In the Shadow of Sludge: The Legacy of Coal Waste In Appalachia

Neighborhoods Near Coal Impoundments

Since the 1980s, scholars have been investigating a concept called environmental inequality. This work asks how and why hazardous waste facilities are located closer to disadvantaged communities. This research illuminates an additional environmental and social burden that economically distressed communities face.

Given their environmental risks, coal impoundments represent a potential case of environmental inequality. To investigate whether impoundments are closer to disadvantaged neighborhoods, the map below shows the percent of the population living below the poverty line in West Virginia neighborhoods. (The data come from the 2000 U.S. Census, which is the most recent, reliable source for neighborhood-level data.)

An analysis of these data shows that neighborhoods within four miles of an impoundment have an average poverty rate of 25.6 percent, while West Virginia neighborhoods outside of that distance have an average poverty rate of 18.2 percent. The national poverty rate in 2000 was 14.6 percent.

recently published a paper in Rural Sociology that provides a more comprehensive look at whether poverty rates are associated with coal impoundment distance across all of Appalachia. That study finds that higher poverty and unemployment rates are statistically associated with being closer to coal impoundments, even after considering the effects of mining employment, historical mining presence, and other socioeconomic factors on impoundment proximity.

This research is only the first step in understanding issues related to environmental inequality and coal impoundments in Appalachia. Future research could further investigate the characteristics of companies that manage coal impoundments—especially amid a continued downturn in coal that has seen numerous companies file for bankruptcy.

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