President’s Interpretation of “Environmental Justice” Jeopardizes Minority Health and Well-Being, by David Ridenour

The Clinton Administration’s narrow interpretation of what constitutes “environmental justice” could place thousands of blacks, Hispanics and other disadvantaged Americans at greater risk.

On February 11, 1994, President Clinton committed his administration to an environmental justice strategy by signing Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice inMinority Populations and Low-Income Populations. The Order directs federal agencies to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”

But just three years after the President issued the directive, it’s clear that neither he nor his agencies are following it. If they were, the President wouldn’t oppose the opening of a nuclear waste storage facility near Yucca Mountain in Nevada, wouldn’t support the EPA’s new stringent particulate matter (soot and dust) and ozone (smog) standards, and wouldn’t advocate strict targets and timetables for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

These policies are inconsistent with the Executive Order in that they all have huge economic costs. And economic costs, no less than the environmental ones, have enormous consequences for human health.

As systems engineer Ralph L. Keeney noted in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty:

“Regulatory costs are paid by individuals, which leaves them with less disposable income. Since individuals on average use additional income to make their lives safer and healthier, the regulatory costs lead to higher mortality risks and fatalities.”

Keeney estimates that if regulatory costs were distributed equally to all citizens, one American would die each year for every $5 million in such costs. If the burden of the regulations were instead proportional to income, one American would die for every $11.5 million in regulatory costs. In either case, lower-income Americans — mainly Hispanics and blacks — would make up a disproportionate number of the fatalities, according to Keeney.

Wealthier equals healthier. Regrettably, the Clinton Administration’s definition of environment is so narrow that it permits policies that deny Americans the wealth needed to ensure good health.


The Case of Nuclear Waste Disposal

Last April, the Senate approved a bill that would require the Department of Energy to open a temporary nuclear waste storage facility near Yucca Mountain, Nevada by the year 2002. But President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill, arguing that to do so would eliminate the pressure for decisive action on a permanent storage site.

There is some urgency for a nuclear repository however. Twenty-seven nuclear reactors are expected to exhaust their on-site waste storage capacity by January of next year, with another 80 expected to do so by 2010. If that happens, some nuclear power plants may have to be decommissioned while others may be forced to construct expensive new stainless steel nuclear waste containers. The costs of such measures have been estimated at between $34 billion and $56 billion if continued through 2030.

Storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain makes sense on environmental justice grounds for two reasons. First, establishing a waste facility in a remote part of Nevada would mean that nuclear waste could be moved out of more populated urban areas with large minority populations. Second, the economic and the health hardships that would result from decommissioning nuclear facilities or building expensive interim waste containers would be borne disproportionately by minorities.

The nuclear power industry provides 4.4 million jobs, most of which (70%) benefit twelve states. These states include California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Oregon. It is these states that would bear the heaviest burden should the industry be forced to down-size. As these states, on average, have higher minority populations than the national average, minorities would be particularly hard hit. (see Table 1)

Table 1: Twelve States With Most Nuclear Industry Jobs at Stake
(125,000 or more jobs at risk)

 State  Black  Hispanic  Asian Native American Non-White Other
California (pop: 29.8 million)  7.4%  25.8%  9.6%  0  13.2%
(pop: 4.38 million)
 2.2%  1.2%  1.8%  1.1%  0
New Jersey
(pop: 7.73 million)
 13.4%  9.6%  3.5%  0  3.5%
New York
(pop: 18 million)
 15.9%  12.3%  3.9%  0  5.5%
North Carolina
(pop: 7.07 million)
 22%  1.2%  0  1.2%  0
(pop: 2.84 million)
 1.6%  4%  2.4%  1.4%  1.8%
(pop: 12.05 million)
 9.2%  2.0%  1.2%  0  1%
South Carolina
(pop: 3.49 million)
 29.8%  0  0  0  0
(pop: 4.88 million)
 16%  0  0  0  0

(pop: 17 million)

 11.9%  25.5%  1.9%  0  10.6%

(pop: 6.19 million)

 18.8%  2.6%  2.6%  0  0

(pop: 4.87 million)

 3.1%  4.4%  4.3%  1.7%  2.4%
118.22 million  11.9%  13.4%  3.8%  .2%  6%

A review of twelve states most dependent on nuclear industry jobs (125,000 jobs or more) found the following:

  • Half the states have larger black populations (as a percentage of the total state population) than the national average.
  • Seven of the 12 states (58%) have combined Hispanic and black populations higher than the national average.
  • Two of the 12 states have minority populations that are equal to or greater than the non-Hispanic white populations. Almost 50% of Texas’ population and 56% of California’s population are made up of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities.
  • The non-Hispanic whites make up just 65.4% of the population of all 12 states, compared to 71.3% for the nation as a whole.

By contrast, the twelve states with the least number of jobs at stake in the nuclear power industry have smaller minority populations. (See Table 2)


Table 2: Twelve States With Least Nuclear Industry Jobs at Stake
(12,000 or less jobs at risk)

 State  Black  Hispanic  Asian Native American Non-White Other
(pop: 550,043)
 4.1%  3.2%  3.6%  15.6%  1.2%
(pop: 666,168)
 16.9%  2.4%  1.4%  0  1.1
(pop: 1.01 million)
 0%  5.3%  0%  1.4%  3%
(pop: 799,065)
 0  1.5%  0  6%  0
(pop: 1.2 million)
 6.6%  10.4%  3.2%  1.6%  4.4%
New Hampshire
(pop: 1.11 million)
 0  1%  0  0  0
New Mexico
(pop: 1.52 million)
 2%  38.2%  0  8.9%  12.6%
North Dakota
(pop: 638,800)
 0  0  0  4.1%  0
Rhode Island
(pop: 4.88 million)
 3.9%  4.6%  1.8%  0  2.5%
South Dakota
(pop: 696,004)
 0  0  0  7.3%  0
West Virginia
(pop: 1.79 million)
 3.1%  0  0  0  0
(pop: 453,588)
 0  5.7%  0  2.1%  2.3%
11.43 million  3%  7.7%  .75%  3.4%  2.8%

A review of the twelve states least dependent on nuclear industry jobs (12,000 jobs or less) found the following:

  • Eleven of the states (92%) have black populations (as a percentage of total population) lower than the national average.
  • Eleven of the states (92%) have combined Hispanic and black populations lower than the national average.
  • Only one state has a larger minority population than non-Hispanic white population. Close to 62% of New Mexico’s population is composed of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities.
  • Half of the twelve states have statistically insignificant black populations while eight of the states (66%) have statisically insignificant Asian populations.
  • Non-Hispanic whites make up 82.35% of the population of the twelve states, compared to 71.3% for the nation as a whole.

If President Clinton stops construction of a nuclear waste site near Yucca Mountain costing the nuclear industry between $34 and $56 billion, minorities could be the biggest losers: Seventy percent of all nuclear industry jobs are generated in just twelve states and these states, on average, have minority populations significantly higher than the national average. If Ralph Keeney is correct that people use additional disposable income to make their lives healthier and safer, the storage and decommissioning costs paid by the nuclear industry could be paid in something more important than dollars — they could be paid in lives.


The Case of More Stringent Air Quality Standards

The Environmental Protection Agency recently imposed new standards for ozone (smog) and particulate matter (soot and dust), arguing that higher standards could prevent 15,000 premature deaths and relieve some 250,000 people from asthma attacks each year. The new standards, which went into effect in July, require states to reduce ozone emissions by an additional 25 percent and ratchet up the particulate matter standard to cover particles as small as 2.5 microns (equal to 1/28th the width of a human hair), one-quarter the size of the previous standard.

But rather than reducing respiratory illness, the costs of the new standards — between $90 and $150 billion per year, by one estimate — could place the public, and particularly minorities, at greater risk by destroying jobs and reducing disposable income.

According to a study of asthma death rates in Philadelphia conducted by David M. Lang and Marcia Palansky and summarized in the New England Journal of Medicine, the link between air pollution and serious respiratory illnesses is very weak. The study, which examined the city’s asthma death rates between 1969 and 1991, found asthma deaths rose from 1.68 per 100,000 population in 1969 to 2.41 per 100,000 in 1991. But the rise occurred at the very time concentrations of major air pollutants were in decline in the city. The study further found that death from asthma was more common in census tracts in which greater proportions of residents are black, Hispanic, female or poor.

Floyd Malveau, Dean of the Howard University Medical School provides some insights as to why this is the case.

“The hospitalization rate for asthma among African-American children is twice that of white, but socioeconomic status is a more significant risk fact,” explains Malveau. “…Poor environmental conditions in urban communities, along with other factors such as inadequate access to health care, are what tip the asthma incidence statistics…”

A study by the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute, “Rethinking EPA’s Proposed Ozone and Particulate Standards,” appears to support this conclusion. Using systems engineer Ralph L. Keeney’s formula, Reason’s Dr. Kenneth Green determined that 27,000 Americans could lose their lives each year as a result of the EPA’s new, more stringent air standards (assuming economic costs of $120 billion distributed equally to every citizen). Of that number 6,300 (23%) would be black, even though blacks constitute only 12.1% of the total U.S. population.

Income statistics suggest that the Hispanic population would suffer losses similar to those the black community would experience.

According to Reason, 15,300 (56%) of the induced fatalities would be suffered by those earning $15,000 or less each year, 8,900 (33%) would be suffered by those earning between $15,000 and $35,000 each year, and 2,800 (10%) would be suffered by those earning $35,000 or more each year. (see Chart 1) According to U.S. Commerce Department figures, the average annual earning for Hispanics is $18,568, compared to $19,722 for blacks and $26,696 for whites. (see Table 3)


Table 3: Average Income Level (1994)

 White $26,696
 Black $19,722
 Hispanic  $18,568

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce


The adverse effects of the new standards on the health and well-being of minorities have mayors of cities with large minority populations such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago concerned. The city of Chicago, for example, where

38.6% of the population is black and 19.6% is Hispanic, came out against the new standards on the grounds that they would jeopardize public health. In comments to the EPA, the city said, in part: “True protection of public health can only be achieved if a proposal to improve air quality is based on comprehensive public health criteria. In addition to the clinical and epidemiological effects of exposure, protection of public health also includes good nutrition, access to effective health care including prenatal care, viable housing, personal security, as well as freedom from poverty and inequality. Policies or programs that strip individuals of any of these basic elements serve only to jeopardize or diminish public health. The city has serious and well-founded concerns that adoption of EPA’s proposal may do just that…”

The mayors of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia don’t oppose the new air quality standards for partisan political reasons. In fact, all of them belong to President Clinton’s political party. They oppose the standards for the very practical reason that their constituents would be made to suffer.


The Case of Global Warming

This December, President Clinton will likely commit the United States to strict targets and timetables for reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions at an international summit to be held in Kyoto, Japan. The President is expected to sign an agreement that would require the U.S. to reduce such emissions by between 10 and 20 percent.

The central premise of the Kyoto meeting is that greenhouse gas emissions are growing at an alarming rate and that continued build-up of these gases will result in a rise in global temperatures with potentially catastrophic consequences not only for the environment, but for human health.

But committing the nation to such gas emission reductions could have even more dire consequences for human health, and, in particular, for the health of minorities. According to Wesleyan University economist Gary W. Yohe, just stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions to their 1990 levels by 2010 — a less ambitious target than will likely come out of Kyoto — would slow U.S. Gross Domestic Product growth by close to one percent annually, reduce income and wages by between five and ten percent per year, and change the distribution of income against the poorest fifth of all Americans.

Using a standard measure of income inequality,Yohe determined that the carbon taxes necessary to stabilize U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would cause relatively high income losses among the poorest quintile of Americans (lowest one-fifth of the population) even if these costs were offset by personal income tax reductions. For example, assuming a carbon tax of $260 per ton, the lowest quintile would experience income losses approaching 10% while the wealthiest quintile would experience income increases in the 2% range. The middle three quintiles would experience income losses ranging from roughly two-thirds to two and two-thirds percent.

At the same time, such a tax would significantly increase energy costs, reducing standards of living. For instance, consumption of electricity and natural gas — two common home energy sources — would decline by 32% and 18.4%, respectively, due to higher costs.

Dr. Yohe’s study offers two important insights. First, blacks and other minorities would bear the brunt of any income losses that would result from greenhouse gas stabilization efforts. In 1994, the average black wage-earner’s income was $19,722 and the average Hispanic wage-earner’s income was $18,568, compared to $26,696 for whites. Blacks and Hispanics would therefore make up a larger portion of the poorest quintiles of Americans — those who would experience the greatest losses in income.

Second, Yohe’s study tells us that the consumer costs of stabilization efforts hurt blacks and Hispanics disproportionately because they would be regressive. Simply put, someone earning $100,000 per year can more easily afford an increase in home fuel prices than someone earning $10,000 per year. Again, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities would be particularly hard hit since they, on average, have much lower annual incomes than do whites.

The long-term impact of global climate control policies could be equally hard on minorities as they could deny these comparatively disadvantaged Americans the chance of economic empowerment.

A recent resolution passed by the National Black Chamber of Commerce explains why:

“Energy use is the foundation for economic growth and a rising standard of living, especially in growth-dependent urban areas…. Urban communities are the venue for 98 percent of all black-owned businesses… [C]onstraints on energy use would be particularly harmful to those black-owned businesses seeking to enter the marketplace as well as individuals on fixed incomes, those living in rural areas and/or who are otherwise dependent on personal transportation for work and other worthwhile social activities, and those black-owned businesses who depend on transportation to compete effectively against their foreign counterparts as a result of higher fuel costs.”

If Ralph Keeney is correct, the direct economic costs of emissions control to minorities — and indeed all Americans — could be the least of our worries. DRI/McGraw Hill, a respected economic forecasting firm, has estimated that the cost of just a $200 per ton carbon tax would reduce U.S. Gross Domestic Product by $350 billion per year, costing 1.1 million jobs each year. Losses in disposable income needed for improving health and safety could result in thousands of pre-mature deaths.

For minorities, it is difficult to see how the benefits of greenhouse gas stabilization could possibly outweigh the costs.



Three years ago, President Clinton signed an Executive Order requiring federal agencies to identify environmental programs and policies that have adverse health effects on minority populations. The order did not specify that the agencies need only look at environmental influences on human health. The order did not specify that economic influences on human health be ignored.

Yet, the Clinton Administration opposes the construction of a nuclear waste storage facility near Yucca Mountain in Nevada, supports the EPA’s new, more stringent air quality standards, and advocates strict targets and timetables for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — all of which would impose enormous economic burdens on the nation’s minorities, resulting in significant, adverse effects on their health. By ignoring the economic consequences of their environmental programs, federal agencies are violating the President’s Executive Order on environmental justice.

Without an assessment of the economic costs of environmental programs and policies, the Clinton Administration’s environmental justice strategy is an environmental strategy without justice for the nation’s minorities.

David Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research.

The National Center for Public Policy Research, founded in 1982, is a non-partisan, free-market, independent conservative think-tank. Ninety-four percent of its support comes from individuals, less than four percent from foundations and less than two percent from corporations. It receives over 350,000 individual contributions a year from over 60,000 active recent contributors.