Toxic Releases Disproportionately Affect Minority and Low-Income Communities

Published July 14, 2008 under Research News

By Tim Lucas

A study by Duke University researchers finds that minority and low-income communities are more likely to be adversely affected by a 2006 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruling that exempts some industries from reporting detailed information about the toxic chemicals they release into the environment. 

The study was published today in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology. It was funded by a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant.

Every year, nearly 26,000 industrial facilities across the United States are required to submit detailed information to the EPA about their releases of nearly 650 chemicals to air, land, or water. The facilities also must report the amount of chemicals contained in waste that is disposed of, burned, recycled or treated.  The EPA makes this information available to the public through a database known as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).

Since 1986, the TRI has been a tool to alert communities, regulators, public health and safety officials, workers, and investors to the presence and use of chemicals by facilities in their communities, said Marie Lynn Miranda, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative (CEHI) at Duke and associate professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Since the database became publicly available in 1986, emissions of toxic chemicals in the U.S. have declined by 44 percent, she noted.

In December 2006, however, the EPA changed the TRI reporting requirements with the Toxics Release Burden Reduction Rule. The rule exempted thousands of facilities from reporting requirements or allowed them to report much less detailed information about some of the chemicals they released. The purpose of the rule was to reduce the time and cost expended by industry to report releases to the TRI. The EPA estimates that the rule will save eligible facilities about nine hours and about $438 a year for each exempted chemical.

To gain a better understanding of how the ruling might affect minority and low-income communities, Miranda and her team used distance-based geographic information system (GIS) spatial analysis to examine the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of communities within 1-kilometer, 3-kilometer and 5-kilometer buffers around both exempted and non-exempted facilities.

Findings from the study, including an interactive map and EPA Region and state-specific fact sheets can be found here.

Telling Statistics
“Overall, we found that communities in proximity to industrial facilities no longer required to report detailed information about their chemical releases, have significantly higher percent minority, minority under age 5, and low-income populations compared to communities where all of the information is still available,” said Miranda. “We also found significant differences in these demographics between regions and at the state level.”

For example, in North Carolina, children under age 5 that live within 1 kilometer of an exempted TRI facility are 78 percent minority. This is 14 percent higher than in communities that will not lose any chemical release information due to the EPA rule.

The Duke study’s findings disagree with EPA’s interpretation of its own national analysis, and also highlights regional and state differences which the EPA did not examine, Miranda noted.

“Because of profound differences in percent minority population between states and regions of the United States, we considered the impact of the rule separately for the United States in aggregate, for each of the ten EPA regions, and for North Carolina, our home state,” she said. “Conducting the analysis at finer geographic resolutions provides a more detailed and accurate assessment of the varied demographics of affected communities than you can achieve through a national aggregate analysis.” 

Legislative Response
The changes in the TRI reporting rules have not gone unnoticed by regulators and lawmakers. Members of both houses of Congress have introduced the Toxics Right to Know Protection Act to overturn the EPA’s ruling, and 12 states have filed suit in the U.S. District Court seeking the same, said Martha Keating, a research associate at CEHI who was one of the study’s co-authors.

“The TRI information is critical for citizens, researchers and regulators to assess health and safety risks, especially in communities that bear the burden of multiple social and environmental stresses,” Keating said.

“The TRI has been such a success because the information has been used as leverage to improve the environmental performance of industry,” agreed Miranda. “Poor and minority communities that are losing disproportionately more of this information because of the 2006 ruling now are less empowered to advocate for public health or environmental protections. This adds to the environmental justice concerns these communities face.”

*this article was originally published on June 26, 2008 at Duke’s Office of News & Communications