Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Race, Toxic Waste, and Church
distributed 4/27/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Dr. Charles Burrows, of Honolulu, Hawaii. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

In 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ (UCC) released a report titled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. It was a detailed statistical analysis of census data, meticulously cross-matched with information on the location of toxic waste sites.

A document with page after page of tables and charts -- with lists of complicated numbers, and subtle definitions about statistical significance -- is not likely to make the best seller lists, and this one didn't. But such a report doesn't need to have a mass readership to be important, and this one was very important, indeed.

The 1987 report from the United Church of Christ is widely recognized as a foundational document in the environmental justice movement in the United States, and in shaping similar efforts around the world. It made the well-documented assertion that the environmental risk from hazardous waste is more strongly correlated with race than with economics.

On this 20th anniversary of Toxic Wastes and Race, an important new report has been issued by the UCC. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007 revisits the statistical analysis with more sophisticated tools, and finds that "by better matching the locations of people and hazardous sites, racial and socioeconomic disparities around the nation's hazardous waste facilities are found to be far greater than what previous studies have shown."

This new report is available for free download from the United Church of Christ website. I highly recommend this new report for your reading and study. The 175 page document is 6.5 Mb, so plan on a lengthy download time.

The 2007 report has lots of charts and graphs, but I hope that those sections of data don't scare away non-technical readers. Much of the report will be appealing and enlightening to the statistically challenged. Even if you never ponder the data about population characteristics or research methods, there are important and very readable sections about history and policy which will be valuable to all of us.

In particular, chapter 1 (Environmental Justice in the Twenty-First Century) and chapter 2 (Environmental Justice Timeline -- Milestones 1987-2007) provide a concise and accessible introduction to the entire issue of environmental justice. Chapter 5 (Impact of Toxic Wastes and Race on the EJ Movement: Speaking for Ourselves) is a marvelous collection of "short quotes, statements and essays written by an interdisciplinary group of civil rights activists, academics, policy analysts, scientists, elected officials, lawyers, educators and health professionals who share their views on the 'impact' of the 1987 Toxic Wastes and Race report on environmental justice in the United States and abroad."

I do encourage you to download a copy of the report, and to take seriously its findings.

+     +     +     +     +

Since 1987, there have been many studies about environmental racism which build on the UCC report in considering the disproportionate impacts of pollution on communities of color. Academics have analyzed the data, pondered the moral and legal implications, and proposed many options for public policy. Important policy changes have taken place. The Environmental Protection Agency of the US has special mandates to consider factors of environmental justice, and a 1994 Executive Order from President Clinton required all agencies of the US government to take into account the environmental justice consequences of their actions.

What was remarkable news about environmental disparities in 1987 is now commonly accepted as the basis of law and policy. The hope, of course, was that this awareness would bring about constructive change for the affected communities.

Despite all of this scholarly, legal and political attention, though, "significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities." The conclusion of the 2007 report names and documents these continuing realities:

  • Race matters.
  • Place matters.
  • Unequal protection places communities of color at special risk.
  • Polluting industries still follow the path of least resistance.
  • The current environmental protection apparatus is "broken" and needs to be "fixed."
  • Slow government response to environmental contamination and toxic threats unnecessarily endangers the health of the most vulnerable populations in our society.
In light of those findings, the authors of the report provide an extensive list of recommendations for actions by Congress, the Executive branch, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations and industry.

There is still much to be done in addressing the racial and economic inequalities from pollution in the US. The UCC's 2007 report once again provides a solid basis in facts and values for doing that work for justice.

+     +     +     +     +

On June 21, 2007, there will be a very special opportunity to engage a faith perspective on environmental justice. In Hartford, CT, on the day before the UCC's General Synod convenes, an all-day conference will feature Charles Lee, the author of the 1987 report, and Robert Bullard, one of the most prominent researchers and authors in the field of environmental justice. "CARING FOR EARTH: Linking Faith, Hope, Love, Justice and Action in our Churches" is open to all interested people. Workshops will deal with a wide range of ways in which churches can address the environmental crisis. More information and registration details are on the brand-new website of the UCC's national Environment and Energy Task Force:


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form