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Racial Inequality in the Distribution of Hazardous Waste: A National-Level Reassessment

Citation: Social Problems, 2007, 54, 3, 343-370

National-level studies examining racial disparities around hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities have been very influential in defining the academic and political debates about the existence and importance of “environmental injustice.” However, these studies tend to employ methods that fail to adequately control for proximity between environmentally hazardous sites and nearby residential populations. By using GIS and applying methods increasingly used in environmental inequality research that better control for proximity, we conduct a comprehensive reassessment of racial inequality in the distribution of the nation’s hazardous waste facilities. We compare the magnitude of racial disparities found with those of prior studies and test competing racial, economic, and sociopolitical explanations for why such disparities exist. We find that the magnitude of racial disparities around hazardous waste facilities is much greater than what previous national studies have reported. We also find these disparities persist even when controlling for economic and sociopolitical variables, suggesting that factors uniquely associated with race, such as racial targeting, housing discrimination, or other race-related factors are associated with the location of the nation’s hazardous waste facilities. We further conclude that the more recent methods for controlling for proximity yield more consistent and definitive results than those used previously, and therefore argue for their wider utilization in environmental inequality research.

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