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NIMBY (or Nimby), an acronym for Not In My Back Yard, describes the negative reaction of community members towards projects that will negatively impact them if placed near their homes. Such projects include highways, railways, airports, landfills, hazardous waste facilities, power plants, chemical plants, housing developments, tall buildings, wind turbines, prisons, and numerous other facilities. These facilities often benefit a large group of people with their services; however, they negatively impact a smaller population of citizens who live nearby. When citizens fight against proposed facilities near their homes, proponents of these facilities dub them "Nimbyists."

The term NIMBY was coined by Emilie Travel Livezey in ”Hazardous waste,” [1] an article published in 1980 in The Christian Science Monitor. Livezey states that “people are now thoroughly alert to the dangers of chemical wastes. The very thought of having even a secure landfill anywhere near them is anathema to most Americans today.” [2]

The following case study will focus on hazardous waste facilities and their impact on minority groups, particularly as these cases relate to themes of Nimbyism and Environmental Justice.


Landfill Site MethodologyEdit

Generalization of selection criteria for new Landfill sites in the United States.

Multiple factors contribute to the selection of landfill sites and can be generalized into three primary categories: environmental, engineering, and economic. States are in charge of building multidisciplinary teams of experts for landfill site selection. Once the state sponsored team selects a site the EPA conducts an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The EIA method is a tool built into EPA legislation to identify potential adverse effects on human health, environment impacts, and ecologic risks. The process appears unbiased but fails citizens in the following case examples.

BKK LandfillEdit

The BKK Landfill, located in West Covina, California, about 20 miles outside of Los Angeles, was built in 1962. During operation, the 583-acre site received over 84 Million gallons of industrial and household waste, making it California’s largest hazardous waste management facility.[3] When the landfill began operation, West Covina was mostly undeveloped. However, by the 1980’s there were over 40,000 residents living within a 1 mile radius of the landfill. As West Covina's population grew, residents became concerned with potential health hazards, particularly exposure to carcinogens, along with trash spills, truck accidents and foul odors. In 1980, 7,532 residents signed a petition to close the facility.[4] Social activists organized protest groups to picket the entrance of the facility and organize a local ballot initiative.

In response to public concern, the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), studied the BKK Landfill in 1980. The DTSC determined that the landfill was safe as long as certain mitigation measures were taken, including a protective vegetation cover and additional vinyl chloride air emission monitoring. The University of Southern California’s medical school conducted a risk assessment study in 1980 to investigate the incidence of cancer in the community surrounding the landfill. The research indicated that there was no statistically significant increase in the rate of cancers.[5]

Resistance to the landfill continued after these initial reports. However, in 1981, West Covina voters reject an initiative that would have closed BKK to toxic waste by a vote. This changes 2 years later when the federal EPA reports the BKK’s system was not sufficient to prevent leaks and could contaminate the water supply. Further, explosive levels of landfill gas, including high concentrations of known carcinogen vinyl chloride, were found in nearby homes (cite). 

Later that year, BKK Corp. voluntarily stops accepting hazardous waste. In 1986, the site was prohibited from receiving hazardous waste and in 1996 the landfill closed. BKK was required to make cleanup plan to contain liquid waste and control polluted groundwater. This clean-up plan was approved by the EPA and estimated to cost $12.5 million (cite). Today, the site is a center for community activity, containing a “Big League Dream” sports complex, public golf course and other commercial development [6]

The Warren County PCB LandfillEdit

In 1978, a black tank trucker illegally dumped over 30,000 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) –tainted fluids along 240 miles of roads through 14 counties of North Carolina. [7] PCBs are man-made organic chemicals that can cause cancer, and adversely affect the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system. [8] PCBs were banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1979. It was discovered that the Ward Transformer Company in Raleigh, North Carolina dumped the PCB-tainted fluids in an attempt to evade new EPA regulations that made waste disposal more transparent and costly. [9]

In response, North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt decided to bury the contaminated soil near the community of Afton located in Warren County, NC. His administration announced that “public sentiment would not deter the state from burying the PCBs in Warren County."[10],[11] Local citizens later deemed the site "Hunt's Dump." In Science for the People, Ken Geiser and Gerry Waneck described the Warren County PCB siting decision:

"The site at Afton was not even scientifically the most suitable. The water table of Afton, North Carolina, (site of the landfill) is only 5-10 feet below the surface, and the residents of the community derive all of their drinking water from local wells. Only the most optimistic could believe that the Afton landfill will not eventually leach into the groundwater. Unless a more permanent solution is found, it will only be a matter of time before the PCBs end up in these people's wells."[12]

Since Afton was not scientifically the most suitable, why was this location chosen to bury the contaminated soil? Of the 90 sites that were considered, Warren County had the highest percentage of African-Americans (more than 84%) and ranked 97th in per capita income out of the 100 counties in NC.[13]

In 1982, over 500 citizens of Warren County began to protest the landfill.[14] They were joined by larger organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Church of Christ (UCC).[15] The protests led District of Columbia Delegate, Walter E. Fauntory, to begin the 1983 Study of Hazardous Waste Landfills And Their Correlation With Racial And Economic Status Of Surrounding Communities by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The study found that 4 out of 5 hazardous waste landfills in the South were in impoverished, minority communities.[16] Another report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites, found that race and ethnicity were the most significant factors in determining locations of environmentally hazardous facilities. A follow-up report confirmed that a disproportionate environmental burden on communities of color had grown since the 1987 report.[17]

The protests and subsequent reports attracted national media attention. Despite this public dissent, the landfill was still built.[18] Soon after its construction, activist organization insisted that the site must be decontaminated.[19] A life-long Afton citizen remarked that, “If I drink two glasses of this water my stomach will get upset right away” and that he believed the the landfill clean-up was not a priority because, “...we're poor and black, that’s the number one reason.”[20] Pressure from these organizations force the Hunt Administration to begin decontamination in 2001. Clean-up was completed in 2004 and cost the state 17.1 million dollars, 26 years after the crisis.[21]

United States PolicyEdit

The Warren County PCB Landfill case sparked discussions of Environmental Racism. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, a prominent member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Church of Christ, coined the phrase Environmental Racism in the midst of the Warren County case because minority citizens of Afton were carrying more of the burden of a hazardous waste material than the rest of the county. Such accusations lead to the development of an environmental justice movement. Environmental Justice is defined by the EPA as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. 

The fight in Warren County crystallized the recognition of a pattern of subjecting communities of color and low-income communities with the environmental and public health burdens of industrial society. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensures that all United States agencies which receive federal funds practice nondiscrimination. National publicity of the Warren County case made it clear that further action was necessary to ensure environmental justice for United States citizens.

On February 11, 1994, former President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Population. The order stated that “each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” [22] The order included a timeline for development of an interagency working group and intragency regulations, which the EPA was tasked with leading.

Environmental Protection AgencyEdit

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a federal advisory committee September 30, 1993, in response to Executive Order 12898. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) serves as an interagency working group for the EPA. The council provides independent advice to the EPA Administrator on broad, cross-cutting issues related to environmental justice for EPA’s programs, policies, and day-to-day activities. [23] The NEJAC is comprised of 29 members and the appointment of members is given careful consideration to ensure a balanced perspective of community-based organizations, business and industry, academic and educational institutions, state and local governments, tribal governments and indigenous organizations, and non-governmental and environmental organizations. Members have staggered terms and membership is rotated to provide the widest participate possible by the greatest number of stakeholders. [24]

Environmental Justice ResponseEdit

Responding to the Environmental Justice movement and Executive Order 12898, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) issued the Order to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. The DOT considers Environmental Justice in all aspects of decision making, from early-stage policy and planning through construction and maintenance. The order persists through federal agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration, state DOTs, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and transit providers, such as the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority. [25]

Although positive strides were made by the federal government the Environmental Justice movement continued. David M. Konisky demonstrates the response of U.S. government best in his book Failed Promises: Evaluating the Federal Government’s Response to Environmental Justice (American and Comparative Environmental Policy).

Ethical Implications of NIMBYismEdit

Contrasting the BKK Landfill and the Warren County case, environmental racism is apparent. In the affluent community surrounding the BKK Landfill, political leaders and government organizations reacted to the resident's concerns. However, in the poor community in Warren County, action was not taken by the government for years. The disproportionate environmental burden placed on low-income, minority communities is due to the disparity in access to political power and decision making.[26]

These cases were extreme scenarios, dealing with the health conditions of the residents surrounding the facilities. Many other NIMBY cases relate to quality of life, for instance the a new highway will produce noise and traffic and might lower property values, but will not significantly impact the health of nearby residents. These cases give "Nimbyists" a bad reputation. However, landfill and hazardous waste cases can impact the health of the Nimbyists who oppose them. This begs serious ethical questions, mainly, where to build these facilities and who to affect.

Is Environmental Justice the Solution?Edit

Environmental Justice policies aim to evenly distribute the environmental burden of all projects. Further researchers might consider studying the effectiveness of these policies in their implementation with more recent cases. The Environmental Justice movement is moving toward and end to Environmental Racism, but it does not eliminate the effects of Nimbyism, just redistributes them.


  2. Emilie Travel Livezey, “Hazardous waste,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 6, 1980
  4. Dupont, Baxter & Theodore, Environmental Management:Problems and Solutions, 1998
  12. Geiser and Waneck, "PCBs and Warren County," p. 17.