New ProPublica investigation reveals racist environmental "sacrifice zones"

In a new investigation, ProPublica reporters Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw, Lisa Song, and Maya Miller used EPA data processing software to examine the spread of cancer-causing chemicals and other hazardous air pollutions in communities across the United States.

At the map's intimate scale, it's possible to see up close how a massive chemical plant near a high school in Port Neches, Texas, laces the air with benzene, an aromatic gas that can cause leukemia. Or how a manufacturing facility in New Castle, Delaware, for years blanketed a day care playground with ethylene oxide, a highly toxic chemical that can lead to lymphoma and breast cancer. 

As the investigation notes, this is all technically legal — or at least, permissible under zoning laws and environmental regulations. The "acceptable excess" for cancer risk, according to EPA policy, is supposed to be 1 in 10,000 people. But the reporters found some 256,000 people who are exposed beyond these "acceptable" risks, and at least 40,000 others who are living in conditions where even that "acceptable excess" rate is three times larger than it's supposed to be.

Unfortunately, the mandated legal ramification for violating the EPA's cancer risk policy is … well, you're not supposed to do that, because the EPA said so. But if you do, then, umm, please don't?

The reporting paints a bleak image. But the bleakest part is also perhaps the least surprising: these environmental "sacrifice zones" disproportionately affect people of color.

That the people living inside these hot spots are disproportionately Black is not a coincidence. Our findings build on decades of evidence demonstrating that pollution is segregated: People of color are exposed to far greater levels of air pollution than whites — a pattern that persists across income levels. These disparities are rooted in racist real estate practices like redlining and the designation of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color as mixed residential-industrial zones. In cities like Houston, for example, all-white zoning boards targeted Black neighborhoods for the siting of noxious facilities, like landfills, incinerators and garbage dumps. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has called the practice "PIBBY" or "Place In Blacks' Back Yard" — a spin on the acronym "NIMBY" ("Not In My Back Yard").

There's a lot to unpack here, if you have the time.

Poison In The Air (Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw, Lisa Song, and Maya Miller / ProPublica ]

Image: Public Domain via PixaBay