Paper on “evidence for environmental racism” in EPA polluter fines retracted for coding error
A coding switcharoo caused a paper Society & Natural Resources to be retracted. But the authors say that not all is lost, since correcting the data gave them a better understanding of how the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fines companies that pollute in poor and minority neighborhoods.
The retraction notice reads:
The editors and the publisher, Taylor & Francis, are retracting the article ‘‘U.S. EPA Enforcement of Environmental Regulations in Tennessee: 2005–2008’’ from publication in Society & Natural Resources. It was brought to our attention that a variable was incorrectly coded, voiding the analysis, findings, and conclusions. We deeply regret the inconvenience this might have caused other researchers.
Stephanie Bohon, the senior author on the paper and associate professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told Retraction Watch that the error came to light after the researchers realized the online version of the paper was missing a table.
The authors re-examined the original page proofs and found the missing table was inconsistent with another table in the paper. The authors chalked up the difference to a coding error, Bohon said:
This is how simple the coding error is: We had a bunch of zeros that should have been coded ones and the ones should have been coded zeroes. We let the editors know that there was a coding error. It was a pretty significant one and we felt stupid and embarrassed. I edit a journal (Population Research and Policy Review), so I know these things happen, but it’s still embarrassing. The decision was: Let’s retract.
However, the re-examination of the data resulted in what could be a more interesting finding. Here’s the original abstract:
Despite its responsibility to handle compliance and enforcement concerns, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has become more concerned with protecting the interests of those it is supposed to be regulating than with the communities affected by environmental hazards. This research adds to the debate over environmental justice and injustice by examining U.S. EPA enforcement activity in Tennessee and the relationship between a Census place’s race and income structure and the monetary fine (if any) assessed to a violating facility in that census place. Data were taken from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History Online Database and the U.S. Census, and both logistic and truncated regression techniques were utilized to model outcomes. The results provide evidence for environmental racism with regard to whether or not a fine was assessed; however, the amount of fine assessed appears unrelated to the racial and economic structure of the places where violations occurred.
When the researchers recalculated the incorrect data in the table originally included in the online version, the conclusions were flipped: Polluters in poor and minority regions were actually more likely to suffer fines from violations, but those fines were actually smaller than those in other areas. So there was still evidence for what the researchers call “environmental racism,” but not exactly what they originally thought. That result, however, has yet to be peer-reviewed, of course.