The disproportionate placement of high-polluting facilities in communities of color in the United States has been documented for decades and is linked to higher rates of chronic health problems, disease, and mortality, including from COVID-191, among minorities. While many companies have committed to supporting racial equity, few have taken action to address disparate impacts of their operations in pursuit of environmental justice.
One of the earliest studies documenting the correlation between race and exposure to pollution, published in 19832, found that 83 percent of privately-operated landfills in Houston, Texas were in predominantly Black neighborhoods despite Black people comprising 27 percent of the city’s population. The company that operated these landfills was ultimately acquired by Republic Services, and at least one landfill is still operational, tying the company directly to environmental injustice. A 2021 study3 found that communities of color across the country continue to be exposed to disproportionately high levels of air pollution, the largest environmental cause of mortality.
Lawmakers have responded. In 2020, New Jersey enacted a landmark environmental justice bill that requires impacts on overburdened communities to be a deciding factor in major industrial permitting decisions, including for landfills, transfer stations, and recycling facilities. Republic Services operates in New Jersey and in seventeen other states with existing or pending environmental justice legislation. Moreover, the current administration has made environmental justice a priority through its Justice40 plan.
Republic Services has publicly committed to social justice, further stating that environmental justice is a priority for the company. However, the company has not disclosed its assessment of whether and where disparate impacts from its operations may exist, nor whether and how it has acted to mitigate these impacts. In contrast, competitor Waste Management has published comprehensive environmental justice data and formalized oversight of the topic.
Shareholders are concerned that continued inaction could not only perpetuate racial injustice but could pose substantial regulatory, competitive, and reputational risk to the company, affecting its ability to win and retain contracts and uphold strong relationships with the communities in which it operates.
Shareholders urge the board of directors to commission a third-party environmental justice audit (within reasonable time and cost) which assesses the heightened racial impacts of Republic Services’ operations and produces recommendations for improving them above and beyond legal and regulatory matters. Input from stakeholders, including civil rights organizations and affected community members, should be considered in determining the specific matters for assessment. A report on the audit, prepared at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary information, should be published on the company’s website.
Proponents suggest that the audit and resulting report:
• Utilize the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice screening and mapping tool to gather facility-level environmental and demographic data (EJSCREEN); and
• Assess the company’s ongoing, historical, and cumulative pollution impacts and the extent to which this pollution may have disproportionately affected the health of communities of color.
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