Environmental Racism: Nationwide and in Columbus

It is more important now than ever to educate ourselves on issues of institutional racism in the US, and environmental racism is well-researched and documented. According to GreenAction, a grassroots organization that fights for environmental justice, environmental racism is “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” An EPA study from 2018 confirmed that people of color are far more likely to live near pollution and breathe polluted air. They focused on particulate matter, which includes fumes from vehicles, soot, oil smoke, construction dust, and other particles than have been proven to be significantly detrimental to human health. Particulate matter is a known carcinogen and has been linked by the EPA to conditions such as asthma, high blood pressure, and low birth weights in babies, as well as other lung conditions and heart attacks.

Nucor Steel in St. James Parish, which is located in “Cancer Alley” along the Mississippi River, one of the best known examples of environmental racism. This 84-mile stretch has been associated with greatly increased risks of cancer and other health issues due to the prevalence of petrochemical plants–there are at least 150 throughout.

The prevalence of particulate matter in the air in neighborhoods of color has been documented in other studies as well. According to scientists as the National Center for Environmental Assessment, African Americans are exposed to 1.5 times as much particulate matter than whites, while Hispanics are exposed to 1.2 times as much. In addition, black neighborhoods are not only more likely to be geographically near polluting facilities; the nearby polluters also emit a higher magnitude of emissions than in other areas. Thus, this harmful pollution disproportionately impacts black people in the United States.

Looking at a map of brownfield locations in Columbus (former industrial or commercial sites that may be contaminated) 5/14 are located in the adjacent neighborhoods of Weinland Park and Milo-Grogan, which were both historically diverse, working-class communities. For instance, in the 1940s and 50s, the eastern part of Weinland Park (nearest to the industry) was one of the few neighborhoods in Columbus where black residents could buy homes, while Milo-Grogan was established as a diverse community of Irish, African American, and Italian residents. When many of the manufacturing facilities began leaving in the later 20th century, both neighborhoods suffered great population loss and, as crime rates increased, “white flight” occurred and both neighborhoods became predominantly black.

An image from a 1922 thesis by Ira Blanchard, an Ohio State student, entitled “An Introduction to the Economic and Social Geography of Columbus, OH.” These rowhouses were located in the industrial area between Weinland Park and Milo-Grogan.

One of the most notable former industries in the area is Timken Co., a massive manufacturing plant built in 1920 that located strategically near the Grogan rail repair yard and employed thousands at its peak. It has since been replaced by exercise equipment manufacturer Rogue Fitness, and although much of the former industry has left, the areas between the two neighborhoods and east of Milo-Grogan are still industrial in nature. Current industry includes a brewing facility, multiple scrap metal yards, an aluminum finishing company, and an industrial pattern manufacturer, to name a few. In addition, I-71 was built directly through Milo-Grogan in the 1960s, splitting up the neighborhood and creating additional air pollution, and there are rail lines throughout both neighborhoods along the industrial areas. The EPA has also recognized that living near busy highways, rail yards, and industrial areas can cause adverse health effects such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and reduced lung function.

Columbus Railway, Power & Light Company railroad tracks on Chittenden Ave in Weinland Park in 1906. To the far right is the National Ice & Storage Company.

A research thesis from OSU student Frank R. Johnson in 2017 focused on environmental racism in Columbus, with a case study of Bexley and the Near East/South Side, which are areas that are geographically close but starkly different racially and economically. While looking at the Opportunity Index (OI) for the two areas, which is comprised of education, job access and mobility, and environmental hazards, Johnson found that the east side of the 1-71 corridor had some of the lowest OI scores in Franklin County, while Bexley was a high outlier. While much of the Near East and South Side is mostly black, Bexley is mostly white and upper-middle class; it is a metaphorical island of wealth and health among lower-income, more polluted areas.

This choropleth map from Johnson’s thesis shows that Bexley, the blue area circled above, has a higher tree canopy coverage than the surrounding areas, which is one of the reasons it has less air pollution.

Not only does a denser tree canopy clean the air, it also reduces the urban heat island effect, which puts areas at greater risk for extreme heat waves. Johnson also found in his research that the areas surrounding Bexley have a higher percentage of impervious surfaces like asphalt, which absorb heat and exacerbate the urban heat island effect. A study from the University of California at Berkeley found that African Americans are 52% more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods that are most at risk during heat waves. Trees are less prevalent in low-income neighborhoods due to the lack of investment, as the tree upkeep is very expensive. Air conditioning, which helps keep residents cool in these high-risk areas during heat waves, is also expensive; subsequently, heat-prone neighborhoods are often those with the least ability to withstand hot weather.

These are just a few examples of how African Americans are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues such as pollution and excess heat in the United States, and in Columbus specifically. Through intentional design and lack of investment, to name a few causes, many black residents are at much greater risk of a plethora of health issues ranging from asthma to heat stroke to cancer, which greatly reduces their quality of life–and lifespan.