Imagine living in a community that includes the most undesirable and hazardous amenities a place has to offer such as a waste transfer station, a sewage treatment plant, and several landfills. Now, imagine being represented by county officials who decide to provide water and sewer services to an animal shelter but not to the residents—who happen to be more than three-quarters African American. And, these facilities primarily serve the majority-white residents in adjacent communities. Unfortunately, the residents of Royal Oak in Brunswick County don’t have to imagine this; they face this reality every day.
Majority-minority* and low-income Tar Heel communities face widespread environmental injustices—and environmental racism—that harm residents’ overall health and economic security. Such exclusion is exposed in a UNC Center for Civil Rights report, The State of Exclusion: An Empirical Analysis of the Legacy of Segregated Communities in North Carolina.
The author of the report, Peter Gilbert, analyzed the exposure rate to solid waste facilities—such as landfills, waste transfer stations, and incinerators—to review how exposure varies from community to community. Unsurprisingly, communities that are majority-African American are the hardest hit, being more than twice as likely to live within one mile of a solid waste facility as the average North Carolinian. African American’s exposure rate is also far higher than the exposure rate for other majority-minority communities of color, as illustrated in the chart below. Residents living in majority-minority communities in the Tier 3 counties—or, the least poor counties per the Department of Commerce’s designation—have the highest exposure rates. The same goes for residents living in the Piedmont.
Duke Energy’s recent Dan River coal ash pond spill is bringing a lot of attention to the hazards of living near power plants and solid waste sites. Although there is not a significant racial disparity present near the Dan River location, nearby residents of all races will be impacted by the spill. There are, however, two coal ash ponds in the state that show a dramatic racial disparity, according to data provided by the Southern Environmental Law Center. These ponds are located in Stokes and New Hanover counties. Nearly 60 percent of the populations living within one mile of these ponds are comprised of minority residents, much higher than the state’s share at 30 percent.
If you attended Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation yesterday, you know that the toxins found in coal ash are so dangerous that living near a coal ash pond is far more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And, people living within 1-mile of such facilities have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer, far higher than what the Agency considered to be the norm or acceptable.
Why should we care about this if these aren’t “our” communities? Well, because it impacts us all. We know that opportunity is deeply connected to “place”—or, in other words, our neighborhoods and surrounding environment matter for socioeconomic outcomes. Living on the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks” or in the wrong zip code can stifle one’s ability to achieve economic security and live a long, healthy life, according to a growing body of evidence. And this holds down all of our potential to benefit from a stronger economy.
The data is clear: North Carolina needs policies that reduce place-based racial disparities and enhance opportunity for all residents.
*A community is majority-minority if at least 75 percent of the population is some race other than white only.