Schools on Toxic Sites: An Environmental Injustice for School Children

Vol. 32 No. 2


Steven Fischbach is a lawyer for Rhode Island Legal Services in Providence.

Children are one of the most vulnerable segments of the population when it comes to being harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals. Because they spend so much of their time at schools, these environments must be as toxin free as possible. Yet, faced with declining school budgets and expanding enrollments, many school districts have sought out low-cost land on which to build new schools. Frequently, that land is contaminated by toxic chemicals or is located near sources of environmental pollution. Not surprisingly, schools that serve low-income and nonwhite students are more frequently built on contaminated sites. School siting has thus become a serious issue for advocates of children’s environmental health and environmental justice.

In 1999, the cash-starved school district in Providence, Rhode Island, built two schools on the former

Providence city dump. At the time, more than 80 percent of students were nonwhite and were eligible for free lunch programs. Despite community opposition, the schools were situated on the dump and completely built within six and one-half months. Just before the scheduled openings, Rhode Island Legal Ser-vices (RILS) filed suit on behalf of parents, neighbors, and the tenant association of a nearby public housing project. The suit alleged that in siting the schools and approving the cleanup of the site, Providence and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management had violated state hazardous waste clean-up laws, a state “environmental equity” law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the federal and state constitutions. In October 2005, Providence Superior Court Justice Edward Clifton ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on their state environmental law claims, stating that the city had deprived the plaintiffs of procedural due process. Hartford Park Tenants Ass’n v. R.I. Dep’t of Envtl. Mgmt., 2005 R.I. Super. LEXIS 148 (R.I. Super. Ct. 2005).

While the lawsuit was pending, RILS conducted research on the existing state of laws, regulations, and policies—referred to hereafter as policies—related to the siting of schools on or near sources of environmental pollution. The research demonstrates a pressing need to adopt policies preventing the siting of public schools where children may be exposed to unhealthy levels of hazardous substances or pollution. For example:

• Twenty states have no policies affecting school siting in relation to environmental hazards, investigating or assessing potential sites for environmental hazards, cleaning up contaminated sites, making information available to the public about potential sites, or providing some role for the public in the siting process.

• Only fourteen states have policies that prohibit outright the siting of schools on or near sources of pollution or other hazards that pose a risk to children’s safety. Only five of these prohibit or severely restrict siting schools on or near hazardous or toxic waste sites.

• Twenty-one states have school-siting policies that direct or suggest school-siting officials “avoid” siting schools on or near specified man-made or natural environmental hazards, or direct the school district to “consider” those hazards when selecting school sites. Fifteen of these have adopted siting factors that direct school districts to either consider the proximity of sources of pollution or to avoid siting schools near those sources. Eight have a vaguely worded factor relating to environmental factors or safety of a proposed site.

• Twenty-three states have no policies that require sponsors of new school projects to investigate or assess environmental hazards at potential school sites.

• Only twelve states require the sponsors of school projects to solicit public input on school sites.

• Only eight states require or authorize the creation of school-siting advisory committees.

RILS is finalizing its research and will produce for the Environmental Protection Agency a more detailed analysis of the current state of school-siting policies. The research has also informed a report on school-siting policy just published by the Childproofing Our Communities Campaign of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice. That report also proposes model siting guidelines and site remediation measures when school-siting officials have no choice but to build on or near a source of pollution. The report is available at


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