CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: U.S. House of Representatives. 1993. Judiciary Committee. Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. Testimony of Waste Management, Inc. 103d Congress, 1st session. 3 March.


MARCH 3, 1993

Good afternoon, I am Chuck McDermott, Director of Government Affairs for Waste Management, Inc., the country's largest provider of comprehensive environmental services.

As Waste Management, Inc. looks at the issue of race and the environment, we see one problem as fundamental -- one often lost in the emotion of this debate -- and the problem is pollution. Environmental equity concerns the lives and health of real people as they are threatened by pollution. That pollution must have a source, but often in the discussion of environmental equity and environmental racism the focus is on some sources and not others. This has emotional appeal, but bears little or no resemblance to environmental risks, as best science understands them.

Waste Management's point of view is shaped by our experience collecting, treating and disposing of everything from commonplace household trash to the most toxic and hazardous materials created by American industry. We are also the nation's largest recycling company. We design and build air and water pollution control equipment. We design and build hazardous waste treatment plants, and provide the full range of environmental services.

Given our experience in environmental management and our familiarity with much of what has been written and researched in this area, we accept the premise that environmental assets and liabilities in this country are not evenly distributed among racial groups, ethnic minorities or economic groups.

To accurately evaluate this inequity, we must recognize a fundamental principle underlying America's system of environmental controls: we have established different pollution standards for activities which generate wastes and those devoted to managing wastes.


For waste generation, we have bargained for decades over the levels of emissions that are considered acceptable by-products of economic development.

For waste disposal facilities, in contrast, we essentially have set a zero emissions standard. This is a laudable goal, but the zero emissions standard has not always been achieved. Waste management technologies are more effective today than ten years ago, and they will be more effective ten years from now.

We believe the waste management system in this country protects human health and the environment as effectively as any industrialized nation in the world. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) program regulating hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities in this country is comprehensive and rigorous. This is not to say that the system is perfect, nor does it deny the inequities various environmental policies have created in this country. But it is absolutely clear that the relative risks to human health and the environment posed by RCRA permitted treatment and disposal facilities are better known and substantially lower than those attributable to many other commonplace industrial activities generating waste.

For example, EPA Region V issued a report in May 1991 ranking the relative risks posed by 26 different environmental problems ranging from ozone depletion and radon exposure to several common industrial activities and RCRA permitted facilities. Of the 26 problems studied, the EPA ranked the risk posed by RCRA permitted facilities as 26th out of 26, with 26 being the lowest.

Now this is not how the public perceives the relative risk posed by waste facilities. Moreover, public concern tends to focus on the subset of off-site commercial hazardous waste disposal facilities. This is despite the fact that the entire commercial hazardous waste industry handles only 3% of the hazardous waste generated in this country. The other 97% is handled on-site by the entity that generates it.

There are obviously wide gaps between perceived risks and actual risks in this area, and quite frankly, the waste management industry shares the fault for that. We have not done a good job of communicating actual versus perceived risk. We have not adequately described the many improvements made in the design and construction of disposal facilities, and have let linger the mental image of the "old town dump." We have not educated the public about the dramatic changes that have taken place in the regulatory world over the past 20 years, transforming an industry from one of virtually no regulatory oversight to one of the most scrutinized activities known to man.

Over the past several years, people of color, who have not historically been linked with environmental activism, have begun to question the fairness of environmental decision making. A great deal of that early inquiry was directed at the commercial waste disposal industry. The effect of that lingers, which may explain why when many parties interested in this topic want an "industry" point of view, they contact a corporation that manages wastes, not one that generates wastes. The impulse to focus on waste disposal practices is understandable; it is immediate, emotional, and symbolic. Recognizing the absence of good communication about evolving technologies and standards in the waste industry, we can see why people viewing this area for the first time might start there.

There is little evidence that emissions from waste facilities pose the greatest risk to the average minority community, however. This is not to suggest that waste facilities be ignored in this discussion. They should not. In so far as waste facilities pollute, their operation and location deserve scrutiny. But at the same time, the capacity for waste management facilities to isolate or destroy dangerous substances otherwise available to the public should be considered a tool in the environmental justice movement.

Waste is not going away. We need to fully avail ourselves of all that recycling and source reduction have to offer. Waste Management is active in both those fields, and we look forward to the day when some combination of these activities stems the increase in the volumes of waste we generate. Today, we generate more than one ton of hazardous waste for every man, woman and child in the United States every year. The numbers for solid waste are only slightly lower. But even if we were to cease generating all wastes today, the problem would be far from solved. EPA estimates that given current disposal capacity and disposal rates, disposal of the waste associated with past industrial activity would take 100 years! We cannot wish this problem away.

The impacts of unabated pollution from these past activities should not be underestimated. Take, for instance, the proliferation of lead in the environment, a topic which touches upon both the disproportionate impacts of pollution and the role that waste facilities can play in alleviating those impacts. A great deal is known about the health impairment caused by lead, and its impact on the poor and on minorities is devastating. In families earning less than $6,000 a year, 68% of Black children suffer from lead poisoning, 36% of White. The impact is two to one, and both numbers are too high -- the number for Black children staggeringly so. When you get to families earning over $15,000 a year, the overall percentages drop, but the spread between Black and White goes to three to one: 38% of Black children suffer from high levels of lead versus 12% of White. Were there a comprehensive program to remove lead from housing stock and contaminated soils -- which there is not -- it would make obvious the need for technologically advanced disposal capacity. Aggressive action to reduce the amount of lead in the environment would rely upon properly permitted waste disposal facilities to contain and isolate the problem. In this way these facilities can play a positive role in the pursuit of greater environmental equity.

This is not happening at the moment. Waste Management recently was involved in a remediation contracted by EPA in Texas to remove lead-contaminated soils from a predominantly Black housing development in West Dallas. One of our landfills in Louisiana was the lowest bidder and was awarded the disposal contract. As the soils began to arrive at our landfill in Louisiana, which is located in a community which is predominantly White, local residents rose in opposition to wastes coming in from out-of-state. This could have been an opportunity for the environmental equity movement to bring health- and science-based arguments to bear against the parochial interests that commonly object to moving wastes between states. We would argue that leaden soils belong in a secure, permitted landfill, not beneath the feet of children who have no where else to play. Moreover, EPA should take the most reasonable bid, regardless of state boundaries, to assure that scarce clean-up funds are preserved. No such support was forthcoming, but we are hopeful that open discussion will some day soon create coalitions between advocates and remedial service companies. We must work together to prevent the release of pollution, and permitted waste facilities can play a constructive role.


Part of the stated purpose of this hearing is to explore whether there is a discriminatory pattern in the siting of waste management facilities. Even if waste facilities can play a role in reducing the impacts of pollution, it is legitimate to ask whether they are disproportionately located in minority neighborhoods.

Much of the discussion on the siting of waste facilities has been stimulated by the study commissioned by the Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) of the United Church of Christ. That research has prompted important debate which is both positive and constructive. But if one were to read only the CRJ study, one would not understand the profound impact federal and state regulation has had on the commercial hazardous waste industry. If we want to redress disparate impacts in siting, we need to understand in some detail how it could have occurred.

When Congress passed RCRA in 1976, it directed EPA to develop standards for the siting, design, construction, operation and closure of hazardous waste facilities. EPA issued its first rules in 1980. Before that, there were no federal standards for the siting of these facilities.

EPA's first action in implementing the RCRA hazardous waste regulatory system in 1980 was to establish an "interim status" program which would provide an immediate baseline of protection until final permitting standards were developed. Under interim status, facilities which had already been handling hazardous wastes could continue to do so until receiving a permit. Several thousand facilities applied for and received interim status permits under this program. Today, there are roughly 160 facilities permitted to handle hazardous wastes. During this period only one "greenfield" or newly sited facility has navigated the entire permitting system.

So rather than there having been a proliferation of siting over the last decade or so, there has in fact been a winnowing down of facilities. Ownership in some cases has changed, but the site has not. Thus, while the CRJ study is useful in describing where the remaining RCRA facilities are located it tells us nothing in terms of potential environmental impact about what differentiates active facilities from those that have been shut down. Nor does it tell us much about the demographic make-up of host communities at the time of siting, as opposed to the demographics years after those initial siting decisions were made. The CRJ study uses 1980 census information. Many sites began operations in the early '70's or before. Data from the 1970 census would give a much more accurate picture of what the community looked like when the siting decision was being made. To presume discriminatory intent, it is crucial that the demographic snapshot be taken as close to the time of siting as possible.

Independent of the issue of intent, Waste Management has wanted to know whether its facilities are predominately located in minority communities. In order to better understand the racial composition of the communities in which we operate, we examined the demographics around the approximately 130 waste disposal units in our solid waste, hazardous waste and waste-to-energy system. Using the same methodology employed in the CRJ study, i.e. 1980 census data and defining "community" as the five-digit postal zip code area in which the facility is located, it was determined that 76% of WMI's disposal facilities are located in communities with a White population equal to or greater than the host state average.

It is true that we have some facilities located in predominately minority communities. A few of them, in fact, are often held up as examples of discriminatory siting. One is our Emelle landfill, located in Sumter County, Alabama. As in most of rural Alabama, for generations the people of Sumter County have been predominantly Black and painfully poor. For some, those two factors alone are enough to explain why the town of Emelle in Sumter County is home to a disposal site for hazardous wastes. But the story of Emelle starts in 1974 when EPA conducted an audit of all the counties in the United States, looking for the most protective locations for hazardous waste land disposal facilities. EPA's auditors examined every county against a fixed set of criteria, placing; a premium on remote locations with access to good transportation systems -- be they rail, water or highway -- with geologic conditions suitable for land disposal, and with climatic conditions that would naturally inhibit the amount of precipitation that would come in contact with the waste.

On EPA's final list of the ten most desirable counties, the only one east of the Mississippi was Sumter County, Alabama. It was sparsely populated, had good access to transportation, was relatively arid, and -- most importantly -- was located atop the "Selma chalk formation," several hundred square miles of dense, natural chalk 700 feet deep. EPA concluded that this chalk formation provided an ideal barrier between any disposal activities and the nearest aquifer feeding a drinking water source, located 700 feet below. Another developer first obtained state permits for the site, and it was acquired by Waste Management's hazardous waste management subsidiary, Chemical Waste Management (CWM), in 1977. Since that time, CWM has invested millions of dollars in technology to make the landfill in Emelle one of the safest in the world.

When CWM acquired the site in 1977, Sumter County was struggling with illiteracy and infant mortality rates that were among the highest in the state, which made them among the highest in the nation. Over time, the landfill brought revenue into the county which has improved the schools, built the fire station and the town hall, improved health care delivery, provided employment and reversed the percentages on illiteracy and infant mortality. Three hundred people are currently employed at the CWM Emelle facility. Annual payroll is $10 million, and 60 percent of the CWM employees live in Sumter County. In addition, state tax law requires that a portion of the tax on hazardous wastes received at Emelle be given to Sumter County, with a minimum annual guarantee of $4.2 million to the county.

These are improvements in quality of life that all of us desire for all people, no matter what their race or income. But the value of reducing illiteracy and improving schools would be lost if it were at the expense of human health. Again, one of the underlying assumptions of environmental racism as it applies to the siting of waste facilities is that these activities threaten the health of the neighboring community. We are not here to claim that our facilities pose zero risk. They don't. But if we are to effectively improve the health and well being of the most disadvantaged among us, we must identify and resolve first those activities which pose the greatest risk. It's not sufficient to act on our emotions: we must act on the best, most credible information we can find.

While we acknowledge that it is our responsibility in the waste management industry to accurately communicate risk, it is not our responsibility alone. Every professional involved and outspoken in this area shares that responsibility, and failure to meet that responsibility can have results which are ultimately threatening to human health and the environment. The government has the critical burden of determining how risk can be assessed and ensuring that controllable environmental risks be minimized.

It is often overlooked that siting is to a large extent a local land use issue. It is legal, emotional, political, and sometimes irrational. More community involvement in the siting process would be a good thing, but that participation must be coupled with a clear, accurate discussion of risk. If the risks of hosting waste facilities are routinely exaggerated, it is likely that only the voiceless will play host to these necessary activities. The more reasonable the discussion, the greater the likelihood that a diverse mix of communities will determine that a well-managed landfill can be a positive compliment to the area's residential and industrial land uses.

In our opinion, siting should be driven by environmental protection. Risk is a function of exposure, not simple proximity. The most advanced designs and technologies should be required, and sites should be selected based upon their effectiveness in limiting exposure. We should insist upon state-of-the-art, redundant safeguards at facilities located where mother nature provides a backup. Local land use authorities must recognize their role and responsibility in assuring that needed facilities can be sited in these locations.

Concern over siting is not always driven by a concern for environmental protection, however. Public concern can often be driven by economic considerations as well, most notably, the impact the siting decision may have on residential property values. Again, while the predictable emotional response is that the presence of a hazardous waste management facility will negatively affect property values, research on the issue often fails to support that conclusion and sometimes contradicts it. For instance, a study performed by the Public Interest Economics Foundation concluded "that the preponderance of evidence failed to show any relationship between land values and distance from the disposal site." Benefits of Regulating Hazardous Waste Disposal: Land Values as an Estimator (Executive Summary), Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. EPA (June 1984). On a slightly different topic, even the study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) contradicted the perception that commercial waste disposal facilities are usually located in poor communities. The CRJ study found that communities hosting facilities were characterized by both mean household income and mean value of owner-occupied houses higher than the national average. Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States: a National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites, p 41, Exhibit B-1 (New York, United Church of Christ 1987). This too is at odds with commonly held, and often repeated, assumptions about the location and impact of these facilities. Such perception can best be addressed by open, honest, and inclusive discussion of risks and benefits when siting options are being considered.


All new RCRA facilities now need a permit before construction and operation. For a myriad of reasons, including the risk communication mentioned above, community involvement is crucial to the siting and permitting process. RCRA requires community involvement (see 40 C.F.R. [[section]]271.14(v-aa)) but leaves the details of implementation to the states. State programs necessarily differ. For a variety of reasons, no matter how well intentioned, these programs are not always successful in giving local communities a meaningful role in decision-making. A recent example involving this company may be illustrative.

We recently sought to build a hazardous waste incinerator adjacent to a landfill we operate in Kettleman City, California. The site is located in a portion of the San Joaquin Valley which is predominantly Hispanic. Although the state of California and EPA required incineration for 180,000 tons of hazardous waste in California in 1990, there is no commercial incineration capacity in a state which boasts the seventh largest economy in the world. Any toxic materials requiring commercial incineration must currently move out of state at considerable distance.

In order to provide incineration capacity at a price which keeps California's industries competitive, CWM proposed to build an incinerator adjacent to our landfill. In this way we could offer our customers economies of scale by sharing laboratory facilities and highly trained personnel.

Our landfill has been in operation for many years without opposition from the community, but our announcement of plans to construct an incinerator triggered lawsuits alleging that Kings County's decision to allow CWM to build an incinerator reflected racism. El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio v. County of Kings (Sacramento Super Ct, No. 366045). See also El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio v. Chemical Waste Management, Inc. (ED Cal, No. CV-F-91-578 OWW (CWM dismissed as party October 17, 1991) (related procedural matter regarding CEQA requirements). The courts thus far refused to hear the allegations of racism, but as a case study, it is still interesting. Were we building an industrial park, no one would be talking about racism. Inherent in the lawsuit is the notion that the incinerator will have a negative impact. Since it is documented, in the study performed by the Commission for Racial Justice, for instance, that these activities have no negative impact on property values, the focus must be on health impacts.

The governmental permitting process has been created to address just this issue. It requires that an independent group assess the risk an incinerator would pose. The permit requires a study using a statistical model evaluating the health impacts on the "most exposed individual," a person who over his lifespan remains within a 10 mile radius of the facility 24 hours a day for the entire 20 year useful life of the incinerator. This study concluded that the number of additional cancer cases potentially attributed to the incinerator under highly conservative assumptions would be three in 100,000,000. In the United States, roughly 25% of the population contracts some form of cancer in their lifetime, which is 25,000,000 cases in 100,000,000. The health risk posed to the 1,200 residents of Kettleman City therefore could fairly be described as negligible. Unfortunately, it may be rendered moot by the fact that many residents of Kettleman City earn their living as farm workers and are routinely exposed to massive doses of pesticides and insecticides in the course of their daily work.

The state of California has a rigorous program for community participation in site selection. A "Kings County Local Assessment Committee" (LAsC) was created in March of 1988 and operated pursuant to the standards of what is commonly known as the Tanner Act (Health & S C Sections 25199-25199.14; Chapter 1504, Statutes of 1986). The statutory role of the LAsC is to advise the legislative bodies of local agencies (in this case the Kings County Planning Commission) as part of the process by which the local agencies decide whether to issue a land use permit for a commercial hazardous waste facility, and the conditions that should attach if the permit is issued. The members of the LAsC must include three representatives of the community at large, two representatives of environmental or public interest groups, and two representatives of affected business and industry. The LAsC may engage the services of a consultant -- which they did in the Kettleman City case. The cost of the assessment is borne by the proponent--in this case, Chemical Waste Management.

The LAsC met regularly from its inception until it presented its report to the Kings County Planning Commission in September 1990. The report contained 37 items covering 57 specific issues which the LAsC had negotiated with CWM. Among other things, CWM agreed to:

From one perspective, this process seems substantive, comprehensive and responsive to community concerns. From another perspective, it was a failure.

An LAsC member was intimately involved in the community participation aspects of the project, and nevertheless joined as a plaintiff in the suit that followed our announcement to build the incinerator. Although all but one of the complaints in the suit were directed at the State of California and Kings County and only one to CWM, the advocacy groups that encouraged the suit continue to portray it as a landmark effort to stop an insensitive corporate giant. The one complaint made against CWM was that this siting decision represented a pattern of discriminatory siting practices, the courts have thus far declined to hear the civil rights claim.

The primary thrust of the suit that continues is that the State and the County failed to execute their responsibility to involve the community by failing to provide notifications, documents, and translation services for the Spanish-speaking members of the community. Such responsibility clearly falls on the governmental entities involved, and they made the decision to conduct their affairs only in English. Although CWM voluntarily and at its own expense provided meeting notifications in Spanish, translated the Summary of the Environmental Impact Statement, and provided for Spanish language translators during the public hearings on the incinerator, this was considered insufficient.

The lesson to be learned from this experience is that while all parties agree that community involvement in the planning and approval process is a must and all acknowledge that the concerns of the residents of Kettleman City are sincere -- as were CWM's efforts to address them through the LAsC and public hearing process -- the process somehow broke down.

Certain aspects of the Kettleman case stand out. Despite the best intentions of the Tanner Act process, in this case it may have failed to provide sufficient inclusion for the people who felt most directly impacted by the plans to build an incinerator. Kings County has a population of 110,000, of which 34% are Hispanic. Kettleman City, the town nearest the facility, has a population of 1,200 which is almost entirely Hispanic. Of the five members of the County Board of Supervisors, none are Hispanic. Of the seven members of the LAsC, one was from Kettleman City. Of the $7,000,000 CWM annually pays in taxes to the County, little of it is spent in Kettleman City; most is spent elsewhere in the County. Those most affected by the site must have better access to the process of understanding and receiving services afforded by the site.

This is why we hope for an ongoing dialogue -- with the communities in which we operate, with law makers and regulators, and with advocates who care about this issue. The questions raised in the debate over environmental equity are important and fundamental. Environmental decision-makers have not been attentive to fairness in the social justice context. We must insure that the provision of environmental services and protection is more evenly distributed among all Americans.

But in order to do so, we must shift our focus to a broader understanding of the sources of pollution in our society and the populations it may impact. We must better understand the effects of cumulative loadings, over time and via multiple media, of toxic emissions into individual geographic areas. The EPA has begun to acknowledge this, and recently Congress has begun to tackle the problem as well. Representative John Lewis and Vice President Al Gore last year introduced the Environmental Justice Act of 1992, which seeks to identify those communities, termed Environmental High Impact Areas, bearing the heaviest pollution burdens, and to ensure that these "hot spots" get rigorous regulatory oversight, technical assistance, and health assessments. We see this as a promising approach.

There must be an honest and fair discussion of risk, a re-examination of how decisions are made, and special attention paid to the interests of the least powerful if the important questions about environmental fairness that have been raised are to be translated into meaningful action. We look forward to being a constructive part of the discussion.