Social Equity and Environmental Risk

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Social equity has become an important concern of the environmental movement over the past decade. The equity issue is analyzed here for practically all of the inactive hazardous waste disposal sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) regulated under the Comprehensive Response Compensation and Liability Act and its 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (CERCLA/ SARA). Two dimensions of equity are emphasized, namely, site location relative to the location of minority populations and the distribution of cleanup plans or Records of Decision (ROD) across communities with NPL sites that have different socioeconomic characteristics. With respect to site location, the percentage of Blacks and Hispanics aggregated at the Census Place or MCD level in communities with NPL sites was greater than is typical nationwide (largely attributable to the concentration of minority populations in a few large urban areas with NPL sites). In contrast, the percentage of the population below the poverty line in communities with NPL sites largely matched that of the nation as a whole. With respect to site cleanup, communities with relatively higher percentages of racial minority populations have fewer cleanup plans (Records of Decision signed) than other communities with NPL sites. Whether a ROD exists is influenced by when the site was designated for the NPL: sites designated earlier (prior to the SARA amendments of 1986) are more likely to have RODs, and also less likely to have high proportions of racial minority populations than sites designated later. This implies that initially the designation process may have resulted in NPL sites being located disproportionately in minority areas, but this pattern seems to be reversing itself in more recently designated sites. As with any statistical analysis, these findings are findings of association and not causality. Thus, racial and ethnic disproportionalities with respect to inactive hazardous waste site location seem to be concentrated in a relatively few areas. Disproportionalities with respect to cleanup do exist, but appear to be more a function of the nature of the process of designation of NPL sites in the early 1980s rather than a result of actions connected with cleanup plans per se. Further investigations are needed at alternative geographic scales to discern the sensitivity of patterns of inequity to distance from the sites.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)649-666
Number of pages18
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1993


  • Environmental equity
  • environmental risk
  • hazardous waste management
  • regulation
  • superfund

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Physiology (medical)


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