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May 12, 2003

Environmental justice is just common sense to some, faculty member finds

By Jennifer McNulty

Manuel Pastor remembers the day he proudly told his aunt that he’d received a $1.7 million research grant for his work on environmental justice.

Manuel Pastor Photo: r.r. jones

"That’s wonderful, Manuelito," she said, "I’m so proud of you. But what is environmental justice?"

Pastor explained that toxic-generating facilities appear to be disproportionately located in minority and poor neighborhoods. His aunt didn’t miss a beat: "Everyone knows that," she deadpanned.

Pastor, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UCSC, shared the anecdote May 6 during a lunchtime talk about his work as part of the UCSC Diversity Lecture Series sponsored by the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action (EEO/AA). Diversity and social justice are the themes of the series, which spotlights faculty research.

Although he is at the forefront of the environmental justice movement, Pastor conceded his aunt’s point, saying, "I’m involved with an extensive research project to prove the obvious."

But Pastor and his colleagues have made unparalleled contributions to the field, improving the scientific credibility of environmental justice advocates, advancing public policy and public awareness, and assisting community activists in their pursuit of equity and justice.

Since 1996, when he was on the faculty of Occidental College in Los Angeles, Pastor has collaborated with Community for a Better Environment (CBE), the Liberty Hill Foundation, and Occidental to study the distribution of toxic materials and hazardous waste sites in Los Angeles County. With $2.7 million in support from the California Endowment, as well as funds from other agencies, the team has steadily honed in on what Pastor’s aunt already knew: Facilities that produce or store hazardous materials are far more likely to be located in poor neighborhoods with high concentrations of people of color than in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods.

By examining the problem at the regional level, Pastor and his team have been able to demonstrate that disparities do exist, and they have gone on to develop sophisticated methods to measure the extent of those disparities and the factors that contribute to them. They have also documented potential health risks and other consequences, especially for children, of living near hazardous facilities.

Up to 10 percent of the disparity in academic performance among children could be caused by environmental hazards on or near school grounds, according to Pastor’s latest research, which establishes a link among the environment, student health, and academic performance.

Pastor takes pride in his team’s research results, which have countered critics who have suggested, among other things, that minorities and the poor moved into neighborhoods after toxic facilities were established. "Which came first? I call it the field of bad dreams--build it and they will come," Pastor said with a wry smile.

But the charge held some merit and needed to be addressed, so Pastor’s team took it on--and disproved it. A heroic effort by Pastor’s colleague James Sadd, chairman of the environmental science and studies program at Occidental College, produced convincing evidence that disparities in exposure to toxic-producing facilities had worsened over time.

"You’ve gotta be a nerd to love this stuff," said Pastor, whose presentation was filled with data-rich graphics and detailed maps of Los Angeles County.

The team also stumbled into an important discovery: Neighborhoods in transition were the most vulnerable to the siting of new facilities. Neighborhoods rife with what Pastor calls "ethnic churning"--shifting from predominantly African American to largely Latino, for example--lack the tight community networks that typically organize to oppose proposed toxics facilities.

"Political power matters far more than income," said Pastor.

During a recent presentation before the California Integrated Waste Management Board, state officials expressed surprise at what Pastor’s research team had been able to accomplish. "Their own staff had told them it couldn’t be done," said Pastor, crediting UCSC graduate Javier Huizar, now a geographic information systems specialist for UCSC’s Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community, with the accomplishment. "Javier was tickled pink when he heard that," added Pastor.

The team’s findings also influenced a recent proposal to expand Los Angeles International Airport and prompted the Los Angeles Air Quality Management District to tighten its own regulations regarding the acceptable number of illnesses and deaths associated with new facilities.

Pastor is hopeful that environmental justice will become a "common ground" issue in California, where Latinos have emerged as the swing vote and Latino legislators have growing clout in Sacramento.

"A lot of Latinos grew up in these neighborhoods," said Pastor, recalling his own childhood in La Puente.

"It’s unbelievable how much environmental inequality there is in this state," he said. "It’s part and parcel of a system in which opportunities and costs are distributed unequally, and that’s something we should be changing."

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