Is Environmental Justice Good for White Folks? Industrial Air Toxics Exposure in Urban America

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The study examines spatial variation in exposure to toxic air pollution from industrial facilities in urban areas of the United States in relation to the local distribution of the pollution burden. We conducted between- and within-city analysis of geographic microdata from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators project and data from the 2000 U.S. Census. Average exposure in an urban area is positively correlated with the extent of racial and ethnic disparity in the distribution of the exposure burden. Average exposures also tend to be higher for all population subgroups, including whites, in urban areas with higher minority pollution-exposure discrepancies. The correlations could arise from causal linkages in either or both directions: the ability to displace pollution onto minorities may lower the effective cost of pollution for industrial firms; and higher average pollution burdens may induce whites to invest more political capital in efforts to influence firms’ siting decisions. The analysis suggests that improvement in environmental justice could benefit not only minorities but also whites.