Mapping Environmental Justice: The Geography of Population and Pollution

This page authored by Christopher Cusack, Keene State College.

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In this lab activity, students work with ArcGIS Explorer Online and databases from the United States Environmental Protection Agency in order to search for correlations between population and hazardous waste sites. The specific datasets used are: the Toxic Release Inventory Search from the TRI database in Envirofacts; and, ethnicity and diversity data derived from ArcGIS Online. Students examine the data at various geographic scales and report their findings to their classmates.

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Learning Goals

Students should learn to make connections between population and environmental variables. These connections should be understood as correlations not causations.

Students also should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem and ecological fallacy, in which the same data may demonstrate different results based on the level at which the data are examined. 

Critical thinking and oral presentation skills are developed by this activity. 

Environmental justice and geoscience are incorporated through use of geographic analysis of population and toxic release sites.

Context for Use

This activity can be used at several different educational levels, ranging from middle school to college. The depth of analysis can be modified by age group. Class sizes from 12-24 would be optimal. Computers with Internet connection are needed. Prior to the activity, the concepts and history of toxic release issues should be taught to the students. Also, an understanding of the changing impact of an issue based on different scales should be outlined. This activity is employed in an Urban Geography course, but may be readily integrated into a variety of courses.

Description and Teaching Materials

Using free online mapping software, free EPA data, and the associated handout, students will be able to analyze the location of toxic release facilities in relation to diversity of population. Student Handout for Environmental Justice Mapping Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 372kB Mar15 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

New Hampshire is the example used in the activity, but any state could be selected for analysis. Also, optional extensions can be incorporated into the activity that give students more time to familiarize themselves with the software. Students should either work independently or in pairs. Any student grouping greater than two has not been found to be optimal.


This activity is designed to be incorporated as a break from the predominant lecture style of the course. It is not necessarily intended for a grade, rather it is to demonstrate that we are not just speaking of the abstract. By using real world data, students can compare toxic releases facilities in their home state. Many times students are surprised to find such facilities are located in their own neighborhoods. Their home state can then be compared to other states. Comparisons between and within states allows for greater understanding of the issue.

References and Resources

Understanding of TRI facilities can be augmented through examination of the related EPA website: