Race, Wealth, and Solid Waste Facilities in North Carolina

Jennifer M. Norton; Steve Wing; Hester J. Lipscomb; Jay S. Kaufman; Stephen W. Marshall; Altha J. Cravey


Environ Health Perspect. 2007;115(9):1344-1350. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Background: Concern has been expressed in North Carolina that solid waste facilities may be disproportionately located in poor communities and in communities of color, that this represents an environmental injustice, and that solid waste facilities negatively impact the health of host communities.
Objective: Our goal in this study was to conduct a statewide analysis of the location of solid waste facilities in relation to community race and wealth.
Methods: We used census block groups to obtain racial and economic characteristics, and information on solid waste facilities was abstracted from solid waste facility permit records. We used logistic regression to compute prevalence odds ratios for 2003, and Cox regression to compute hazard ratios of facilities issued permits between 1990 and 2003.
Results: The adjusted prevalence odds of a solid waste facility was 2.8 times greater in block groups with ≥50% people of color compared with block groups with <10% people of color, and 1.5 times greater in block groups with median house values <$60,000 compared with block groups with median house values ≥$100,000. Among block groups that did not have a previously permitted solid waste facility, the adjusted hazard of a new permitted facility was 2.7 times higher in block groups with ≥50% people of color compared with block groups with <10% people of color.
Conclusion: Solid waste facilities present numerous public health concerns. In North Carolina solid waste facilities are disproportionately located in communities of color and low wealth. In the absence of action to promote environmental justice, the continued need for new facilities could exacerbate this environmental injustice.


Disposition of solid waste is an ancient public health problem made more pressing in the 21st century by population growth, increases in per capita waste production, scarcity of suitable locations for waste disposal near cities, and changes in the composition of waste (Melosi 2005). In recent decades there have been environmental health concerns about contamination of increasingly scarce potable water sources by landfill leachate and air pollution from landfill gases [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) 2001]. These have led to requirements that municipal solid waste landfills (MSWLs) use plastic liners and install leachate and gas collection systems [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 1993]. These systems should reduce and delay off-site environmental impacts of MSWLs; however, some other solid waste facilities, notably construction and demolition landfills, do not require liners or gas collection.

Choosing locations for MSWLs and other solid waste facilities involves consideration of local geology and hydrology, existing land uses, proximity to waste sources, and transportation routes. As requirements for expensive engineering controls have been implemented, economies of scale have led to a decline in the number of active solid waste disposal sites along with an increase in their average size (U.S. EPA 2002). Larger facilities that will be used for longer time periods have greater potential to impact other local land uses and neighboring populations. Obtaining permits for new solid waste facilities has become increasingly difficult because of stricter environmental requirements and opposition from local communities (U.S. EPA 1993). Some communities have questioned whether they should host the waste produced by distant populations (Bullard 2000). Solid waste disposal, like many other practices such as treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes, oil refining, chemical production, and industrial animal agriculture, may threaten environmental health conditions in host communities so that other communities can reap the benefits of production without suffering the most direct environmental consequences. A disproportionate burden of such facilities or pollutants in poor communities and communities of color is often referred to as "environmental injustice." With few exceptions (Faber and Krieg 2002; General Accounting Office 1995), environmental injustice concerns related to solid waste facilities in the United States have not been examined.

In North Carolina, recent proposals to build landfills have generated concerns that the state will become a major importer of wastes produced in other states (Henderson 2005; Rawlins 2005). Several permit applications from private companies that want to operate large regional landfills in eastern North Carolina, a poor and historically African-American region of the state, were under consideration when the state legislature adopted a 1-year moratorium on new landfills in July 2006 (General Assembly of North Carolina 2006). The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, a coalition of community-based organizations, called for a moratorium on construction of new landfills in poor communities and communities of color until wealthy communities accepted their share of waste (North Carolina Environmental Justice Network 2003). However, the location of existing solid waste facilities in relation to community race and wealth has not been evaluated previously.

This study was conducted to evaluate two environmental justice questions with implications for environmental health and health disparities. First, we examined records for solid waste facilities present in 2003 to determine whether they are disproportionately located in communities of color and in poor communities. This cross-sectional analysis, however, could not determine whether these communities are more often selected for landfills, or whether the race and wealth of communities changed after the facilities were built. Therefore, longitudinal analyses were also conducted of the facilities that received permits between 1990 and 2003 to determine the race and wealth of the communities at the time the facilities received permits.


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