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Kathleen Bonner

Excerpted from: Kathleen Bonner, Toxins Targeted at Minorities: The Racist Undertones of Environmentally-Friendly Initiatives, 23 Villanova Environmental Law Journal 89-115 (2012) (Student Comment)(213 Footnotes)


In the small, suburban, working-class town of Kennedy Heights, Texas, hundreds of individuals complain of rashes, headaches, and a water supply contaminated with oil and toxins. More serious health issues also plague these unsuspecting residents, such as cancerous brain tumors, cancer, lupus, birth defects, menstrual problems, and even death. As one resident described, people are dropping like flies, getting sick. Homebuyers purchased newly built homes within the town several decades ago, but at that time no one informed them the properties were located on top of an oil dump, abandoned since the 1920s. The homeowners are now left in a precarious situation, as they can't sell [their] houses and [they] can't afford to leave. The sheer number of Kennedy Heights residents impacted by the toxic oil dump's adverse effects has drawn national attention, but this particular town attracted even wider attention because of the accusations of environmental racism.

The small town of Kennedy Heights, located outside of Houston, Texas, is comprised mostly of African-American residents. Unfortunately, the adverse health and environmental effects that the Kennedy Heights residents now experience are not uncommon among racial minority communities. In fact, many studies reveal that toxic waste sites are typically located adjacent to, or within, communities primarily populated with racial minorities. Another such community is Chester, Pennsylvania.

Environmental racism is the term often used to link federally funded environmental programs to discriminatory impacts. Although this Comment focuses on environmental racism and the deliberate placement of noxious facilities in certain communities, environmental racism encompasses a broad array of discriminatory practices. These practices include: (1) the increased likelihood of exposure to environmental dangers; (2) the differential cleanup rate of environmental contaminants in communities with various racial groups; (3) the concentration of ethnic minority workers in dangerous and unsanitary jobs; (4) the deficient upkeep of environmental amenities, such as parks and playgrounds; and (5) the incomparable provision of environmental services, such as garbage removal and transportation.

Environmental racism gained national attention in the mid-1980s after the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the United Church of Christ explored the issue in two influential studies. Each study concluded that owners of hazardous waste sites are more likely to build next to communities with a dense minority population than non-minority populations. Specifically, the United Church of Christ study explicitly connected race with an increased likelihood of exposure to hazardous wastes.

The term environmental justice describes the corrective responses taken to address the disparate impacts of certain environmental programs. The environmental justice movement focuses on two kinds of justice: distributive justice, the equitable distribution of costs and benefits to individuals; and corrective justice, the assessment of the treatment of individuals in a social transaction. While distributive justice identifies and corrects past racial injustice, corrective justice focuses on corporate-worker community relations and government-local community interactions.

Part II of this Comment explains environmental racism and the environmental justice movement in greater depth. Part III traces the historical evolution of environmental racism, discusses relevant studies conducted, and explores measures taken to address the issue. Part IV describes federal government responses to environmental racism, focusing in part on the efficacy of Executive Order 12,898. Part V examines the litigation of environmental justice claims under the Civil Rights Act and explores the case study of Chester, Pennsylvania. Finally, Part VI addresses what federal environmental policies can and should do to further the environmentaljustice movement and ensure equitable treatment of individuals.


. J.D. Candidate, 2012, Villanova University School of Law; B.A., 2009, University of Pennsylvania