race and income, and what we found out was very few areas that are minority communities were not covered also by the income-base factor. It covers something like 95 percent of the same area. We'd be risking a 95 percent success rate trying to go for that extra 5 percent."

Crowley says he's willing to consider ways to go back and address the neighborhoods not covered once the initial legislation is passed, including residential portions of College Hill, Westwood and Mount Washington.

OHEJ is "staunchly opposed" to eliminating race from the Ohio policy because race is an important factor, Rietz says.

Only a handful of states have some kind of environmental justice legislation, according to the Council for Environmental Equality. Some have specific laws, others only a department within an existing agency that looks at the issues. Having so few state policies to look to for guidance, OHEJ considers Clinton's executive order a starting point.

Recognizing that people and businesses trying to make a profit aren't color-blind is easy, but developing a law that will stand the test of legal challenges, most likely brought by industry, is the first step.

Persons with a working knowledge of environmental justice are invited to participate in meeting from 4-7:30 p.m. March 8 hosted by Communities United for Action. For more information, contact Mary Clare Rietz at 513-227-1871 or [email protected].