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The Region's Minorities Face Major Risks From Pollution

Environment: Justice demands that the AQMD cut emissions.

March 16, 2000|MANUEL PASTOR and CARLOS PORRAS and RACHEL MORELLO-FROSCH | Manuel Pastor is director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community at UC Santa Cruz. Carlos Porras is executive director of Communities for a Better Environment. Rachel Morello-Frosch is assistant professor of public health at San Francisco State University

In 1994, the South Coast Air Quality Management District staff recommended that facilities be required to cut risks when emissions were associated with an estimated 10 cancer cases per million nearby residents. Yet the AQMD board set the standard at 100 cases per million, 10 times the recommended level.

On Friday, thanks to grass-roots activism and public protest, the AQMD board will consider a revision to the so-called Rule 1402, which determines the level of acceptable cancer risk from industrial and commercial air contamination.

The AQMD staff is once again suggesting that the board tighten up its standards to 10 in a million. Some have argued that even this is too high, noting that one in a million is the desired goal in the federal Clean Air Act. Moreover, setting limits for each facility still will leave certain communities with industry overburdened with potential cumulative health risks.

Why should the public care? As the AQMD has pointed out, most predicted cancers regionwide from emissions are because of mobile sources, especially diesel from truck traffic. Yet this is no excuse for inaction on rules regarding stationary sources, just as if a person is both obese and a chain-smoker, good health requires that he lose weight and stop smoking.

An equally important concern is fairness. Using Environmental Protection Agency data on concentrations of 148 hazardous air pollutants emitted from large and small stationary facilities in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, we estimated and mapped potential increases in lifetime cancer risk associated with these emissions.

The resulting "riskscape" is startling. Predictably, cancer risks associated with stationary source emissions are much higher for poorer communities. Yet differences by race hold across income levels: African Americans, Latinos and Asians face a higher-than-average estimated lifetime cancer risk. Indeed, nearly one-third of the total five-county minority population lives in the "worst" quarter of the census tracts, while only 15% of Anglos live in these areas. The disparities widen if we factor in cancer risks from mobile-source emissions.

Given that minority workers are often disproportionately represented in the industrial labor force, some might worry that working for cleaner air will cost jobs. Using the same cancer risk estimates for L.A. County, however, we found that while "dirty" areas do boast a higher level of jobs, employment growth has been much faster in the cleaner areas during the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting a synergy and not a competition between environment and economy.

In our view, the staff recommendations could go further, with more public participation and less scope for firms to use economic and technical criteria to delay action. Still, moving in the direction of the staff's advice would shift the agency's policy in a way consistent with the precepts of "environmental justice," that is, the notion that certain communities and ethnic groups should not bear a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards.

On Friday, AQMD board members face both a decision and the opportunity to lead the way to a more sustainable future for all the residents of this region.

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