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Posted on January 23rd, 2012

Environmental Justice

In the late-1970s, the Department of Energy began studies on Yucca Mountain to determine if it was a suitable location for a nuclear waste repository. The original plans were for permanent storage of 70,000 metric tons of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste that was currently stored in 121 sites around the nation. Yucca Mountain sits just 80 miles northwest of the Las Vegas metropolis. Because of its proximity to a large population base (amongst other reasons), there was great uproar against the plan.
Over two-thirds of Nevadans opposed the repository, many arguing that the state does not have a single nuclear power plant so why should it have a nuclear waste site? As of March 2009, consideration of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear storage site was ended, largely due to nation-wide opposition.

This is an example of environmental justice that made headlines across the nations for years. And while it is a very important issue to decide where to properly store our nuclear waste, there are many other examples of more localized environmental justice and the impacts it has on smaller communities. For instance, Juliana Maantay of Lehman College – CUNY wrote an article titled, Mapping Environmental Injustices: Pitfalls and Potential of Geographic Information Systems in Assessing Environmental Health and Equity. Maantay defines environmental injustice as the disproportionate exposure of communities of color and the poor to pollution, and its concomitant effects on health and the environment.

As part of her study, she looked at 13 GIS-based environmental equity studies in the Bronx, New York to evaluate differences in the methods of determining exposure and demographic characteristics of the adjacent populations. In many communities, the most glaring offenders of hazardous contamination are drycleaners, waste transfer stations and auto-body shops. These businesses are considered permitted waste-related facilities. In Maantay’s study she mapped the waste facility locations using a color grid to show minority population dispersion in the Bronx where 70% of the inhabitants are either African American or of Hispanic origin. The results show that these facilities are predominately in areas with the highest minority populations.

Much of the decision for placement of potentially hazardous facilities comes down to zoning regulations. In New York City, noxious facilities are only allowed to be located in areas zoned for manufacturing. These locations also happen to be where the poorest residents live, the majority being minorities.

While this study offers an important geographic analysis of the disparity in the distribution of hazardous facilities, it also lays the groundwork for future research studying the link between waste facility placement and environmental health. The rallying cry has always been “Not in My Backyard,” but it has now become, “Not in anybody’s backyard.” As more information comes to light about the dangers of hazardous wastes, there is sure to be further opposition to exposure from communities across the nation.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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