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Environmental Scoreboard
Economists mine EPA data for the right to clean air and water
Economist Michael Ash looks over the report "Justice in the Air" in his office.

Economist Michael Ash explains that environmental justice with regard to water toxicity is virtually uncharted territory.

After publishing “Justice in the Air: Tracking Toxic Pollution from America’s Industries and Companies to our States, Cities, and Neighborhoods” in April 2009 as part of the Corporate Toxics Information Project, UMass Amherst economists Michael Ash and James Boyce set their sights on deciphering water toxicity data for the public.

The team’s forthcoming report, “Corporate Toxic Water Pollution and Human Health Risk: Why America Needs Tighter Regulations and Improved Clean Water Infrastructure,” produced in cooperation with Food and Water Watch, examines industrial toxic releases into U.S. surface waters.  It uses data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).

The report lists the U.S. corporations that release the most chemical pollution into public waterways both in sheer volume and by the human health risk posed by these releases.  As with air toxics, the report from the UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) will include a “Toxic 100 Index”. PERI works with the UMass Amherst Economics Department to promote human and ecological well being.

“We seek to document how vulnerable communities (communities with high fractions of poor people or people of color) are disproportionately exposed,” says Ash.

Ash explains that environmental justice with regard to water toxicity is virtually uncharted territory. Examining air pollution is more straightforward; pollution goes up through smokestacks and into the surrounding air. With water, however, the exposure pathways are more complex.  Dilution, deposition, and decay must be taken into account when estimating how pollutants travel downstream. This makes for difficult modeling, which is why it has been an onerous task to obtain data regarding distribution of toxic chemicals in waterways. The challenge does not deter the team.

“We want to take action where we'll have the biggest impact,” Ash says.

By taking an economist’s view of EPA data, the Corporate Toxics Information Project analyzes and disseminates public information regarding toxic releases in a more accessible format and at the same time applies socioeconomic analysis.  Raw TRI data does not account for varying degrees of toxicity between chemicals - some chemicals can be up to ten million times more toxic than others. It also does not consider numbers of people exposed, nor does it systematically identify the corporations that own reporting facilities.  As these reports distributed by the EPA tend to be difficult for the average person to comprehend, Ash and his colleagues translate the data into easily digested reports that can be used by corporate managers, regulators, legislators and activists alike. 

Ash explains that environmental legislation in the U.S. is based on the notion of “right-to-know,” meaning industry is mandated to report toxic releases.  In order for this system to be successful, the information must be both up-to-date and interpretable for decision-makers and activists to use. The larger focus of the project is to hold corporations to high standards and to promote cleaner air and water.

In following the numbers downstream, Ash and the team are finding patterns to suggest unequal distribution of toxic chemicals in waterways. Poorer communities, Ash says, are disproportionately burdened. The data also reflects that people of color are more frequently exposed.  While there may be multiple “causal stories” to explain the phenomena, Ash suspects that the more exposed areas are “vulnerable communities” ill equipped to speak out against pollution in their neighborhood. The availability of vulnerable communities may embolden corporations to dispense more overall toxics.

“That suggests to me that there’s a political process at work,” Ash says.

For example, in its analysis of air pollution “The Toxic 100 Air Polluters” reports that minorities, who make up around 35 percent of the total U.S. population bear fully 65 percent of the air toxics risk posed by Exxon Mobil and its subsidiaries.

EPA data are based on facilities, not companies. Ash and his colleagues find a particular challenge in tracing the vast ownership network. The project has popularized the “Toxic 100,” and the environmental justice scoreboard that tracks these facilities to their parent corporations. The team also incorporates Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI), EPA data that includes toxicity weights and population exposure, to quantify toxic risk.

Ash explains that too frequently corporate decision-makers are unaware of the pollution released by their own facilities. The team has received phone calls from corporate managers who were curious, dismayed, and disbelieving in the data. Some were eager to change.

Ash continues to produce reports for public benefit. He is a Co-Principal Investigator (PI) on a two-year National Science Foundation project entitled “Correlates and Consequences of Risks from Airborne Toxics: Dynamic Spatial Analysis.” He was also the Principal Investigator on a U.S. Geological Survey project delving further into the differential impact of industrial toxics in Massachusetts waterways.

“We want to be part of mediating the information so that this very technical hard-to-read data from EPA becomes something that’s useful to the possible actors: the managers, the share-holders, the community members, the activists,” Ash says.

Amanda Drane '12