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Katrina response not anomaly, as environmental injustice continues

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Environmental injustice in minority communities is as much or more prevalent today than two decades ago, according to a followup study to the landmark "Toxic Waste and Race" report that put the environmental justice movement on the map.

Both the initial and the subsequent study, "Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty 1987-2007," were commissioned by The United Church of Christ. The recent report commemorates the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking first study.

The findings show that disproportionately large numbers of people of color still live in hazardous waste host communities, and that people of color are not equally protected by environmental laws. "People of color across the United States have learned the hard way that waiting for government to respond to toxic contamination can be hazardous to their health and health of their communities," says Robert Bullard, director of the Justice Resource Center at Clark University in Atlanta. Bullard was the principal investigator for the study.

The report points to the post-Katrina response in New Orleans as one poster example of unequal treatment of minorities in hazardous waste emergencies. The findings also show that environmental laws don't protect minority communities any more than they did 20 years ago.

Paul Mohai, professor of environmental justice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment and a co-author of the report, described the results as dismaying. "You can see there has been a lot more attention to the issue of environmental justice but the progress has been very, very slow," Mohai says. "Why? As important as all those efforts are they haven't been well executed and I don't know if the political will is there."

Bullard, Mohai and colleagues Robin Saha, assistant professor of environmental studies at University of Montana and a former student of Mohai's, and Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University and a Hurricane Katrina survivor, were to release the executive summary of the study at a special news briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

"The cleanup and reconstruction efforts in New Orleans have been shamefully sluggish and patchy, and the environmental injustice may be compounded by rebuilding on poisoned ground," Wright says.

More than 9 million people are estimated to live in host neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of one of 413 hazardous waste facilities nationwide. The study found that the proportion of people of color in host neighborhoods is almost twice that of people of color living in non-host neighborhoods. Suchneighborhoods typically are economically depressed, with poverty rates 1.5 times that of non-host communities.

The report also analyzes the percentages of Hispanic/Latino, African-American, and Asian Pacific Islander separately. For example, in Michigan, which had the largest disparity in the proportion of people of color living in host neighborhoods, the majority of those affected were African American.

The report gives more than three dozen recommendations for action at the Congressional, state and local levels to remedy the disparities.

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