Events & Media

The Bren School of Environmental Science & Management
at the University of California, Santa Barbara



"Toxic 'Outliers' and 'Mainstreamers':
A Facility-Based Analysis of the Predictors of Pollution-Related Health Risk Intensity"

Mary B. Collins
Bren School of Environmental Science & Management

Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012
8 a.m.

Sarah Anderson, faculty advisor
Committee members: Paul Mohai (University of Michigan), Bruce Kendall, Oran Young


In relation to pollution from industrial sources, several key studies have revealed the existence of a small number of heavily polluting facilities that are responsible for generating the majority of emissions-based relative human health risk. Early work has also suggested that such outlier facilities tend to be poor performers economically as well as environmentally, that they place disadvantaged communities at particular risk, and that regulatory responses are not aligned with levels of risk production. To date, little scholarly attention has been devoted to these extreme variations in facility-based risk and to their significance from environmental equity and policy points of view. This research undertakes a number of separate but interrelated studies that focus on the explication of the “disproportionality perspective,” or the idea that these heavy polluters produce the majority of environmental harm without compensating societal benefit. In the first study, I determine the generalizability of disproportionate patterns in industrial pollution risk. Second, I show how this analytic framework can be used by regulators to promote environmental justice. Finally, I move beyond the traditional community-based environmental justice frame to focus on industrial risk intensity and its relationship to community factors. I contrast the riskiest polluters (“toxic outliers”) to the lower risk polluters (“mainstreamers”) in regard to environmental justice performance. I find that nonwhite and low income populations bear the overwhelming majority of risk from outliers and that outliers have significantly worse environmental justice performance than mainstreamers. I also explore the extent to which such injustices could be relieved if environmental policy compelled outliers to reduce their toxic burdens to the average for their sector. In entirety, the findings from this work show that disproportionate patterns in pollution production are highly reproducible and influenced by power-based societal dynamics. Findings also suggest that more emphasis should be placed on studying the distribution of environmental privileges as well as environmental problems and on understanding the inherent interconnections between these two sides of environmental inequality.