Environmental Racism and the Role of Engineers in Providing Justice


Environmental racism, which encapsulates the disproportionate number of minorities living near and negatively impacted by environmental hazards, greatly burdens communities of color both physically and economically. In an effort to attain environmental justice for these communities, engineers have a duty to leverage their knowledge and resources in order to empower and mobilize alongside community organizers and put pressure on opposing stakeholders. This paper reviews the direct correlation between race and environmental hazards, as well as analyzes two cases in which engineers can either harm or help marginalized communities.

While some believe racism primarily manifests in the form of slurs, violence, or discrimination, racism is also upheld institutionally through academia, prisons, politics, and more. But what about pollution? Or hazardous waste? How can the environment, a nonhuman entity, perpetuate discrimination?

Even though the environment is a universal commodity, it is society’s larger institutions, such as government, that control and distribute its resources. This power structure creates unfavorable outcomes for minorities. According to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, communities of color tend to be disproportionately burdened by particulate matter in comparison to white communities at county, state, and national levels [1]. Additionally, Yale researchers found that white communities had the lowest levels of exposure to particulate matter in comparison with Black and Hispanic communities, which experience the highest exposure rates among the races considered. Moreover, people who were unemployed and had low education levels were also exposed at higher rates than those in employed and educated populations [2]. This aligns with findings from Duke University researchers: in assessing whether or not the Clean Air Act was enacted fairly across all demographic groups, they concluded that non-Hispanic Blacks were exposed to the worst air pollution of all the groups considered [3]. Exposure to specific types of particulates varied by race, with Hispanic and Asian communities found to be exposed to chlorine almost twice as much as white communities [2]. As evidenced by these studies, higher levels of particulate matter exposure are especially prevalent in communities of color.

Knowing the relationship between particulate matter exposure and race, it is crucial to understand where the pollution — whether it’s in the soil, air, or water — originates. The United Church of Christ, known for coining the term “environmental racism,” released a 20-year follow up study to their original landmark report in 1987 about the direct correlation between communities of color and toxic waste facility placement. They identified all 413 of the nation’s toxic waste facilities and found that the proportion of people of color in neighborhoods that hosted facilities was 1.9x greater than in non-host neighborhoods [4]. In areas with clusters of waste facilities, the percentage of Hispanic and Black residents was even higher than in areas with a single facility. In fact, compared to the original 1987 report, people of color are even more concentrated around toxic waste facility sites presently than they were twenty years prior [4]. According to the church’s analyses, race on its own could predict where facilities were located and was a more accurate predictor than other factors, such as income or education [4].

Those advocating against the idea of environmental racism argue that Black and Brown communities, rather than being victims of environmental injustice, actually inflict damages upon themselves because they end up settling in more environmentally hazardous areas due to job placement and housing markets. However, USC Professor Manuel Pastor and his colleagues have debunked this claim. In their research, they found that environmental hazards were disproportionately caused by siting, which is the intentional placement of toxic storage and disposal facilities by government and corporate stakeholders [5]. Therefore, the correlation of race and environmental hazards is not attributed to minorities moving into areas which are already hazardous. In fact, the study suggests that an influx of people of color as well as an exodus of white residents could actually be predictors of eventual siting [5]. To further support these claims, a report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted that it would be inadequate to address environmental injustice purely on the basis of poverty, as race is an essential factor in anticipating and addressing these issues [1]. Unfortunately, there are multiple cases of how marginalized groups have been devastated by environmental hazards. For example, the majority Black residents of Uniontown, Alabama, are subject to the rotten stench and corrosive dust of the Arrowhead landfill, which collects thousands of tons of household and industrial waste from over half the nation. The toxicity of the landfill has worsened to the point that residents report headaches, nausea, and psychological problems, and even refuse to garden or let their children play outside to protect them. [6]

Beyond these studies, there exists abundant research establishing the relationship between race and environmental hazards. Even though the direct correlation is clear, pinpointing the driving forces behind it is more complex. While many attribute these injustices to the complications of bureaucracies or the apathy of money-driven corporations, how do engineers come into play? What role do they assume when the battleground for environmental justice seems exclusively populated by companies, government figures, and citizens? As engineers are responsible for city planning, building out infrastructure, and revolutionizing environmental practices, it is crucial to understand how their power as creators and distributors of knowledge can lead to varying outcomes for minority groups.

The impact of engineers’ work, or lack thereof, is represented strikingly by the community of Triana, in which the negligence of engineers resulted in permanent health and economic damage for its residents. Between 1948 and 1970, the Olin Corporation poured approximately 4000 tons of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) into the Huntsville Spring Branch in Alabama, where it was then deposited into a 2.3-mile-long strip of sediment along the Indian Creek. Due to booming demand for DDT as a powerful insecticide, the Army Corps of Engineers (a subset of the army made up of engineers who service the nation with engineering solutions ) leased out the Redstone Arsenal, located just southwest of Huntsville, to the Olin Corporation in order to produce the popular chemical [7]. Almost a decade later, four years after the government banned the chemical’s production in 1973, federal agencies found traces of DDT in the fish and ducks in the area surrounding the Arsenal [7]. Despite these findings and large fish die-outs in the river, the Army Corps of Engineers remained silent about the discovery. Shortly afterward, the EPA issued a warning that DDT was contaminating the area around the Huntsville Spring Branch. However, it wasn’t until two years later when the Tennessee Valley Authority publicized their own extensive report on the DDT contamination that the poor, majority-Black town of Triana located just two miles downstream from the Arsenal would realize the devastation the contamination had caused its community, from both a public health and an economic standpoint. Once the EPA took action to pinpoint the source of the DDT as the Redstone Arsenal, they ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to take responsibility for leasing out the land to the Olin Corporation and clean up the contaminants. Despite threats of a civil lawsuit, the Army Corps of Engineers deflected the responsibility onto the Olin Corporation, which delayed the start of the cleanup process for another three years. It ultimately took over a decade to conclude the cleanup. During that time, tests of Triana residents found approximately three times more DDT in their blood than the amounts discovered in other DDT case studies. In the extreme case of 85-year-old resident Felix Wynn, his blood was found to have 3300 parts per billion of DDT, the largest amount ever recorded in a human. The consequences of these high concentrations were dangerous: in large doses, DDT can cause vomiting, shakiness, and tremors, and is noted by the Center for Disease Control to be a human carcinogen. DDT was even more disastrous for the nearby fish population, and the massive fish die-outs that occurred as a result of the pollution were devastating to the community’s fishing economy; fishermen who historically made $7000 a week at peak points saw their incomes dwindle significantly or vanish altogether [7].

In the case of Triana, the Army Corps of Engineers was negligent in providing cleanup efforts and informing community members about the DDT leakage. Their acts were in violation of multiple points of the Engineering Code of Ethics; they did not act in a way that served the public interest and conducted themselves in a way that deceived the public [8]. Even after their discoveries about DDT remnants and their potential link to fish die-outs, the Army Corps of Engineers chose not to pursue further research and concealed information because it was not in their interest to reveal it. Even after the EPA threatened to take the case to the Department of Justice, the Army Corps continued to deflect their responsibility to clean up, despite knowing that the Olin Corporation, despite having direct cause in the contamination, did not have a duty to the public and would likely delay the cleanup for even longer. In instances like this, engineers have a duty, regardless of contamination source, to act in accordance with their ethics code and ensure environmental justice is upheld.

In contrast to incidents like the one in Triana, engineers and scientists have sometimes been crucial in enacting environmental justice. Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, there is an 85-mile stretch of land that houses over 150 plants and refineries dubbed “Cancer Alley.” This nickname is derived from the high rates of cancer and other chronic conditions among its residents, which are attributed to the immense amount of toxic waste contamination caused by these companies [10]. Following Deepwater Horizon, the BP oil spill in 2010 that leaked over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the issue of BP’s waste management became a huge concern for the communities of color along Cancer Alley [9]. After approval of its waste management plan, BP ordered thousands of tons of debris and sand covered in crude oil to be sent to nine landfills in these communities speckled across the Gulf Coast. Despite the fact that they make up only a quarter of the regional population, communities of color had to shoulder half of BP’s waste. Venice, Louisiana, host neighborhood of Tide Water Landfill and 93.6% Black, in particular ended up receiving 2204 tons of oil-spill waste [11].

To this day, these Cancer Alley communities remain vulnerable; the area is rife with oil rigs along the Gulf and hazardous waste facilities and polluting factories on land [11]. However, John Amos, founder of SkyTruth, a nonprofit utilizing satellite imagery and remote sensing data to track environmental threats, decided to take initiative upon seeing the damage from the BP oil spill. After observing that patches of oil slicks persisted after BP’s cleanup efforts, his company provided essential oil slick data and mobilized alongside community organizers to mitigate the damage of other corporations, such as Taylor Energy. Through his analyses, Amos concluded that Taylor Energy, which owns a defunct, damaged oil rig just off the Gulf Coast, had been spilling oil into nearby waters for 14 years — 14 million gallons in total. Using satellite monitoring technology, he kept track of oil slicks and spillage by the Taylor Energy oil rig following Deepwater Horizon. He supplied this data to news outlets, the Department of Justice, pro-bono lawyers, and local organizations like Healthy Gulf, which specialize in upholding environmental justice in marginalized communities. These efforts led to the US Coast Guard initiating containment efforts, though to this day, some wells still have not yet been plugged [12]. Community organizations are continuing efforts to monitor the area until a full cleanup is enacted, but assessments about public health and economic impacts on the surrounding region have yet to surface and the subsequent negative impacts of this injustice may not be revealed for years.

Fortunately, preventative measures can be taken now that the source of the damage has been stopped, but measures like these only happen if people like John Amos choose to act. SkyTruth empowered community organizers and exemplified the role engineers can play in grassroots movements [13]. They can provide valuable data and put pressure on stakeholders to make reparations and recognize the direct consequences of their actions. In Amos’s case, he used extensive satellite mapping to reveal that BP had been underestimating their calculations on the Deepwater Horizon oil spillage by a factor of over twenty [12]. In doing so, he helped offer transparency and brought to light the true extent of damage done in the Gulf. And with regards to Taylor Energy, Amos made headway on an issue that had been ongoing since Hurricane Ivan erupted the company’s oil rigs. Despite the continuous battle to attain complete containment and cleanup efforts, he was able to spearhead action by putting pressure on entities like the US Coast Guard, who have more power to dictate action and provide resources for change [12]. As illustrated by SkyTruth’s efforts, education and data are powerful tools that engineers can leverage to uplift community organizers. Whether it is through providing groundbreaking data to activists’ advantage or educating community members to help with unification and mobilization, engineers have a duty to serve in the best interests of marginalized communities. While many propose that engineers should enact environmental change through their inventions, such as more efficient energy systems or closed-loop, waste-minimizing production cycles, they often don’t consider engineers’ duty to directly mobilize against polluters and other perpetrators of environmental racism. The first fundamental canon in the Engineering Code of Ethics is to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” but this can only happen when engineers come together to protect the interests of communities of color.

By June Moon, Dornsife School of Arts and Sciences, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, June Moon was a junior studying Cognitive Science. She’s a huge fan of Philz Ice Mint Mojitos, watching Japanese baking videos, and exploring all of San Gabriel Valley’s best eats with her friends.


[1] V. R. N. II, “Environmental Racism is Real, According to Trump’s EPA,” The Atlantic, 28 Feb. 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/02/the-trump-administration-finds-that-environmental-racism-is-real/554315/.

[2] M. L. Bell and K. Ebisu, “Environmental Inequality in Exposures to Airborne Particulate Matter Components in the United States,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 120, no. 12, pp. 1699–1704, 2012.

[3] M. L. Miranda, S. E. Edwards, M. H. Keating, and C. J. Paul, “Making the Environmental Justice Grade: The Relative Burden of Air Pollution Exposure in the United States,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 8, no. 6, pp. 1755–1771, 2011.

[4] R. D. Bullard, P. Mohai, R. Saha, and B. Wright, Toxic wastes and race at twenty: a report prepared for the United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries. Cleveland, OH: United Church of Christ, 2007.

[5] M. Pastor, “Which Came First? Toxic Facilities, Minority Move-In, and Environmental Justice,” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2001. [Online]. Available: https://www.aaas.org/resources/which-came-first-toxic-facilities-minority-move-and-environmental-justice.

[6] Kristen Lombardi, “Welcome to Uniontown: Arrowhead Landfill Battle a Modern Civil Rights Struggle,” NBC News, Aug. 5, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/epa-environmental-injustice-uniontown-n402836

[7] “Environmental Justice Case Study: DDT Contamination,” Triana Justice Page. [Online]. Available: http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/triana.html.

[8] “Code of Ethics,” Code of Ethics | National Society of Professional Engineers. [Online]. Available: https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics.

[9] R. Pallardy, “Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” Encyclopædia Britannica, March 13, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.britannica.com/event/Deepwater-Horizon-oil-spill.

[10] “Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems,” MSNBC. [Online]. Available: http://www.msnbc.com/interactives/geography-of-poverty/se.html.

[11] R. D. Bullard, “BP’s Waste Management Plan Raises Environmental Justice Concerns,” Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice. [Online]. Available: https://dissidentvoice.org/2010/07/bp’s-waste-management-plan-raises-environmental-justice-concerns/.

[12] J. Amos, “Taylor Energy Oil Spill: This Is How Change Happens,” SkyTruth, Oct. 16, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://skytruth.org/2018/12/taylor-energy-oil-spill-this-is-how-change-happens/. [13] “Technology,” SkyTruth, March 14, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://skytruth.org/about/technology/.

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