Landfill Challenges and Environmental Justice

Landfills will face high hurdles

“California Struggles to Meet Recycling Goal,” announces one headline. “State’s Trash Disposal Problems Are Starting to Mount Up,” proclaims another headline referring to a space shortage in Massachusetts. Still another states, “Los Angeles Country Considers Purchase of Desert Landfills.” The headlines tell the story-landfills will continue to play an important role in solid waste management for the foreseeable future. And that means waste managers will need to attend to environmental justice issues. Attempts to site or permit landfills, ever controversial, will face even higher hurdles.

A 1998 environmental justice suit in Pennsylvania offers a glimpse at what the future may hold. Chester, Pennsylvania residents opposed siting of waste facilities in a minority neighborhood. Charging environmental injustice, these residents sued Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, claiming that state regulators had violated civil rights by permitting a facility in a predominantly African-American community. The court threw the case when Pennsylvania officials opted not to extend the waste permit after all.

But other environmental justice challenges loom. And controversy swirls around a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal for addressing environmental justice complaints. The guidance document outlines EPA’s approach for investigating environmental justice complaints filed under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Typically, these complaints involve objections to siting or permitting of industrial and other facilities with potential environmental impacts, including landfills, transfer stations, and waste incinerators.

The Environmental Council of the States, an association of state regulators, called for EPA to go back to the drawing board on the guidance document. As currently crafted, the document would subject proposed landfills and other LULUs (locally undesirable land uses) to additional layers of citizen review to identify potentially disparate impacts on minorities. Moreover, the current guidance document does not distinguish clearly between construction and operating permits. And, “disparate impacts” remains a fuzzy concept. The guidance document offers no definition of what impact threshold could trigger a complaint; it offers no clear way to assign responsibilities for mitigating impacts; it provides no geographical boundaries that define what an “impact-shed” is.

Whatever the outcome of discussions over EPA’s guidance document, the issue of environmental justice is likely to make landfill-siting decisions more complicated and more contentious. Many within the waste industry have protested new environmental justice regulations or procedures by arguing that no real proof of discriminatory siting exists. Data battles abound. Regarding the welter of empirical evidence, Brookings Institution scholar Christopher Foreman argues that “even a reasonably generous reading of the foundational empirical research alleging environmental inequity along racial lines must leave room for profound skepticism regarding the reported results.”

EPA issued its first ruling on an environmental justice complaint in October 1998 regarding the construction of a proposed $175 million steel mill near Flint, Michigan. The agency ruled that the plant did not demonstrate disproportionate impacts after a study indicated that 90% of residents in the area were non-minority and non-poor.

But, as Foreman himself notes, whether industrial and waste facilities are disproportionately located among minority and poor communities in many respects misses the central driver behind the environmental justice movement. At its root, for many minorities the movement is primarily about a sense of disenfranchisement-an understandable desire by minorities and the poor to participate in decisions that affect their lives. It is, writes Foreman, about “enabling citizens to hold public institutions accountable and private capital at bay.” For some other activists, environmental justice is simply one more tool to resist various land developments, especially of landfills and industrial plants.

Hence, resolving disputes over EPA’s environmental justice document will likely not diminish environmental justice challenges nor ease up siting challenges. Nor will environmental justice challenges fade in the face of armloads of data indicating that discriminatory siting is not occurring. How, then, can waste managers-public and private-anticipate and mitigate environmental justice challenges?

First, waste managers need to understand that data battles over impacts are often largely irrelevant, though in specific cases such as that of the Flint, Michigan steel mill, data can help tip the decision scales. In part, the inutility of data battles results from a general hostility and distrust of science by many environmental justice advocates. But, more importantly, such data battles often fail to address the central focus of environmental justice advocacy, which is more about power and responsibility than risk reduction. Environmental justice concerns arise from a lack of trust and a perceived lack of control. And they are, in the end, more about broad livability issues-odor, noise, congestion, or dilapidated surroundings.

Second, waste managers need to recognize that environmental justice should be understood as a clamor for procedural inclusion rather than as an appeal for risk reduction per se.

So, what responses to environmental justice challenges might be feasible and helpful? Several companies with existing facilities have initiated outreach to their neighbors and local communities. These “good neighbor” programs have managed to create an audience more receptive to new investments or facility expansion when the need for expansion arises. In a similar vein, independently conducted health and safety audits can build trust, a practice the chemical firm Rhone-Poulenc has successfully used in Houston.

Most importantly, understanding the urge for political participation that fuels many environmental justice protests, waste managers should involve communities in siting decisions before a siting decisions has been finalized. Research at Reason Public Policy Institute and elsewhere indicates that people are far more open to communication of scientifically based risk assessments and engineering-safety information if they perceive that the public participation process is not merely designed to validate decisions that have, in essence, already been made.

Lynn Scarlett is president of Reason Foundation.