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Waste sites often located where people are poor,
don't own homes, says noted environmentalist

Minorities and the poor experience greater exposure to pollution than other people, Evan Ringquist, a nationally recognized expert in the politics of environmental risk, recently told a UConn audience.

"The density of (hazardous waste) facilities in a neighborhood goes up with the number of minorities and lower income households in that neighborhood," said Ringquist, an associate professor of political science at Florida State University.

Ringquist's lecture, held October 23 at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, was the second in the Edwin Way Teale lecture series, Nature and The Environment.

The presentation, titled Pollution and Prejudice: Who Bears the Burden of Environmental Risk, focused on a study Ringquist conducted on the theory of racial inequities in environmental risk.

The study, which focused on 70,000 hazardous waste facilities in the United States, analyzed the location of the facility and the race and income level of the area. Ringquist found there was a correlation between the location of these facilities and the demographic makeup of the surrounding area. He provided information about Connecticut that showed the same strong correlation as the rest of the country.

According to Ringquist, many studies have been conducted during the past 20 years that both support and discount the theory that toxic and hazardous waste facilities are in areas where there is a high percentage of minorities or poor. These conflicting studies weigh heavily on public policy decisions concerning environmental protection, he said.

"This work puts environmental concerns in the realm of the courts and legislative bodies at the federal, state and local level," said Professor Richard Kearney, director of the Institute of Public and Urban Affairs, when he introduced Ringquist.

But Ringquist was quick to qualify his study by saying that race and income are not the most important factors in predicting where a waste facility is located.

"Home-ownership is the most important factor. People who own homes are most likely to go out and vote against the building of a facility in their neighborhood," he said. "Likewise, a facility will not be built in the middle of nowhere, where costs will be higher. It doesn't make good marketing sense."

Ringquist also pointed out that his study did not conclude whether these facilities were built intentionally in areas that had a high number of minorities or lower income households. However, the correlation between the variables was very high and unmistakable, stressing a need for more research and investigation, he said.

Ringquist also contended that a waste facility is not as great a threat as people assume. Under governmental regulations, waste facilities are in fact relatively safe and pose little risk to the people who live near them, he said.

"Instead, it is the perception of risk that has people scared. This perception is most important politically. The government acts on the public perception of a problem," he said.

Ringquist is the author of a book, Environmental Protection at the State Level: Politics and Progress in Controlling Pollution, and numerous articles published in journals such as American Politics Quarterly and The American Journal of Political Science.

The lecture series is co-sponsored by the departments of ecology and evolutionary biology, economics, English, and philosophy, and political science, as well as the Dodd Center, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School, the environmental engineering program, the Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, and the Museum of Natural History.

Eileen Labenski