Toxic Tradeoffs: Can We Combat Environmental Injustice Without Hurting the Very People We Aim to Help? Georgetown Environmental Law Review


                                                                                                                                                                                         Photo by Elizabeth Brossa (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Can We Combat Environmental Injustice Without Hurting the Very People We Aim to Help?

by Shea Diaz, Staff Contributor

Our society disproportionately imposes costs of environmental harm on low-income and minority populations,[1] and policymakers should aim to solve this problem. In a recent blog post on the Environmental Law Syndicate, I addressed the myriad causes that contribute to environmental injustice and suggested increased regulation enforcement and stakeholder participation as two potential solutions. However, good intentions alone do not make good policy, and we should be on the lookout for unintended consequences when designing solutions to environmental injustice. Policymakers may end up exchanging toxic exposure for different negative impacts that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. This blog post will discuss two potential negative outcomes of environmental cleanup: job loss and environmental gentrification. While these outcomes are certainly possible, the research shows they are not inevitable. Policymakers have the power to prevent these outcomes by conducting careful analysis and allowing for meaningful stakeholder participation.

Job Loss

While nearby residents may have their long-term health harmed by toxic waste plants and similar facilities,[2] the residents may also be benefitting from the jobs these facilities create.[3] Some argue that removing or regulating these facilities could result in an increase in unemployment and poverty.[4] However, others argue that economic costs “can be offset as companies develop cheaper ways to clean up pollutants” and that there are outside factors responsible for job loss.[5] Some past fears of environmental regulation leading to job loss have turned out to be unfounded—for example, the Clean Air Act “has been a modest net creator of jobs through industry spending on technology to comply with it.”[6] However, many environmental regulations on the books have not been subject to this kind of systematic impact study after implementation.[7] The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires all federal agencies to evaluate the potential environmental effects of proposed projects;[8] however, NEPA does not require agencies to look back at actions after implementation to evaluate their impacts, whether environmental or economic. Thus, there is not a comprehensive evaluation of the effect of environmental regulations on job loss.

This question has been the subject of some research, leading to mixed results. British researchers Cole and Elliot summarize the contradictory findings from the United States:

[S]tudies by Morgenstern et al. (2002)[9] and Berman and Bui (2001)[10] find no evidence to suggest that regulations have adversely affected industrial employment, and the former actually finds weak evidence that regulations may have resulted in a small net increase in employment. However, studies by Henderson (1996),[11] Kahn (1997)[12] and Greenstone (2002),[13] again for the US, indicate that industries located in counties with stringent regulations have experienced job losses, or at the very least lower employment growth rates, relative to industries in less regulated counties. Similarly, Shadbegian and Akofio-Sowah (2001)[14] find evidence to suggest that US environmental regulations have significantly reduced the level of employment in manufacturing industries.[15]

These mixed findings show that the effect of environmental regulation on jobs may depend on context. A mechanism for evaluating the accuracy of NEPA impact statements after implementation could allow policymakers to engage in a more informed debate regarding new regulation. While job loss is not inevitable, policymakers should analyze any proposed cleanup project for potential economic ramifications in order to avoid hurting the very people these policies try to help.

Environmental Gentrification

Another potential consequence is that cleaning up will drive up property values and displace the existing residents. This process is called “environmental gentrification.” In an ethnographic study describing this pattern in Harlem, New York, Melissa Checker describes the theory that city developers use EJM rhetoric to promote economic development at the expense of those the movement is trying to help:

Environmental Gentrification describes the convergence of urban redevelopment, ecologically-minded initiatives and environmental justice activism in an era of advanced capitalism. Operating under the seemingly a-political rubric of sustainability, environmental gentrification builds on the material and discursive success of the urban environmental justice movement and appropriates them to serve high-end redevelopment that displaces low-income residents. Materially, the efforts of environmental justice activists to improve their neighborhoods (i.e. the removal of environmental burdens and the installation of environmental benefits) now help those neighborhoods attract an influx of affluent residents.[16]

If true, this phenomenon may give rise to additional environmental harm. By driving the poor out of the cities in which they work, policies could indirectly increase pollution and toxins created by increased commuting needs. While this theory is compelling, the research is mixed as to whether or not environmental gentrification really results from cleanup projects. Because the concern about displacement is not wholly unfounded, policymakers should widen their scope of analysis when assessing the impacts of environmental cleanup.

Checker’s study operates under the assumption that environmental gentrification is a real threat, but does not provide empirical evidence that the phenomenon actually occurs.[17] However, other studies do tackle this issue with mixed results. Four recent studies from 2009 and 2010 found that cleanup projects such as brownfield revitalization lead to a decrease in minority demographics and an increase in housing cost.[18] Gamper-Rabindran and Timmins compared neighborhoods close to sites that were cleaned up with neighborhoods not subject to cleanup projects. [19] They found that cleanup was associated with increases in population density, housing-unit density, mean household income, the percentage of college-educated residents, and the percentages of Blacks and Hispanics. Housing values also increased after the cleanup.[20] However, Eckerd found no relationship between the extent of gentrification a neighborhood experienced and the perceived or actual environmental improvement that preceded it.[21] Taylor suggests that Eckerd’s contrary finding can be reconciled with the theory that communities may experience a lag time in between clean up and displacement if they are able to absorb some gentrifiers into the existing housing market.[22]

The EPA commissioned a study by the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) to research the unintended impacts, including environmental gentrification, of its own Environmental Justice initiatives. [23] While this study provided recommendations to address the perceived problem of environmental gentrification, it was unable to determine whether or not environmental gentrification actually occurred after cleanup projects; the study lacked pre- and post-project demographic data at the neighborhood level.[24]

Environmental gentrification has the potential to inflict various kinds of harm on those who are affected. Community members may face displacement pressure from landlords, challenges in obtaining new housing in a market requiring them to pay a disproportionately higher percentage of income for housing, and the loss of community culture.[25] Initial research shows that there is indeed cause for concern, and any environmental justice policy must be assessed for its potential contribution to displacement.


Neither job loss nor environmental gentrification is an inevitable consequence of toxic exposure reduction in low-income and minority communities. However, a lack of post-implementation analysis leaves policymakers with little information with which to evaluate any negative results. In the absence of empirical evidence, policymakers should at least be sensitive to these concerns so as to avoid creating new and different harms in the communities they are trying to help. Future projects should be subject to evaluation after-the-fact so that we may better understand the successes and failures of efforts to combat environmental injustice.


[1] See, e.g., Conner Bailey et al., Environmental Justice and the Professional, in Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions 35 (Bunyan Bryant ed. 1995) (“There is no doubt that risks associated with environmental hazards disproportionately affect minority populations that are least able to defend themselves due to poverty and political powerlessness.”).

[2] See Martine Vrijeid, Health Effects of Residence Near Hazardous Waste Landfill Sites: A Review of Epidemiologic Literature, 108 Env. Health Persp. 101 (2000) (“The disposal of wastes in landfill sites has increasingly caused concern about possible adverse health effects for populations living nearby, particularly in relation to those sites where hazardous waste is dumped.”).

[3] Adam Eckerd et al., Helping Those Like Us or Harming Those Unlike Us: Illuminating Social Processes leading to Environmental Injustice, 39 Env. & Plan. B: Plan. & Design 945, 951 (2012).

[4] See, e.g., Motoko Rich and John Broder, A Debate Arises on Job Creation and Environment, N.Y. Times, Sept. 5, 2011, at B1.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] See, e.g., U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, National Environmental Policy Act: Little Information Exists on NEPA Analyses (2014).

[9] R.D. Morgenstern et al., Jobs Versus the Environment: An Industry Level Perspective, 43 J. Envtl. Econ. & Mgmt. 66, 67-81 (2002).

[10] E. Berman and L.T.M. Bui, Environmental Regulation and Labor Demand: Evidence from the South Coast Air Basin, 79 J. Pub. Econ. 265-295 (2001).

[11] V. Henderson, Effects of Air Quality Regulation, 86 Am. Econ. Rev. 789-813 (1996).

[12] M.E. Kahn, Particulate Pollution Trends in the United States, 27 J. Regional Sci. & Urb. Econ. 87-107 (1997).

[13] M. Greenstone, The Impact of Environmental Regulations on Industrial Activity: Evidence from 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments and the Census of Manufacturers, 110 J. Pol. Econ. 1175-1219 (2002).

[14] R.J. Shadbegian and N. Akofio-Sowah, Does Environmental Regulation Affect Labor Demand? Evidence from US Manufacturing, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, mimeo (2001).

[15] Matthew A. Cole and Rob J. Elliot, Do Environmental Regulations Cost Jobs? An Industry Level Analysis of the UK, 7 B.E. J. Econ. Anal. & Poly. 1, 2 (2007) (emphasis and internal footnotes added).

[16] Melissa Checker, Wiped Out by the “Greenwave”: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability, 23 City & Society 210, 212 (2011).

[17] Id.

[18] Winifred Curran & Trina Hamilton, Just Green Enough: Contesting Environmental Gentrification in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 17 Local Env. 1027, 1031 (2012) (citing J.D. Essoka, The Gentrifying Effects of Brownsfields Redevelopment, 34 Western J. Black Studies 299-315 (2010); H. Pearsall, Linking the Stressors and Stressing the Linkages: Human-Environment Vulnerability and Brownfield Redevelopment in New York City, 8 Env. Hazards 117-132 (2009); H. Pearsall, From Brown to Green? Assessing Social Vulnerability to Environmental Gentrification in New York City, 28 Env. & Plan. C 872-886 (2010); A. Dale & L.L. Newman, Sustainable Development for Some: Green Urban Development and Affordability, 14 Local Env. 669-681 (2009)).

[19] Dorceta E. Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility 87 (2014).

[20] Id.

[21] Adam Eckerd, Cleaning up without Clearing out? A Spatial Assessment of Environmental Gentrification, 47 Urb. Aff. Rev. 31, 31 (2011).

[22] Taylor, supra note 19, at 87.

[23] Nat.’l Envtl. Justice Advisory Council, Unintended Impacts of Redevelopment and Efforts in Five Environmental Justice Communities ii, 5 (2006) (hereinafter NEJAC).

[24] Id at 16.

[25] Id. at 2.