Race and the politics of environmental inequality

How does race come into the equation when siting environmentally hazardous facilities? Much evidence exists to indicate that minority and poor communities bear a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards.

New research by Christopher Mele, published in Environmental Sociology, examines the decision-making process behind the siting of several hazardous facilities within Chester, Pennsylvania in the late 1980s. Chester is notable as a landmark case of environmental inequality due to the large scale siting and construction of hazardous facilities in the city from 1984 to 1996.

The study analyses data ranging from US census reports and first-hand eyewitness testimonies, to local newspaper articles and published minutes from government agency meetings. Mele cites evidence documented in court briefs produced in the landmark legal battle over the cluster construction of waste facilities in Chester.

The study concludes that race was a key factor in the decision-making process behind siting of extensive hazardous facilities at Chester: “The case of Chester reveals how race discourses were formative in a local politics that seemingly pitted the city’s economic development against the county’s solution to its waste disposal problems… [and] issues of race were called upon by political leaders to facilitate popular support among their constituencies.”

Mele suggests the results from the Chester study may not, however, have the potential to be generalised to other urban examples of environmental inequality. He concludes “Because the dynamics of local politics are characteristically unique and not prone to generalization, the analysis of race and facility siting in Chester may not apply to other urban contexts and other environmental issues.”

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