Dec 15, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Historic redlining has enduring impact on power plant siting

Illustration of a hand wrapping red tape around smoke stacks.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A new study connects present-day emissions burdens with historic discrimination in the U.S. housing market more than 80 years ago.

Between the lines: It's no secret that environmental health hazards aren't equally distributed, with Americans of color disproportionately exposed to air pollution, but the mechanisms fueling some of these systemic inequities are typically less quantified.

Driving the news: A study published Thursday in the journal Nature Energy measures the influence of redlining, a discriminatory housing practice, on fossil fuel power plant siting across the U.S. since 1940.

  • Redlining was a mortgage lending practice used by the federal government beginning in the 1930s.
  • Officials color-coded every metropolitan area to reflect racist beliefs in the market value of neighborhoods home to Black and Asian residents, as well as immigrants, per the study.

By the numbers: Researchers examined the proximity of fossil fuel power plant sites upwind — within 5 km — of 8,871 neighborhoods in 196 U.S. urban areas, comparing those with the redlining maps created by the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s.

  • They looked at three different time periods within the last century — 1940 to 1969, 1970 to 1999 and 2000 to 2019.
  • Redlined neighborhoods had a 20-72% higher likelihood of a fossil fuel power plant being sited nearby compared to "C" graded neighborhoods, the second worst grade given by the maps.
  • The average present-day emissions of air pollutants in the redlined neighborhoods was also 38-82% higher.
  • The 20-72% range depends on the time period, and the 38-82% range depends on the air pollutant, researchers say.

What they're saying: "What's clear from this study is that the ways in which neighborhoods were valued, and specifically racist sentiment about the value of homes based on who lived in them, did come into play on a structural level," Lara Cushing, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA and lead author of the study, tells Axios.

  • Rachel Morello-Frosch, an environmental health scientist and justice professor at UC Berkeley who is unaffiliated with the study, tells Axios it should be used to inform climate policies that target deeper emissions reductions in formerly redlined communities.
  • "To my knowledge, the study is the first to examine how a legacy of structural racism...has shaped the siting of power plants across the U.S. over time, with implications for current day exposures to harmful air pollutants in those communities living nearby these facilities," says Morello-Frosch.

The bottom line: "The federal government has culpability and responsibility for the creation of disproportionate exposure to pollution sources by race in this country, and so it really needs to play a role in trying to rectify that," Cushing tells Axios.

Go deeper