U.S. Waste (Mis)Management:

Environmental Justice Implications of Dumping on
Poor Americans

by ZaKerra Lance


It is no secret that many of the country’s power plants, oil refineries, incinerators, and landfills are located in the communities of its poorest citizens. And more often than not, these communities are also predominately people of color [2]. Since many Americans have the mentality of “Not in my backyard,” as seen in Clarence Patterson III’s self-titled article, there arises the issue of what exactly should be done about dumping toxic and harmful waste in this country. This leads to much of it ending up in the backyards of historically marginalized populations that do not have the same privilege to push the waste into the proper channels. Illegal dumping in the U.S. is a major issue for not only the Environmental Justice movement, but also for Environmental Racism.


The Environmental Justice movement found its roots around the time of the Green Revolution in the 1970s, and major racially fueled protest of the 1980s, which lead to an official definition by the USEPA. Some of these issues and protests during this time did in fact lead to major governmental changes besides this definition addressing the issues. Such as the case of Warren County, NC and the PCB-laced landfill in this African American neighborhood. The major protests of 1982 helped propel the Environmental Justice movement. However, it was not until the Executive Order 12898 of 1994 that there was actual action taken by the federal government [2]. The “Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” order created Environmental Justice working groups, set for goals and tasks for federal agencies, and gave the chance for public participation in change [4] And while it has been at the center of many Environmental Justice causes, the issue of Environmental Racism has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. This occurs when a racial groups suffers from disproportionate environmental hazards in their communities and lack the political capital to fight back or make a change [5].


Clearly, landfills and illegally dumping—often toxic waste—in the poorest American neighborhoods falls into this category of Environmental Racism. The inequity that exists in environmental health hazards such as these is central to the Environmental Justice movement. Even if on the surface, decisions about waste management are not meant to harm black and brown communities, Environmental Justice tells us we need to do something about it at whatever level of governance necessary to make sure everyone is treated equitably. The U.S. states its commitment to making sure that everyone “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment […]” [1]. Pellow states in his article [2], we must realize that the “environmental inequality” that we see today is due in large part to “a sociohistorical process rather than […] a discrete event.” America’s history has led to a concentration of minorities in poorer and less desirable neighborhoods, where many people feel is the only place to dump waste. As well as leaving them without the voice to speak out about this injustice.


Illegally dumping on America’s low-income and minority peoples calls for Environmental Justice action through Federal government orders and legislation because it is not only the issue of toxic waste and threats to environmental resources like water, soil, and, air. It is also about issues of Environmental Racism and who is most harmed by the effects on the environment. There needs to be more stiff penalties for industry and other Americans for illegal dumping. The US EPA does take some action in addressing this issues, in order to comply with the policy set forth by the Executive Order previously mentioned. Recently, the EPA awarded an Environmental Justice Small Grant to a U.S. Virgin Islands community in order to clean up illegal dumping and increase education and awareness about the toxic consequences of such action [6]. Efforts like these are important, as often state and local governments cannot agree on who should and how to go about cleaning up illegal dumped waste, as seen in the case of Cincinnati, where illegal dumping has become a major problem for the city. Especially since it is often in poor neighborhoods with higher crime rates where people would not usually care to venture. The Cincinnati Department of Public Service took on the effort of organizing large clean ups, and targeting major sites in such communities. They are the only department willing to address such a large task [7]. Therefore we need further federal action and task forces to keep these communities clean. Thereby keeping our most vulnerable populations healthy.



[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Jan. 2017). Environmental Justice. Epa.gov Web. Apr. 21

[2] Pellow, D. N. (2004). The politics of illegal dumping: An environmental justice framework. Qualitative Sociology, 27(4), 511-525. Web. Apr. 14 doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/10.1023/B:QUAS.0000049245.55208.4b

[3] U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management. (2016). Environmental Justice History. Energy.org. Web. Apr. 15

[4] Executive Order 12898 (February 11, 1994). Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. Presidential Documents. Federal Register Vol. 59 No. 32. Web. Apr. 15

[5] Patterson III, Clarence. (2010). Not in My Backyard: The United States’ Struggle to Find Appropriate Hazardous and Toxic Waste Dump Sites. The Arizona Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. Web. Apr. 15

[6] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2015). EPA Grant to Help Coral Bay Community Fight Illegal Dumping. EPA News Releases: Region 2 EPA.gov Web. Apr. 17

[7] Christian, Paula (2015). Who should pick up illegally dumped trash? City says it can’t solve problem itself. WCPO Cincinnati. Wcpo.com Web. Apr. 17


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