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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Study: Metro Atlanta's poor, minorities live near worst pollution

Posted By on Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 10:24 AM

Environmental justice hotspots dot the metro region
  • GreenLaw
  • 'Environmental justice hotspots' are more often found in areas where minorities, people living on low incomes live
It's not a shocker but it's still depressing to see: According to a new report (PDF) by an environmental law firm and advocacy group, metro Atlanta's minorities, people living on low incomes, and families who speak a language other than English are more likely to live near and be affected by pollution than whites and those with higher incomes. And in contrast to the federal government, the state lags behind when it comes to addressing such environmental justice issues.

Researchers with GreenLaw, an Atlanta-based environmental law firm, broke the 14-county metro region up into equal-sized square blocks and analyzed the overlap between demographics and types of pollution including brownfields, landfills, and facilities emitting pollutants, inside each. (If you're curious how your neighborhood stacks up with others, you're in luck.)

The team identified five of metro Atlanta's "environmental justice hotspots" — the worst of which is the area where Douglas, Fulton and Cobb counties converge near Fulton Industrial Boulevard and the Chattahoochee River.

From the report:

Once the largest and most prestigious warehousing and transportation building concentration east of the Mississippi, it is now home to a striking intersection of the region's highest pollution point rates, highest minority rates, and most depressed economic conditions. This area, approximately between Cascade Road and its intersection with Bakers Ferry Road, contains 55 pollution points, more than any other block in metro Atlanta (Figure 21). Our analysis reveals that close to 9 out of 10 residents are minorities, average income levels are approximately $25,000 below the regional average, and vacant housing rates are double the average across the metro Atlanta region.

[snip]

A remarkable 27 environmental violations have occurred between 2008 and 2011 in this hotspot. Heritage-Crystal Clean racked up 8 violations here by repeatedly violating the RCRA, a law dictating how hazardous wastes should be handled. Records show violations for improper general standards and emergency procedures, as well as mishandling materials. EPD has taken multiple informal and formal enforcement actions against the company for these violations but, according to public records, no financial penalties were imposed.

Other hotspots include Canton, the area where Buford Highway crosses from DeKalb County into Gwinnett County, the northwest Atlanta neighborhoods near Bellwood Quarry along the Atlanta Beltline, and central Douglas County. Interestingly, Fulton County has an environmental justice policy already on the books. Beltline officials and community members are currently crafting a policy for the 22-mile loop that snakes through rich, amenity-rich neighborhoods and poorer, former industrial areas.

The study makes several recommendations, including: creating an alliance of environmental justice advocates in the metro region; forming a working group with business and government leaders to address environmental justice issues; and convincing the federal government to help fund the state and local governments' efforts. In addition, researchers recommend the state Environmental Protection Division finally adopt a policy that "promotes the health of all of Georgia's citizens and requires environmental equity in its practices."

Justine Thompson of GreenLaw says some Georgia lawmakers have made unsuccessful attempts over the years to encourage the EPD to do just that and help bring Georgia up to speed with neighboring states. But there's nothing stopping the state agency from being proactive and crafting a policy on its own.

"The push back that might happen is, 'Well, this costs money and we have an issue with the budget,'" Thompson said during a conference call on Monday to present the study. "They're using their resources right now for certain populations while others don't get the benefit. Using that as an excuse would not be fair."

Some steps could be taken at little to no cost to the agency, Thompson adds. But as far as we know, there's been little discussion about the issue. We contacted the EPD on Monday to ask whether it would develop an environmental justice policy but have yet hear back.

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