March 24, 2016
By Kathleen Mannard

What is environmental racism? How is environmental racism allowed to happen? As I questioned more about the term, the more I realized just how common environmental racism occurs in the United States. By definition, environmental racism is either the intentional or unintentional placement of minority or low-income communities nearby a declining and environmentally hazardous area and the result of poverty and segregation.

 A case study of environmental racism from the 1990s includes a Pittsburgh investment company, toxic waste, and the predominantly black community of Chester City, Pennsylvania.  The Pittsburgh investment company formerly known as Russell, Rea and Zappala built 4 toxic waste treatment facilities in Chester City. Chester City contains the highest demographic of blacks in Delaware County with the highest percentage of minorities in the state of Pennsylvania with 8%. By far, Chester City contains the highest percentage of poverty (45%), the lowest family income median in Pennsylvania (appx. $25,000), and the highest numbers of unemployed residents (2,236). Negative health risks emerged throughout the years and citizens complained to the state about asthma, skin diseases, sore throats, and more. After years of concerns, the EPA assessed the risk of the area. The EPA discovered that the cancer rate rose to 2.5 times higher than any other location in Pennsylvania. They also discovered that Chester City children have the highest concentration of lead in their bloodstream relative to the populace of the state. Despite all information and evidence of environmental racism, the EPA do not have the power to make a change for Chester City while Russell, Rea, and Zappala still receive permits to build toxic waste facilities.

Today, the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan can also be questioned as a case of environmental racism. The majority of Flint’s residents are black and low-income.  What often appears with environmental racism is the dispute of political power and lack of representation in the government. In fact, Flint holds little political power in the state of Michigan. Just like in Chester City, concerns to the state rolled in when residents of Flint noticed negative health effects of the murky drinking water. However, it took a year for the state to respond to the water crisis. In that time, thousands of people were exposed to large quantities of lead. For both Chester City and Flint, does the socio-economic and racial makeup of these cities account for the delayed responses and inactions of the government?