Expert Commentary

Toxic waste sites and environmental justice: Research roundup

Research that looks into exactly where toxic waste sites are located, and the demographics of neighboring communities.

Soil excavation and cleanup at a Superfund site
(Soil excavation and cleanup at a Superfund site / EPA)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program cleans up contaminated areas resulting from the mismanagement of hazardous waste. According to the EPA, “Superfund requires EPA to deal with abandoned, accidentally spilled, or illegally dumped hazardous substances from the past, primarily from businesses and industry. Other types of pollution are handled by other environmental laws.”

Officially called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the program began in 1980 in response to environmental disasters, including Love Canal, a mismanaged landfill in Niagara Falls, New York, that left residents exposed to toxic chemicals, including the leukemia-causing benzene. Currently there are more than 1,300 sites on the National Priorities List (NPL), a list that guides further investigation and Superfund remediation efforts.

Toxic waste sites are not dispersed evenly throughout communities. Often, those most at risk of living near them are low-income or racial/ethnic minorities. Over the past few decades, researchers have looked into exactly where these sites are located, and the demographics of neighboring communities. This research roundup brings together this scholarship.


A Spatially Informed Analysis of Environmental Justice: Analyzing the Effects of Gerrymandering and the Proximity of Minority Populations to U.S. Superfund Sites
Kramar, David E.; et al. Environmental Justice, 2018. doi: 10.1089/env.2017.0031.

Previous studies have shown that a disproportional percentage of African Americans live near an unregulated toxic waste facility – bringing to light the issue of “environmental racism.”  This study builds on that research, looking specifically at the issue of gerrymandering – the practice of manipulating the boundaries of an election district to gain an advantage for a particular party or demographic group.


  • “We show that the closer you are to a [S]uperfund site the more likely you will find African American families. Moreover, the results found in this study support current research indicating that minority populations are at a significantly greater risk of environmental health issues.”
  • “The extent to which congressional districts are gerrymandered and exposure to environmental pollution was also telling. The more a district is gerrymandered, the less exposure to environmental pollution. To understand the true weight of this finding, it should be combined with the last question we answered that the more gerrymandering in a district, the less African Americans in that district.”

Which Came First, People or Pollution? Assessing the Disparate Siting and Post-Siting Demographic Change Hypotheses of Environmental Injustice
Mohai, Paul; Saha, Robin. Environmental Research Letters, 2015. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/11/115008.

This study looks at a which-came-first question regarding why a disproportional percentage of low-income and minority groups live near toxic waste sites:  Does the population of a community change after a toxic waste site arrives, or rather are toxic waste sites more likely to be installed near neighborhoods where low-income and minority groups live?


  • “In answer to ‘Which came first?’, our findings show that rather than hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities [TSDFs] ‘attracting’ people of color, neighborhoods with already disproportionate and growing concentrations of people of color appear to ‘attract’ new facility siting.”
  • “Hazardous waste TSDFs were sited where white move-out and minority move-in were already occurring, and had been occurring for a decade or two prior to siting for some cohorts of TSDFs.”

Environmental Justice: Evidence from Superfund Cleanup Durations
Burda, Martin; Harding, Matthew. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2014.04.028.

This study looks into whether racial bias played a role in prioritizing which sites to clean up first. It did.


  • “We find that the cleanup of Superfund sites listed in the initial phase of the program in the early 1980s suffered from a number of biases against sites located in black, urban neighborhoods but in favor of sites located in areas with a highly educated population.”
  • “These biases appear to diminish over time however, largely following the 1994 Executive Order which formally establishes Environmental Justice as a policy concern. After 1994 we see in fact a prioritization of cleanups in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Furthermore, some of these biases may have manifested themselves through the extent to which the community was involved with the cleanup process.”

Spatial Disparity in the Distribution of Superfund Sites in South Carolina: An Ecological Study
Burwell-Naney, Kristen; et al. Environmental Health, 2013. doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-12-96.

This study uses data from the 2000 U.S. Census to analyze racial and socioeconomic environmental disparities in South Carolina.


  • “Of the 29.5 percent of Blacks living in South Carolina, 55.9 percent live in Superfund host census tracts.”
  • “Among all populations in SC living below poverty (14.2 percent), 57.2 percent were located in Superfund host census tracts.”

An Environmental Justice Analysis: Superfund Sites and Surrounding Communities in Illinois
Maranville, Angela R.; et al. Environmental Justice, 2009. doi: 10.1089/env.2008.0547.

And this study looks at racial disparities related to Superfund sites in Illinois.


  • The researchers found that the buffer zones around Superfund sites had higher percentages of minorities as compared to the rest of the county. There were not significant differences between Superfund buffer zones and the rest of the county when considering household income and homeownership status.
  • “Our results support prior research that suggested race, rather than class, was the major indicator of environmental inequality.”

The Role of Class, Status, and Power in the Distribution of Toxic Superfund Sites in Texas and Louisiana
Denq, Furjen; et al. Journal of Poverty, 2000.  doi: 10.1300/J134v04n04_05.

And this one from 2000 looks at Texas and Louisiana.


  • This analysis finds that a typical National Priorities List (i.e., Superfund) site in Texas and Lousiana “tends to be located in lower working-class neighborhoods with less knowledge of the political system.”
  • “More specifically, the results of this analyses reveal that census tracts with NPL sites in Texas and Louisiana tend to have (1) lower property value, (2) fewer residents completing at least a college degree, and (3) more residents working in the manufacturing sector, compared to the average census tracts within each metropolitan area.”
  • “Furthermore, results indicate that race is not a significant correlate with the location of hazardous waste sites.”

Looking for more research on pollution? We’ve covered wastewater effluent, fracking and groundwater, and environmental regulations’ effects on jobs.

Want to know if there’s a Superfund or National Priorities List site in the community you cover? Check out the EPA’s search tool.

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