Environmental Justice in Tacoma: A Non-Majors Qualitative Assessment of Pollution and Public Policy in the Local Community

Jim Gawel, University of Washington- Tacoma


The classical view of environmental justice that students are familiar with (if they are) is one where heavily polluting industrial activities locate in poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods, resulting in significant adverse health effects, as has happened in the dramatically named "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana. This does not fit the profile of what is occurring in most urban areas, and therefore gives the false impression that environmental injustice is limited to these extreme cases. Moreover, studying environmental justice cases in other states and countries does not bring the problem to bear on the local situation, and students are less likely to retain this concept as they do not see parallels in their own region. Therefore, this activity is designed to get non-environmental majors to qualitatively examine their own community for evidence of environmental injustice. Using a mix of evidence from online sources (U.S. Census, EnviroMapper, Toxic Release Inventory, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, etc.) and field observations, student groups describe the population and pollution sources found within an assigned elementary school district in Tacoma. The groups then analyze this information for evidence of differential pollution exposure tied to indicators of a disadvantaged population and present their results to the class as a poster presentation. The cumulative research accomplished by the class as a whole then provides qualitative evidence for class discussion of the potential for environmental injustice in Tacoma. The hope is that the important concepts of environmental justice and the possible sources of pollution in the region then are retained more readily by the students as they periodically are faced with this evidence again and again in their daily commutes.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

As a result of this activity, students should be able to:
- Collect spatial data using field observation methods and online data sources;
- Recognize urban pollution sources in their local neighborhoods and throughout Tacoma;
- Increase their knowledge of social divides in Tacoma's built environment;
- Make sense of the tie between social factors and pollution exposure in relation to environmental justice policies;

Big Idea in Sustainability: Environmental justice in urban areas
Big Idea in Environmental Science: Dominance of non-point sources in degraded environmental quality in urban areas
Big Idea in Public Policy: Policy challenges in addressing non-point source pollution and environmental justice

Context for Use

This assignment was designed for incorporation in UWT's course TESC 345: Pollution and Public Policy. This course is a relatively large, primarily lecture-based class with 45-55 students, the vast majority being non-environmental science/studies majors taking the class as a general graduation requirement in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program. As such this exercise provides an excellent experiential learning assignment in a class size that sometimes inhibits such activities. This assignment was given a first trial run in the Spring quarter of 2009, and took up approximately two weeks (four class days) of class time, including one day as an introduction to environmental justice and project methodology; two days of in-class work with GIS-based Census data, online sources of data for population characteristics and pollution sources, and poster construction (using PowerPoint); and a day for poster presentations and class discussion. [The amount of in-class time could be reduced by a day if GIS-based data was replaced with less exact sources of Census data.] This assignment was incorporated at the end of the quarter as a good summative assessment assignment drawing on early coursework on pollution concepts (hazardous waste, water and air pollution, risk assessment, toxicology, etc.), the environmental policy-making process, and a prior group project on public knowledge of environmental pollution and policy.

Description and Teaching Materials

The term "environmental injustice" usually evokes images of the huge petrochemical industries in Louisiana's Cancer Alley, but there are many more hard-to-see examples in urban areas everywhere. For most urban areas transportation sources and legacy soil contamination from lead-based paint and leaded gasoline are the biggest threats to human health through environmental exposure pathways, and yet this goes largely unnoticed by students as they make their daily trips in the region. Heavier traffic patterns often correlate with lower income and otherwise disadvantaged communities, creating a much more common example of environmental injustice than the Cancer Alley model. Moreover, these less dramatic but much more prevalent examples of environmental injustice often have greater health impacts on these communities without offering a potentially responsible party to target with legal action.

Without a direct frame of reference for the concept of environmental justice in their local community, students (especially non-majors) often do not fully grasp the relevance of this idea and thus are less likely to apply this concept in their own lives outside the University. Also, the non-point sources of pollution responsible for this differential exposure are often ignored by these same students without an explicit connection being made to human impacts. As has been shown by numerous public surveys the public is much more likely to support environmental initiatives when a direct tie is made to human health in contrast to environmental health or biodiversity. Thus educating these citizens as to the direct applicability of this concept of environmental justice to their immediate community tends to imbed this knowledge, creating a populace more likely to recognize instances of environmental injustice in future decision-making and community involvement.

In this assignment student teams are asked to gauge the potential for environmental injustice in Tacoma. The project is introduced in week 6 of an 11-week quarter (including finals week). During this introduction the students define "environmental justice" through class discussion. Then as a class we (1) brainstorm sources of pollution in the urban area and write them on the board, (2) work through one example of just how the urban population is exposed to this pollution, and (3) what feasible measure exists for quantifying exposure to this pollution source for their study site. Students then break into small groups to elucidate exposure pathways and feasible measures for other pollution sources on the board. This creates a worklist of measures to assemble as evidence for their study site.

Also during this class, student teams of 4-5 are formed by the students themselves. Each team is randomly assigned a specific elementary school district in Tacoma as their study site (see attachment, Map of Tacoma Elementary School Districts). Student teams are then encouraged to arrange a time over the next two weeks (weeks 7 and 8) to tour their study site to map land use, including transportation, commercial and industrial, and residential uses. Students also collect field observations of other possible contributing factors putting their population at greater risk of adverse health impacts including dietary choices and exercise and green space options in the area.

In class sometime during weeks 9-10 we devoted two class days to an introduction to online sources of pollution and population data. This includes census info, traffic volumes, hazardous emissions and more. In order to aid the students in the use of Census data specific to their study area, a UWT staff member (Bridget Mason) created select GIS data layers in advance (e.g. median income, % children in poverty, age of home) joining the Census data to district boundaries. Students then, with a short introduction, were able to manipulate the Census data to create maps of relevant information to use as part of their evidence. Some other sources of online data for this project are: EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), the WA Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, WA Dept. of Transportation, EPA's EnviroMapper, and the City of Tacoma's govME website. In addition, we spent some time showing the teams how to create posters (32" x 36") using PowerPoint.

Final poster presentations were scheduled for our normal finals period in week 11. Student teams submitted their posters electronically to the instructor two days in advance for printing using the Program's large format plotter. Posters were then mounted in the classroom and each team took 5-10 minutes to discuss their findings. At the start of these presentations the instructor put an image of Figure 1 up on the screen and we worked geographically through Tacoma to allow the students to begin to assess patterns (or anomalies) in the data collected as a whole. This format allowed student teams to focus on a manageable study area but still see larger patterns of environmental justice issues in Tacoma elucidated during the class presentations.

A follow-up class discussion analyzed possible policy or economic mechanisms for the establishment of the observed environmental justice issues in Tacoma and the possible solutions for erasing this discriminatory exposure. Interestingly enough, this discussion naturally led to proposals to address greenhouse gas emissions as policies that advocate alternative transportation fuels can then be directly ties to human health concerns and correcting some environmental injustices in Tacoma.

Map of Tacoma Elementary School Districts (Acrobat (PDF) 358kB Dec14 12)
Example of Student Work (Acrobat (PDF) 2.7MB Dec14 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

It may be possible (and preferable) to eliminate the use of GIS software as this tends to stymie students who are already technology illiterate. However, this would require the use of census block data that does not quite match the geographical boundaries of the school districts. Tying this project to the schools makes a direct connection to human health as children are one of the most vulnerable populations with respect to environmental pollution exposure, so just using census blocks or zip codes as the study areas is not advisable. Moreover, using the schools gives student teams a distinct location from which to observe potential pollution sources.


Posters were graded for all group members as follows:
10 Pts. – Population characterization and establishment of power status
10 Pts. – Pollution source characterization and potential human health concerns
10 Pts. – Discussion of environmental injustice potential tying to above aspects
Individual grades were adjusted from group poster grades based on group evaluations submitted (see Student Feedback Form attachment below).

Student Feedback Form (Acrobat (PDF) 61kB Dec14 12)

References and Resources

Bates, A. 2005. Environmental Injustice: An Evaluation of Tacoma, Washington. M.A. Thesis, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program, University of Washington – Tacoma, Tacoma, WA.
Easton, TA, Ed. 2008. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Environmental Issues, 12th Ed. McGraw-Hill, Dubuque, Iowa.
Stewart, ME, JS Schneiderman, and SB Andrews. 2001. "A GIS Class Exercise to Study Environmental Risk." Journal of Geoscience Education, 49: 227-234.