Fugitive Chemicals and Environmental Justice

A Model for Environmental Monitoring Following Climate-Related Disasters

Published in: Environmental Justice, Volume 11, Issue 3 (June 2018), Pages 95-100. doi: 10.1089/env.2017.0044

Posted on RAND.org on July 03, 2018

by Jaime Madrigano, Juan Camilo Osorio, Eddie Bautista, Ryan Chavez, Christine F. Chaisson, Erika Meza, Regina A. Shih, Ramya Chari

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Research Question

  1. How can waterfront communities prepare for the effects of leaked—fugitive—chemicals in the wake of future weather disasters?

The combination of population growth in areas of mixed (residential, commercial, and industrial) land use along U.S. waterfronts and the increasing frequency of devastating hurricanes and storm surges has led to community fears of widespread toxic chemical contamination resulting from accidental industrial or small business releases, particularly in the aftermath of an extreme weather event, such as a hurricane. Industrial waterfront communities, which are frequently environmental justice communities, contain numerous toxic chemical sources located in close proximity to residential housing, schools, daycare centers, playgrounds, and healthcare centers. Despite the longstanding concerns of community activists and researchers about the potential for "fugitive" chemicals to be released into floodwaters, there has been little coordinated research or action to develop environmental monitoring programs for disaster-affected communities. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, a community-academic partnership was formed between the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, UPROSE, The LifeLine Group, and the RAND Corporation. The collaboration, known as Grassroots Research to Action in Sunset Park (GRASP) has focused on identifying possible sources of chemical contamination, modeling the potential for chemical release into community areas and resulting exposure risks, and proactively developing actions for mitigating or preventing adverse community impacts. Through our ongoing work, we have identified barriers and drivers for community-based environmental monitoring, and in doing so, we have developed a framework to overcome challenges. In this article, we describe this framework, which can be used by waterfront communities bracing to deal with the effects of future devastating weather disasters.

Key Findings

  • This article outlines a six-step process for waterfront communities to follow to proactively think through how to prepare for, recover from, and respond to fugitive chemical leaks after a major weather event such as flooding or a hurricane.
  • Waterfront communities close to manufacturing or industrial sites are disproportionately low-income and communities of color, and may have residential housing, schools, daycare centers, and health care facilities vulnerable to contamination.
  • The steps detailed reflect lessons learned through working with the Grassroots Research to Action in Sunset Park (GRASP), in New York, after Superstorm Sandy.
  • Preparing for a fugitive chemical leak in advance is key to being able to identify community leaders and collaborators and their roles, set a process for documenting the magnitude and scope of the leak, and disseminating information about the leak to the community.

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