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Clearing the ground for environmental inequality studies: A statistical comparison of data from the EPA Toxic Release Inventory and Historical State Manufacturing Directories

Authors: Scott Frickel, Brown University, Thomas Marlow*,
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Environment, Urban Geography
Keywords: environmental inequality, environmental justice, spatial analysis, industrial hazards
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The absence of accurate and historical data on industrial land uses often hampers research on the
dynamics of environmental inequality formation. For most government databases, systematic data
collection was not instituted until the mid-1980s, regulations waive many contemporary sites from
reporting and industry reporting is voluntary. Municipal brownfield databases are highly variable and in
many cities date only to the mid-1990s. On the other hand, new computational technologies are vastly
improving researchers’ ability to excavate historical site use data from the pages of old manufacturing
directories and city directories. Such strategies and historical data sources allow researchers to
efficiently and effectively narrow the knowledge gaps generated by overreliance on incomplete and
historically truncated government data sets. But, data from historical directories also raises new
questions about reliability and validity.

The paper offers the first comparative analysis of data generated from historical manufacturing
directories by comparing features of the data with EPA Toxic Release Inventory data for Rhode Island
and the Providence metropolitan area. Our goal is to assess the utility of historical directories as a
complement to government databases typically used to study environmental inequality formation.
Comparing TRI sites to historically existing manufacturing sites, we demonstrate important gaps in 1)
temporal coverage, 2) in estimated toxic releases, 3) and in the spatial distribution of hazardous sites.
Accounting for these differences will allow researchers to develop a more comprehensive, nuanced
understanding of the dynamic spatial and temporal relationships shaping urban environmental
inequalities.

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