Do Polluting Plants Locate Near Poor Neighborhoods?

The Berkeley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy recently published intriguing academic research on environmental justice–the question of whether poor and minority neighborhoods suffer more than higher-income neighborhoods because polluting firms locate nearby. Ann Wolverton, a staffer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ran the numbers to figure out how much truth this claim might have.

Her results didn’t fit the conventional wisdom. Once location decisions were analyzed based on the the original conditions of the neighborhood, race was not a factor. Poverty levels were significant, but higher poverty rates seemed to discourage plant location. In fact, her analysis confirms much of the traditional plant location literature–labor force, access to transportation, and clustering of similar plants are important.

Here’s the abstract to Wolverton’s article “Effects of Socio-Economic and Input-Related Factors on Polluting Plants’ Location Decisions”:


Many environmental justice studies argue that firms choose to locate waste sites or polluting plants disproportionately in minority or poor communities. However, it is not uncommon for these studies to match site or plant location to contemporaneous socioeconomic characteristics instead of to characteristics at the time of siting. While this may provide important information on disproportionate impacts currently faced by these communities, it does not describe the relationship at the time of siting. Also, variables that are important to a plant’s location decision — i.e., production and transportation costs — are often not included. Without controlling for such variables, it is difficult to evaluate the relative importance of socioeconomic characteristics in a firm’s initial location decision. This paper examines the role of community socioeconomic characteristics at the time of siting in the location decisions of manufacturing plants while controlling for other location-relevant factors such as input costs.

When plant location is matched to current socioeconomic characteristics, results are consistent with what the environmental justice literature predicts: race is significant and positively related to plant location, while income is significant and negatively related to plant location. When plant location is matched to socioeconomic characteristics at the time of siting, empirical results suggest that race is no longer significant, though income is still significant and negatively related to plant location. Poverty rates are sometimes significant but act as a deterrent to plant location. Variables traditionally considered in the firm location literature — such as land and labor costs, the quality of labor, and distance to rail — are significant. The presence of pre-existing TRI plants in a neighborhood and average plant size are also significant.

Submitted: August 14, 2008 · Accepted: February 18, 2009 · Published: March 27, 2009

Recommended Citation

Wolverton, Ann (2009) “Effects of Socio-Economic and Input-Related Factors on Polluting Plants’ Location Decisions,” The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy: Vol. 9 : Iss. 1 (Advances), Article 14.
DOI: 10.2202/1935-1682.2083
Available at:

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.