Environmental Justice for All North Carolinians

The following is an excerpt from our 2019 State of the Environment report.

North Carolina was the birthplace of the environmental justice movement in 1982, and the state has made some progress since then, but we still experience plenty of environmental injustice by multiple measures.

Disparate impacts. The US EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen (EJScreen), an online mapping tool, includes a demographic index that ranks all of North Carolina’s 6,000+ census blocks based on low-income and minority race populations. The map below shows the distribution of these ‘environmental justice’ (EJ) tracts from the 70th percentile (meaning more low-income or minority race residents than 70% of other tracts) through the 100th percentile (meaning more than all other tracts). The distribution of EJ tracts has a mild positive correlation with proximity to sources of respiratory toxics (16.1), heavy vehicle traffic (16.2), and sites handling storage and disposal of hazardous wastes (54.1), implying that residents of these tracts are somewhat more likely to be exposed to these risks than the general population. A 2014 US EPA analysis found that people of color in North Carolina are more likely than whites to live within a mile of a facility that releases toxic pollution into the local environment (27.2). Finally, the distribution of industrial swine farming, overlaps EJ tracts in the southern Coastal Plain.

Children’s exposures. Children of color suffer significant disparities in health outcomes, as measured by both low birthweight (20.1) and parental reports of their health (20.2). Key data on indoor air exposures (15.1) and children’s exposures to toxic chemicals (20.3) are lacking. However, peer-reviewed research has found that early exposure of children to a variety of toxics may contribute to obesity later in life, which has also continued to increase and shows large racial disparities (18.2). Every year more chemicals are introduced into consumer products with little or no safety testing (55.1). When these turn out to be toxic, surplus stocks are often dumped at stores serving low-income, Black, and Latino families.

Affordability of water and energy. A third critical aspect of equity is the cost of basic environmental services: water and energy. While trend data is lacking for water affordability (10.1), a recent survey by the Environmental Finance Center at UNC found that 57% of responding utilities charged more than 2.5% of median household income (EPA’s standard for affordability) for a modest level of water consumption. We discuss energy affordability (49.1) in the breakout on page 19.

Map credit: prepared by Andrew Pericak using demographic layers from US EPA’s EJScreen.
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