USA - What environmental justice mapping tools mean for the waste industry
A review of reports from WM, Republic Services and Waste Connections show an increasing level of data from tools such as EPA’s EJScreen about the potential effects of waste sites.
The beginnings of the environmental justice movement can be traced back decades to concerns around waste sites, but transparent data about the issue has only become more common among major companies in recent years.
WM, Republic Services, and Waste Connections — the largest U.S. landfill operators — released the latest versions of their own sustainability and environmental justice documentation this year, varying in degrees of data transparency, analysis, and commitments.
All three reports utilized the U.S. EPA’s EJScreen, an open-source environmental justice mapping and screening tool. The 12 environmental indicators, seven socioeconomic indicators, and 17 environmental justice indexes all incorporate publicly available data which the EPA then displays at the desired geographic scale. The resulting report presents these indicators and indexes at the selected geography, including specific points; in the case of these environmental justice reports, the company-specific sites.
The EPA itself notes a few limitations for the tool, including that it is a national tool, and therefore cannot capture all environmental concerns at that scale, even if certain indicators may be available on a state or county basis.
Since at least the early 2000s, the EPA has studied the health effects of living near certain landfill sites, such as the potential leaking of toxic chemicals like lead, arsenic, and mercury into the water, air, and soil. These chemicals can cause long-term physical health impacts, like cancer and birth defects. Increasingly extreme climate events may also lead to further contamination through heavy rainfall, flooding and winds.
Though there is no agreed-upon extent to which these effects can travel, academic research in Europe has found potential health risks for people who live within five to 10 kilometers of a landfill site. A recent academic review of dozens of studies on health effects from a variety of waste sites found some evidence of adverse health effects “associated with residing near landfills,” though also noted that “in many cases, the evidence was inadequate to establish a strong relationship between a specific exposure and outcomes.”
Digging into the data
WM, Republic and Waste Connections all used a radius of 1 km for the EJScreen tool in their final analysis. Republic also included a range of 5 km in its extended report, and WM noted that its original environmental justice impact study in 2010 used a 5 mile or 8 km radius.
WM’s justification for shrinking this distance is to provide a “more localized view of those most impacted” by its operations. WM provided its analysis broken down by facility type; landfills were surrounded by 44% minority communities and 13% low-income households, and hazardous waste facilities with 9% minority communities and 0% low-income households.