Lower-income and minority communities are exposed to majority of the pollution coming from waste-burning plants, report finds
A total of 1.6 million Americans live next to the most polluting incinerators in the country, with lower-income and minority communities exposed to the vast majority of pollution coming from these waste-burning plants, The Guardian reports.
The burning of household and commercial waste can give off a stew of pollutants, including mercury, lead and small particles of soot. This pollution isn’t evenly distributed, however. Of the 73 incinerators across the US, 79% are located within three miles of low-income and minority neighbourhoods, according to research by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at New York City’s New School.
In total, 4.4 million people live within three miles of an incinerator in the US. Of this total, 1.6 million live close to the top 12 incinerators measured in terms of pollutant emissions across mercury, lead, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide.
These pollutants are linked to a range of health problems, including asthma and heart disease. US incinerators typically abide by rules set on the amount of allowable emissions. But researchers said that even incinerators operating within their permits are adding to public health problems that heavily burden black, Hispanic and poorer communities.
“Many of these communities sit in high concentrations of other pollution and in the US, we don’t regulate places on the cumulative burden they face,” said Ana Baptista, associate director at Tishman and the report’s co-author. “Even with the best pollution controls, there’s a real cause for concern for people living next to incinerators.”
The report, which was commissioned by anti-incinerator group Gaia and draws from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, charts the rise of incinerators from the 1980s after federal rules eliminated many of the most harmful landfills.
Many US incinerators, which typically last for about 30 years, are nearing the end of their lifespans, making them increasingly costly to maintain.
The facilities can, however, benefit from renewable energy subsidies by helping create electricity from the burning of waste. A further boost has indirectly come from China’s decision to ban the import of most plastic for recycling, leaving many US cities to simply burn plastic they can’t reuse.
Proponents of incinerators argue they are less harmful than landfills, which can release large amounts of methane, a potent planet-heating gas. But activists in several cities have waged lengthy battles against nearby incinerators, with residents in Detroit celebrating last year after a controversial plant, blamed for pungent smells and noise, was shut down.
Entire neighborhoods have been devastated. That is what the Detroit incinerator did while it burned all of our trashKT Andresky
“Our communities have lost neighbours to cancer and asthma,” said KT Andresky, campaign organiser with Breathe Free Detroit. “Local businesses have been lost to crime and fires due to disinvestment around the incinerator. Entire neighbourhoods have been devastated. That is what the Detroit incinerator did while it burned all of our trash.”
The placement of incinerators appears to follow a well-established pattern of environmental injustice in the US, where communities of colour are far more likely to be housed next to sources of pollution, such as power plants, highways, landfills and other industry, than their white counterparts.
“Incinerators have historically played a significant role in the creation or expansion of environmental sacrifice zones in our most vulnerable communities, lowering housing values and increasing diseases such as cancer, asthma and other health impacts to those living in close proximity to the toxic emissions being released,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former environmental justice official at the EPA who departed the agency after two decades in 2017.
Ali said people in vulnerable communities should be serviced by renewable energy and zero-waste streams that eliminates the need for incinerators.
“Incinerators have never been just about public health, they have been about, race, power, justice, governance and poverty,” he said.
“The decision we make today based on 30-plus years of environmental justice experiences will say a lot about the evolution of decision-making in our country.”