A number of media reports in last year have examined the impacts of toxic pollution on communities, but few have emphasized, let alone focused on, the fact that low-income, minority neighborhoods tend to bear the brunt of the burden.

That changed on Monday, when the website Environmental Health News (EHN) launched a special series, “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color,” about environmental justice—the notion that no one should have to put up with a disproportionate amount of risk because of their socioeconomic status.

EHN sent eight reporters and two photographers to seven communities across the United States “to report on their struggles to cope with an array of environmental threats,” editor-in-chief Marla Cone explained in an introductory note.

EHN is publishing the installments over the next several weeks. The first and second, by Cheryl Katz and Jane Kay, zoomed in on the city of Richmond, CA, where people “live within a ring of five major oil refineries, three chemical companies, eight Superfund sites, dozens of other toxic waste sites, highways, two rail yards, ports and marine terminals where tankers dock.”

The city also has a higher proportion of minority and low-income residents, and lower home values, than the rest of the county and state. As a result, those “seeking affordable homes end up sharing a fence line with a refinery and a cluster of other polluting businesses,” Katz and Kay wrote. “They may save money on shelter, but they pay the price in health, researchers say.”

But how much residents’ health suffers “is largely a mystery,” the writers were careful to acknowledge, adding that:

Health effects near industries in Richmond have not been well-studied. It can be difficult for epidemiologists to prove a connection between exposures and diseases because of confounding factors, such as smoking and diet, and how frequently people move around.

Still, Katz and Kay were able to cite county, state, and university data showing that Richmond residents are at higher risk for heart disease, asthma, and cancer than people living in nearby cities. “People of color in Richmond live on average 10 years less than white people living in other parts of the county,” the administrative chief of Richmond’s environmental division told them.

Journalists have documented similar instances of environmental inequity around the US. The summer edition of Earth Island Journal has a feature about “life on refinery row” in Corpus Christi, TX, for instance. But the environmental-justice angle is often missing or subdued in major reports on toxic pollution, such as USA Today’s “Ghost Factories,” published in April, or NPR’s “Poisoned Places,” published in November.

These were public-service investigations of the highest caliber, to be sure, but they stopped short of connecting the socioeconomic dots. USA Today tested soil samples from 21 neighborhoods across 14 states where lead smelting used to occur, and found that concentrations were “generally highest in places like Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia—where old inner-city neighborhoods mingled with industrial sites.” But its report wasn’t explicit about the upshot those findings: The disadvantaged are usually “overburdened,” as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts it.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that reporters tend to overlook environmental justice when covering toxics. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that directed each federal agency to make environmental justice “part of its mission,” and created an “interagency working group” to outline best practices and standards in that effort. But the project languished under the George W. Bush administration, and the Obama White House has only recently taken steps to revive it.

In 2010, senior officials reconvened the working group for the first time in more than a decade, and later hosted more than 100 environmental-justice leaders to discuss problems in their communities. Last August, federal agencies signed a “memorandum of understanding” recommitting to the principles outlined in Clinton’s executive order. In September, the EPA released “Plan EJ 2014,” which it described as a “road map” that would enable it to better integrate environmental justice into programs, policies, and daily work (the agency also has an environmental-justice website with relevant resources).

The activity drew some attention from The Washington Post and The New York Times, but hasn’t received wider scrutiny. In fact, rational outlets basically ceded the stage to TV blowhards. The most high-profile coverage came from Fox News in January when Neil Cavuto and guest Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, lashed out at the EPA’s environmental justice grants program, which supports community groups working on solutions to local environmental and public health problems.

What stuck in Cavuto and Horner’s craw were two of the 46 small grants the agency awarded in 2011. One went to the Repertory Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City to teach kids about the impact of air pollution with “kinesthetic learning” (basically, dancing). The other went to the Cleveland Tenants Organization to teach people to prevent and treat bed-bug infestations without the use of harmful pesticides.

One could debate the merits of the grants, which were $25,000 each, but Cavuto and Horner denounced them with typical conservative nonsense. “Wealthier is healthier,” Horner said. “The more prosperous neighborhoods are always cleaner and so on. The sad part is they’re teaching people to oppose economic activity in areas where they most desperately need economic activity by preaching oppression and victimization.”

Local media offered a more measured perspective. The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Repertory Dance Theatre’s artistic director making the case that the performance classes were simply another way to teach kids about the importance of a clean environment. That’s a bit unconvincing, but in Cleveland—which has a serious bed-bug problem and which has been denied permission to use industrial-strength pesticides to fight infestations— Christopher Evans, a columnist at the Plain Dealer, ripped Cavuto and Horner for mocking the much-needed grant.

More stories like these and EHN’s series can help ferret out what the EPA is doing right and wrong, and to call attention the problems in low-income, minority communities in general. What’s needed, though, is a stronger focus on what’s being done to get a better handle on the consequences of pollution.

The impact on public health is a mystery, as EHN’s Katz and Kay noted, because of a disparity in research activity. Monitoring the chemical content of air, soil, and water near industrial sites “becomes useful only when it is paired with epidemiological data about the local population,” a 2010 article in Issues in Science and Technology, a publication of the National Academies, explained—and there is a dearth of epidemiological data.

The EPA is trying to change that. It recently revamped its risk-assessment program to look at the cumulative threats to communities from multiple environmental and social factors, awarding $7 million in related research grants last year. While it didn’t mention that work specifically, the third installment in EHN’s environmental justice series highlighted “a growing body of research [that] suggests that the chronic stressors of poverty may fundamentally alter the way the body reacts to pollutants, especially in young children.”

There’s more to come from EHN, and hopefully its work will encourage more outlets to consider weaving environmental justice issues into their coverage of toxics.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.