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


This is the first study to examine the statewide location of permitted solid waste facilities in North Carolina, and one of the few studies of environmental injustice and solid waste facilities. We found that, accounting for population density and region, the prevalence odds of a solid waste facility in 2003 were greater in North Carolina block groups with larger proportions of people of color compared with white block groups, and greater in lower wealth block groups compared with high wealth block groups. We also found that in block groups without solid waste facilities, adjusting for population density, during 1990-2003 new facilities were permitted at a higher rate in block groups with larger proportions of people of color compared with block groups with <10% people of color. This relationship was observed for private but not public facilities.

Our results are consistent with a statewide analysis conducted in Massachusetts by Faber and Krieg (2002). These authors evaluated the location of solid waste landfills and TRANSFERs in relation to race and income of towns as part of an analysis of cumulative exposures to ecologic hazards. They reported higher concentrations of these facilities among nonwhite and lower-income communities compared with white and higher-income communities.

We acknowledge several limitations to the present study. We could not examine all types of solid waste facilities. Although most major types of facilities were included, different location patterns may exist for other facility types, such as land-clearing and inert debris landfills and preregulatory dumps. Furthermore, we did not count permits issued to existing facilities that served to expand the amount of waste disposed or increase the waste service area. A final limitation concerns the nature of facility location data. Using a point on a map to represent solid waste facilities could lead to misclassification of which block groups contain facilities. The method used to obtain and verify coordinates was more sensitive to correctly identifying the block groups that contained the waste disposal area or transfer station building rather than block groups that contained the facility entrance, when these block groups are different. We conducted a pilot test for 52 solid waste facilities to compare the coordinates we obtained from TerraFly, based on the waste disposal area, to the coordinates available from the NCCGIA, which were reported to be taken at the facility entrance. In this pilot test, block group assignment differed between these methods for only one facility. This represented an extreme example where the facility gate entrance was located in a different county than the waste disposal area.

The present study also had a number of strengths. Longitudinal analyses of new facilities were conducted separately for areas with and without solid waste facilities, because an existing solid waste facility is the most important determinant of the location being selected for a new facility during this time period. For example, between 1990 and 2003, 81% of the newly permitted CDLFs, 69% of the lined MSWLs, and 53% of the TRANSFERs were permitted in the 153 block groups with an existing unlined MSWL. This provides strong support for the hypothesis that existing landfills attract additional solid waste facilities. This effect means that the burden of solid waste on people of color will be difficult to reverse without addressing the momentum created by the historical pattern of disproportionate siting of solid waste facilities in areas with more people of color.

Our finding that newly permitted solid waste facilities and race were related only in areas that were previously free of facilities suggests that areas with solid waste facilities in 1990 did not attract additional facilities due to race because these areas already had higher percentages of persons of color, resulting in less variation in race in areas with previously permitted facilities, so race cannot be as predictive. Another explanation for this finding could be that these block groups could not support the addition of another facility because of the saturation of land uses, a factor that we did not measure in this study. For example, in 1990, the prevalence odds of having a solid waste facility, adjusted for population density and region, were 2.0 in block groups with >10% persons of color compared with block groups with <10% persons of color.

Most solid waste facilities are publicly owned and operated by local governments, reflecting the 20th century practice of managing solid waste as a public good (Pinch 1985). Nearly all of the INDUSLFs are privately owned and operated, reflecting the use of these facilities for industrial solid wastes generated through manufacturing processes. More recently, the vertical integration of the waste management industry has resulted in privately owned and operated solid waste facilities or public-private partnerships. As costs of landfill construction have risen, the number of new facilities has declined while the size of new facilities has increased. Unlike municipalities, private waste management companies have not commonly owned solid waste facilities; thus, they may need to seek new, more remote locations that can accommodate facilities that serve large regions. These trends would be consistent with our observation that relationships between newly permitted facilities and race were observed only for privately owned and/or operated facilities.

Environmental Injustice, Solid Waste, and Health

Environmental injustice and solid waste are public health issues. Proper solid waste management has long been a public health concern. Many facilities that were formerly used for municipal solid waste disposal are now a source of groundwater contamination (North Carolina Division of Waste Management 2003; U.S. EPA 1993). Landfills are also a source of odorous and nonodorous gases (ATSDR 2001). One mechanism through which landfills can affect health is through direct exposure to harmful toxicants found in landfill gases. Several epidemiologic studies have evaluated this hypothesized pathway using residential proximity to landfills as a proxy for exposure. The results of these studies suggest that living near MSWLs is associated with elevated risks of poor birth outcomes including low birth weight (Elliott et al. 2001; Goldberg et al. 1995b); respiratory conditions including bronchitis and shortness of breath (Hertzman et al. 1987); site-specific cancers of the stomach, liver, and pancreas (Goldberg et al. 1995a, 1999); and experience of malodors (Berger et al. 2000).

Another mechanism through which solid waste landfills can affect health is through the built environment (i.e., buildings, open areas, and infrastructure created and maintained by human action). Odor, noise, traffic, and visual pollution from landfills may act as repellents to health-promoting amenities in communities, such as health clinics, food stores, and recreational facilities, which could adversely affect access to medical care, diet, and physical activity. Residents living in close proximity to active landfills and TRANSFERs may be impacted directly by noise exposures from daily activities at the facility. Noise exposures can affect well-being and induce stress (Passchier-Vermeer and Passchier 2000). Heavy truck traffic on roads leading to solid waste facilities may present safety concerns (Eyles et al. 1993).

People of color and low-wealth populations may be more vulnerable to specific environmental agents as well as problems of the built environment created by solid waste facilities. Examples of predisposing factors that could increase individual susceptibility in communities of color and those of low-income are young or old age, higher disease prevalence, less access to nutritious foods, and increased exposure to occupational hazards. Factors that could promote exposures include unprotected drinking water sources, poorly insulated housing, limited access to transportation, and lack of money for household protection (any measures that could be used to seal houses and minimize potential exposures). Community vulnerability may be due to factors that increase individual susceptibility, promote individual exposure, or limit the collective ability of communities to prevent or ameliorate negative impacts of waste facilities. Collective wealth and political influence can provide communities with resources for preventing the siting of facilities, improving the built environment when it is threatened, and implementing bigger buffers, better engineering, and better management practices when facilities are sited. Thus, communities of color and poor communities would tend to experience greater health impacts from a solid waste facility than communities with greater resources. Any negative impacts of solid waste facilities on the health of neighboring communities in North Carolina might be lessened by preventing them from being located disproportionately in the most susceptible areas.

Malodor from landfill gases may create barriers to siting health-promoting facilities such as food stores, parks, sports facilities, and walking trails. Even where health-promoting facilities exist near landfills, actual and anticipated malodors may limit participation in outdoor physical activity. In a recent survey of 267 middle schools in North Carolina, Mirabelli (2005) found that staff at 23 schools reported landfill odors on school grounds and at 7 reported landfill odors inside the schools.

Production of solid waste in the United States has been increasing over the entire period for which production estimates are available (U.S. EPA 2005). Increases have been observed on both a per capita and total basis. Although we focused on North Carolina, the results have national and international implications. Solid waste and related disposal problems can be alleviated by reducing waste, and reuse and recycling. Although waste reduction policies, including zero waste initiatives, have been proposed, there is little incentive for waste reduction when waste-producing communities are not regularly exposed to the solid waste facilities that are the inevitable consequences of their production. Waste production is related to consumption of goods (U.S. EPA 2006). In North Carolina, wealthy and white populations have a paucity of disposal facilities. Table 3 shows that adjusted PORs for areas with > 10% people of color and house values < $100,000 vary from 3.1 to 4.1. The ability of populations that produce the most waste to dispose of the waste in areas that lack resources and political power increases the potential for disparate impacts on public health and also eliminates the feedback between production and consumption that could create pressure to reduce the amounts of waste produced. Environmental injustice in the locations of solid waste sites therefore has important implications for the future potential to limit waste production, a goal that would give priority to prevention.


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