Rice sociologist’s new book examines how potentially toxic industrial sites go undetected

Chemical and other industrial hazards are far more prevalent in American cities than previously known, according to a new book co-authored by Rice sociologist James Elliott.

James Elliott

James Elliott

“Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities” (Russell Sage Foundation, 176 pages, $29.95) examines how economic, socio-demographic and political processes interlock to generate and then hide former industrial sites in U.S. cities. Elliott and his co-author, Brown University sociologist Scott Frickel, looked at Philadelphia, New Orleans, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., and discovered how former manufacturing sites such as plastics factories and machine shops leave behind hazards at a scale that far exceeds what is monitored by the government.

“Our research started with a very practical question: How many such sites – large and small – have there been since the 1950s where on-site disposal likely occurred and hazard wastes may still linger in the ground?” Elliott said.

The authors found that 90 percent of such sites in the cities they studied have now been converted to urban amenities such as homes, restaurants and playgrounds, with almost no environmental review.

The authors examine how environmental agencies and regulations focus resources on just a handful of publicly visible “eyesore” sites, leaving a long trail of invisible and unknown risks across today’s cities.

book cover

As cities change, minority and low-income communities as well as middle income groups are all impacted by these risks. Rapid turnover of businesses and housing stock also leads to increased exposure, Elliott said.

Elliott and Frickel identified other key findings:

• Government databases dramatically downplay the scale of industrial hazards present in American cities.

• The density of hazardous sites in cities is continuously increasing by manufacturers’ tendency to open plants on new, non-industrial lots rather than lots previously occupied by other manufacturers.

• While manufacturing has declined in American cities, a large percentage of new urban factories are small, allowing them to escape federal reporting requirements.

• Current zoning rules and hazardous waste regulations are insufficient to address the scope of this problem.

More information about the book is available at https://www.russellsage.org/publications/sites-unseen.



About Arie Passwaters

Arie Wilson Passwaters is a Web editor in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.