Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Air of Injustice
distributed 10/25/02 - ©2002

The term "environmental racism" first appeared in a 1987 study, Toxic Waste and Race. That groundbreaking report pulled together census data and information on Superfund sites in the US to show that people of color are far more likely to be exposed to dangerous wastes than are whites.

A report released this week adds a new layer of statistical evidence about the racial bias in environmental risks. The study, Air of Injustice, finds that African-Americans face higher health risks from pollution from coal-fired power plants. (A web link to the report is at the end of this message.)

The maximum effect of smokestack emissions fall on those living within 30 miles of a power plant. The report documents that 68% of blacks in the US live in those high-risk zones, compared to 56% of whites.

US power plants emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a gas which can irritate the lungs. (It also the pollutant most responsible for causing acid rain.) Other pollutants from power plants contribute significantly to the formation of ozone smog, which can cause a number of respiratory ailments.

The racial bias in exposure to air pollution helps to explain another well-know statistic: asthma hospitalization rates are three times higher for blacks than for whites, and their death rate from asthma is twice as high.

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The disparities in health effects from air pollution add a racial component to a problem that is of broad-based concern. While African-Americans are 20% more likely to face these risks, well over half of US whites also live near power plants. While 71% of African-Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, so does 58% of the white population.

Air pollution has been one of the pervasive problems addressed through the last 30 years of the environmental movement. Past legislation has brought about major reductions in pollution from autos and industrial sources. Today, power plants stand out as the most glaring source of air pollution -- and the most readily addressed.

A key legislative initiative to regulate air pollution from power plants is the Clean Power Act, now being considered in the US Senate. That act would dramatically reduce emissions of the four most harmful pollutants from electric power plants (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide). Those reductions would save thousands of lives per year, eliminate the bulk of pollution that causes acid rain, and curb the US contribution to global warming. (Web links to information on pollution from power plants and on the Clean Power Act are at the end of this message.)

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"Reverence for the Creator, the created, and creation, leads us to become instruments of healing the distortions in our social, economic and political institutions," said Dr. Joseph Lowery, chair of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, one of the agencies that compiled the "Air of Injustice" report.

Our theologically-grounded perspectives on eco-justice call us to seek pollution-free communities for all people -- and for all other parts of God's creation. Our commitment to justice leads us to insist that the harmful effect of pollution be distributed equally across the entire population, and not imposed disproportionately on any sub-group -- whether by race, class, age or gender.

Those principles provide clear guidance for people of faith in our political advocacy on power plant pollution.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Web links for additional information:
  • The full "Air of Injustice" report is available on the website of "Clear the Air - the national campaign against dirty power" at

  • The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) organization is one of the leading participants in the national air pollution campaign. Many states have strong PIRG groups with local organizers who are available to help congregations with detailed information and action strategies. Links to the state PIRGs can be found on the national website, The PIRG site has advocacy tools for supporting the Clean Power Act.

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