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Lane Center spatial mapping data shows that vulnerable communities may be disproportionately harmed by environmental hazards

Bill Lane Center student research assistants Abraham Ryzhik (left) and John Coyle (middle) recently published a paper spatially mapping EPA violations under the mentorship of Senior Researcher Iris Hui (right).

Lane Center researchers recently published a paper in the journal Environmental Research Letter in which they examined spatial patterns of three types of EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) violation – hazardous waste, water, and air quality. Collecting U.S. data at the facility level, student research assistants Abraham Ryzhik and John Coyle, led by Lane Center senior researcher Iris Hui, found that breaches were worse in areas that also had more underlying social vulnerabilities. In particular, Native Indian territories showed a disproportionately high number of environmental infractions. 

Hui and her team identified “hot spots,” spatial clusters where the number of violations was higher than expected and couldn’t be explained by socio-demographic or environmental factors. The hot spots call for local case studies to further investigate causes of spatial clustering of violations, said Hui: “Why do we see clustering? It could be from any number of factors, e.g. the EPA's lack of enforcement; local variation in inspection or reporting; or some confounding variables that we did not measure (e.g. historical level of pollution or environmental neglect) etc. We don't believe there's one systemic explanation for all the remaining clusters in the U.S., so we’d like to see local area studies to identify the reasons for the hotspots.”

For Coyle and Ryzhik, both pursuing coterminal masters degrees, publication in a major academic journal was an exciting culmination of research they began at the Lane Center as undergraduates in 2019. Though their project evolved some along the way, their research goals have always been the same, said Coyle: “We have always made it our mission to understand whether there are disparities in the way the U.S. federal government, as well as state and local governments, enforce EPA regulations. However, often the extent to which such a question can be answered changes as one examines the data. Sometimes it seems like the data will be able to provide answers to questions that later turn out to be beyond the scope of the information you’ve acquired.”

When asked what he enjoyed most about the project, Coyle pointed to the potential real-world implications of the work: “What interests me about the current project is that we are doing research that actually has political ramifications, something that purely technical research often doesn’t offer.”

For Ryzhik, working with real data on important environmental issues was a welcome challenge. “I've learned how to take all the small steps necessary to get from the general research question and unorganized data (or no data at all), to a point where we have good usable data and are able to analyze and present it in a clear way,” he said. 

Both Coyle and Ryzhik expressed gratitude for the commitment and mentorship Hui offered during the process: “My favorite part of working at the Bill Lane Center has definitely been working with Iris and John. Iris always has a lot of time for us and helps make it really clear what the next steps are and what we should be doing. This is very helpful when doing research for the first time,” commented Ryzhik. 

Publication in a major academic journal is not bad for a first-time researcher. The Bill Lane Center applauds the work of the team, and continues to offer rewarding – and often career-forming – research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students alike. 

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