Unfair Exposure: Seeking justice for neighborhoods bearing the brunt of toxic hazards

By Jennifer McNulty

Manuel Pastor remembers the day he proudly told his aunt he'd received a large research grant for his work in the burgeoning field of environmental justice.

"That's wonderful, Manuelito. I'm so proud of you," she said. "But what is environmental justice?"

Pastor explained that environmental hazards tend to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, and the pattern seems to reflect political power more than pure market dynamics.

Looking him directly in the eye, Pastor's aunt didn't miss a beat:" But, Manuelito, everyone knows that."

Manuel Pastor (center), research colleague Jim Sadd (left), and community activist Carlos Porras, in a Los Angeles neighborhood dominated by industrial development
Photo: Ben Balagot

Throughout much of Los Angeles, poor and working-class neighborhoods are bisected by freeways carrying exhaust-spewing vehicles across town. The relentlessly urban landscape is a tangle of wide boulevards lined with a mix of small manufacturing plants, auto body shops, dry cleaners, and nondescript warehouses, broken up by aging bungalows and apartment houses, fast food joints, and modest storefronts. Every so often, an asphalt playground surrounded by chain-link fencing reveals the presence of a school.

This is where most of the city's African American, Latino, and Asian residents live, work, and play. It is also a hotbed of California's environmental justice movement. A decade ago, saying their neighborhoods appeared to be bearing the brunt of the city's dirtiest industries, residents took their concerns about air and water quality to city officials, community groups, and the media.

Unlike Pastor's aunt, business and civic leaders, as well as some academic researchers, rejected the "commonsense" notion that environmental hazards were concentrated in low-income and minority neighborhoods. They demanded proof. So mothers and fathers joined forces with schoolteachers, retirees, and others in their communities to investigate. The documents they compiled confirmed their fears: Neighborhoods like South Central and Huntington Park were far more polluted than Malibu and Beverly Hills.

But, like dancers doing the tango, industry and corporate attorneys pushed back, raising the chicken-and-egg question of which came first, the minorities or the toxins? Perhaps, they suggested, minorities and the poor chose these neighborhoods after they were already home to hazardous materials because they offered cheaper housing. Longtime residents who had watched the steady influx of these facilities into their neighborhoods were dumbfounded and called the assertion a racist "argument of scoundrels." They also knew they couldn't ignore it. Rallying their resources, they sought assistance from fledgling environmental justice organizations and enlisted the help of experts with the skills to conduct the detailed chronological analyses they would need.

A self-described nerd, Pastor devours data the way others consume French fries. The founding director of UC Santa Cruz's Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community, Pastor was drawn to the environmental justice movement out of a sense of fairness. For him, the enduring message of the environmental movement was the fundamental recognition that everyone has an equal right to a clean environment. Society has not kept that promise to many of the residents of Los Angeles, says Pastor, also a professor of Latin American and Latino studies.

"It's part and parcel, albeit the most toxic part, of a system in which opportunities and costs are distributed unequally," says Pastor. "People should have an equal shot at a clean environment."

In addition to righting a wrong, pushing for equity in the distribution of toxics will ultimately reduce the risk for everyone. "If you can dump toxics in someone else's backyard, it lessens your incentive to reduce the toxic stream," explains Pastor. "If everyone shares the burden equally, we'll have less of the bad stuff to deal with."

For the past seven years, Pastor and his research partner James Sadd, chairman of the Environmental Science and Studies Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, have worked with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) to pursue environmental equity for the residents of Los Angeles. By working at a regional level where industries are concentrated, rather than a national level, they have succeeded where others have failed.

Pastor, Sadd, and Porras hear from a concerned Angeleno.
Photo: Ben Balagot

They bring sophisticated skills to the endeavor, but they try not to talk about their methodologies in public because they don't want people to fall asleep. These are guys who pore over Census Bureau data and live to conduct multivariable studies. They scoff at the inadequacies of established practices, such as using zip codes to glean demographic data. "Zip codes have a lot to do with how you deliver mail, but they don't tell you much about socioeconomics," says Pastor, noting that East Palo Alto—a poor, largely African American community with high crime and unemployment rates—shares the same zip code as tony Palo Alto.

When it's time to present their findings publicly, Pastor makes the research sound easy, using lay language and color-coded maps. "People know there's something wrong. They know it's unfair. And they love being able to see it visually," says Pastor. "It resonates with them."

Even the harshest opponents of the environmental justice movement now concede there's a problem in Los Angeles. Thanks in large part to a high-tech research effort by Pastor, Sadd, and a UCSC undergraduate, they acknowledge that it is not simply a question of minorities "moving in" or choosing polluted areas. In the process, Pastor and Sadd have set the standard for research on environmental inequity. The team's most recent challenge is one that flummoxed advocates of environmental justice for years. How do you quantify the potential consequences of greater exposure to toxics on the health, well-being, and productivity of people, or what economists blandly call "human capital"?

Pastor was drawn to the environmental justice movement out of a sense of fairness. For him, the enduring message of the environmental movement was the fundamental recognition that everyone has an equal right to a clean environment. Society has not kept that promise to many of the residents of Los Angeles, he says.

Pastor and Sadd took on the task by focusing their attention on the academic achievement of schoolchildren in Los Angeles Unified School District. They were joined in their trailblazing effort by Rachel Morello-Frosch, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at Brown University who specializes in how race and class affect the distribution of health risks associated with air pollution. Morello-Frosch joined the team while working as a postdoctoral scholar at UCSC under sociology professor Andrew Szasz in 1998-99. Pastor's group found that estimated respiratory risk from local pollution had a significant effect on school scores, even after they controlled for socioeconomic and demographic differences that generally explain much of the variation in student performance, including the percentage of students on free-lunch programs, teacher quality, and the percentage of English learners.

Indeed, the team estimates that differences in air-related respiratory risk could account for up to 10 percent of the disparity in academic performance between black and white children in Los Angeles Unified School District. Using sophisticated models, the researchers revealed another measure of the impact of environmental inequity: If the school district could wave a magic wand and move the schools in the most-polluted areas to the least-polluted sites in the district, the schools would see an immediate 10 percent boost in scores—enough to receive financial bonuses for improvement under the state's school accountability program.

"It sure looks like dirty air is holding back the academic performance of students in the most polluted neighborhoods, and that reduces their resources. Inequity builds on inequity," says Pastor, noting that Los Angeles Unified is slated to build more than 80 new schools during the next five years. "We hope the district will continue to assess the environmental hazards of potential sites when it decides where to build new schools."

The academic performance study sets a new standard in environmental justice research, and it gives organizers valuable ammunition for their policy work.

"Before we began working with Manuel, Jim, and Rachel, we lacked the sophisticated tools that were needed to document these problems," says Carlos Porras, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment. "Now, when we take this work to agencies and policy makers, it stands alone in its credibility."

Pastor is happy to perform research that is valued in both the academic and activist arenas. "The thing communities need now is good research to back up their organizing," says Pastor. "That's one of the things the university can bring to bear, and it's why I always tell students to master the latest technology and be conversant with datasets. Sometimes people who believe in social change don't spend enough time at the computer, crunching the numbers."

Establishing the correlation between air pollution and respiratory ailments isn't the same as resolving the still-unanswered question of whether air pollution causes asthma, emphasizes Pastor. Without evidence of a causal relationship—which would require formidably expensive epidemiological studies to investigate—policy makers have a choice, says Pastor: They can do nothing, or they can act on what's called the "precautionary principle" and assume that disproportionate exposure produces disproportionate risk.

"It's like a 12-step program," says Pastor. "We know that Los Angeles has disproportionate exposures, and the first step is to admit that we have a problem. Then we look at resources, the significance of the inequity, and we go from there."

In California, officials and policy makers have begun responding to pressure from groups like CBE. In a first-of-its-kind action, the South Coast Air Quality Management District recently reversed itself and reduced the number of permissible cancers associated with emissions from existing manufacturing plants from 100 per million to 25 per million. The Los Angeles International Airport expansion plan was also revised to incorporate the Pastor team's early analysis of the project's environmental justice impacts, and the state recently ordered the multimillion dollar cleanup of Suva Elementary School, where highly toxic hexavalent chromium emitted by a neighboring chromeplating plant was linked to several deaths and numerous illnesses among students and teachers at the school.

"That is one of the most tragic stories in the work we've been doing in southeast L.A., because several children died and a number of adults were diagnosed with brain cancer before the site was cleaned up," said CBE's Porras, who helped fight for the cleanup.

Nevertheless, California leads the nation in efforts to redress environmental inequity, and lawmakers in Sacramento are heeding the call for change. The California Air Resources Board was the first state agency in the country to adopt environmental justice policies, and legislation sponsored by Senator Martha Escutia (D-Norwalk) in 2000 required the state to incorporate environmental justice principles into its policies. Those recommendations were sent to Winston Hickox, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency in October, one week before the recall election that ousted Governor Gray Davis from office. "Before the election, momentum was building and agencies were responding to these problems," says Porras. "Now, that's all been threatened."

School Scores and Respiratory Risk in the Los Angeles Unified School District
Map courtesy Jim Sadd

Land-use decisions are in the hands of local officials, though, and environmental activists are pressing for rules that will require city council members and boards of supervisors to consider the cumulative impacts of multiple facilities when they make development decisions. Current law allows each polluting facility to be measured and regulated separately.

Pastor's work has been funded by The California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation, among others. He hopes to expand his collaboration with CBE into northern California.

"Environmental justice is a common-ground issue," says Pastor, who grew up in the La Puente suburb directly east of L.A. "Latino voters are a major constituency, and a lot of Latino legislators in Sacramento grew up in southern California, so they know the issues."

An engaging public speaker, Pastor presents his findings to neighborhood groups, policy makers, and fellow academics, and he regularly writes opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times. But the alliance with CBE allows Pastor to concentrate on the "nerdy stuff" he loves. He digs up the facts, and CBE takes them to the streets. "People—not science—drive change," he insists. "No policy has ever changed because of research alone. Ultimately, what moves an issue is a mobilized community. What really makes a difference is when people are out there fighting."

And the fight, he believes, is bigger than environmental justice. Childhood exposure to environmental hazards at school is part of a much bigger picture of inequality in U.S. society.

"These kids face disproportionate risks walking to school because of crime in their neighborhood, because of poverty, lower teacher quality, and hunger," says Pastor. "How do you weigh the different risks? Is environmental justice the most important thing for society to be working on? I don't know. For me, this movement is an attempt to say, at a fundamental level, there is inequity, and let's use environmental justice as an entry point to raise questions about the inequality all around us."

For more information about the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community, visit cjtc.ucsc.edu.


Undergrad finds neighborhoods undergoing ethnic transition are most vulnerable

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, John Hipp (economics and sociology '99) helped Manuel Pastor crack the chicken-and-egg question that dogged the early days of the environmental justice movement in Los Angeles: Which came first, the city's most polluted neighborhoods or minority residents? The issue arose when critics, trying to deflect the charge that dirty industries concentrate their facilities in minority areas, suggested that minorities might have chosen to move into neighborhoods that were already heavily industrialized because they offer more affordable housing.

Tackling the question pushed Pastor's research team to new levels, requiring members to wade through mountains of government records, file numerous requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act, and reconcile it all against three decades of Census Bureau maps. Their efforts paid off when they were able to demonstrate that disparities in exposure to toxic-producing facilities had worsened over time and that new facilities were more likely to be sited in minority neighborhoods than in white areas.

John Hipp
Courtesy John Hipp

Wondering what makes neighborhoods vulnerable to the siting of new facilities, Hipp probed further and uncovered what the team now calls "ethnic churning." Neighborhoods undergoing rapid ethnic and racial transition—shifting from predominantly African American to largely Latino, for example—lack the tight community networks that typically organize to oppose proposed toxic facilities.

"It turns out that political power matters far more than income," said Hipp, who coauthored a paper about ethnic churning and hazard location that appeared in the Journal of Urban Affairs.

"UCSC was just an incredible experience for me," says Hipp, now a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "There were tons of opportunities to work with people like Manuel. I learned an incredible amount from him. When I got to graduate school, I was far better prepared than most of the other students."

—Jennifer McNulty

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