Environment, What's Race Got To Do With It?

What’s race got to do with it? Census data show Black, Latino neighborhoods especially vulnerable to air pollution

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series of NC Policy Watch blog posts examining disproportionate impacts on race — in the environment, education, the courts and other sectors — and the structural issues that lead to these inequalities.

With nearly all Black or Latino residents, a census block group in east-central Winston-Salem, including areas near two city parks, is disproportionately burdened by air pollution. Another block group near the highway interchange is also a minority neighborhood with chronic exposure to diesel emissions and other air toxics. (Maps: EPA Environmental Justice Screen)

Some time next year it’s expected money will start flowing from North Carolina’s $92 million Volkswagen settlement fund to projects designed to reduce diesel air pollution. Chosen by DEQ and approved by a federal trustee, the projects, such as installing electric car charging stations or retiring diesel school buses for cleaner hybrid/electric models, must address areas that are disproportionately harmed by air pollution.

And most of the time, these areas are predominantly Black, Latino or American Indian and/or low-income.

Public policy has a way of piling on these communities. Rarely will you see a million-dollar home abutting a landfill, but these working-class neighborhoods may be burdened not only by their proximity to an interstate, where they live in a cloud of microscopic and damaging pollutants, but also dirty neighbors: major industry, dumps, Superfund sites, power plants, gas stations and other sources of pollution.

These same Black, Latino, American Indian and low-income residents are also more likely to endure health problems (and often with irregular access to health care) from those very pollutants: childhood asthma from bad air, for example. According to federal health statistics, Black children are four times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children. And in 2015, Black children had a death rate 10 times that of non-Hispanic white children.

Policy Watch used the EPA’s environmental justice screening tool to analyze several Census Block Groups in the state that appear vulnerable to both pollution and racial disparity. Here are some of our findings:

  • In one South Raleigh area bisected by the heavily traveled South Saunders Street, more than two-thirds of the 1,910 residents are Black and/or Latino. These neighborhoods also rank in the 97th percentile in EPA Region 4 for proximity to traffic. (This means these residents live closer to highly trafficked areas than 97 percent of census block groups within the eight Southeastern states in Region 4.) The block groups have similar rankings when compared to those statewide.
  •  In Winston-Salem, many underserved neighborhoods hug the major thoroughfares of I-40 and US 52. In east-central Winston near Rupert Bell Park, a block group that is 99 percent minority ranks in the mid-80th percentile both state and region-wide for ozone pollution and air toxics cancer risk. More than 1,470 people live in this block group. (See map at the top of the page.)
    The 1,055 people — all Black and/or Latino — who live near the I-40/ US 52 interchange are especially at risk of pollution-related illness. This block group ranks in the 92nd to 96th percentile for exposure to diesel emissions, air toxic cancer risk and respiratory hazards.
  • And in Fayetteville, a neighborhood of 2,309 at the northern gateway to the city is 69 percent minority, according to EPA data. Regionwide, it ranks in the 84th percentile for diesel particulate matter and 94th for its proximity to Superfund sites, which can also contribute to air pollution.

 

 

 

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