North Carolina communities with significant numbers of people of color are more than twice as likely to be located near landfills and other solid waste facilities, according to new research from UNC-Chapel Hill. It was the first study of its kind to be conducted in the state, where controversy has been building recently over the siting of such facilities.

Epidemiologist Dr. Steve Wing with UNC's School of Public Health presented the findings earlier this week to the N.C. Joint Select Committee on Environmental Justice. The legislature established the committee earlier this year with the passage of Senate Bill 353, which imposed a yearlong moratorium on new landfills so the state could study their impact and related policy issues.

"This legislation will give us time to ensure that any policy on landfills balances environmental concerns with any economic benefits and protects the public health," Gov. Mike Easley (D) said in a statement released when he signed the bill.

The signing took place in Wilmington, N.C., across the Cape Fear River from the predominantly African-American town of Navassa, proposed site of an enormous landfill for European auto shredder waste to be built by the Australia-based Sims-Hugo Neu Corp. Finding a place to dump such waste is becoming harder in Europe, where it's generally treated as hazardous. In the United States, however, the material is still commonly dumped in ordinary municipal landfills.

Angered over the plan, residents from the surrounding county organized Brunswick Citizens for a Safe Environment to fight the proposal, winning the support of many environmental and neighborhood groups and local governments. Their work -- along with the efforts of citizens in several other eastern North Carolina communities facing so-called "megadumps" -- eventually led to the moratorium and UNC study.

Based on dissertation research by UNC doctoral student Jennifer Norton, the study examined records for all solid waste facilities present in North Carolina as of 2003 to determine whether they were disproportionately located near minority and poor communities. It also looked at facilities permitted between 1990 and 2003 to determine whether communities' race and wealth changed after the dumps arrived, measuring wealth by average home value.

According to a summary presented to the joint committee, the study found that by the end of 2003, the state had issued operating permits to 419 solid waste facilities, with almost half of those being municipal facilities. Adjusting for population density, the odds of a solid waste facility were 2.1 times higher in communities with more than 10 percent people of color compared to communities with less than that, and 1.4 times higher in communities with average home values under $100,000.

It also examined the 207 new solid waste facilities permitted by the state between 1990 and 2003. Among communities that did not previously have one, new facilities were permitted 2.2 times more often in communities with more than 10 percent people of color. The study found no excess of facilities permitted in areas with lower home values during that period, however.

The research also considered public vs. private facilities, finding an excess of private facilities in communities that are poorer or have significant minority populations. Between 1990 and 2003, for example, privately owned or operated solid waste facilities were permitted 2.4 times more often in communities with more than 10 percent people of color.

The summary concludes:

Solid waste is a public health issue. Waste generated every day must be disposed of somewhere. Communities that host solid waste facilities face concerns about their health and well being because of truck traffic, odor, noise, air and water pollution. Waste sites may attract other waste facilities, affect property values, and make communities less desirable locations for resources such as schools, medical facilities and clean industry. Urban areas and wealthy people who are disproportionately white consume more and create more waste. They tend to avoid impacts of waste disposal in their communities when waste goes disproportionately to low income communities of color.

People of color and poor communities may be especially vulnerable to the impacts of solid waste facilities because they have fewer community resources, and people in these communities already have more health problems.

Attention to environmental injustice could help motivate development of strategies to reduce the unfair share of waste sites borne by people of color and poor communities in North Carolina. White, wealthier communities would be more motivated to support waste reduction, reuse and recycling if they had to take care of more of their own waste.

The committee is expected to recommend early next year how to ensure that human health and equity are protected when landfills are considered, the Charlotte Observer reports. A separate legislative commission is considering how to improve rules on permitting landfills.