What is environmental justice?

To understand environmental justice, it helps to first look at environmental injustice. Environmental injustice (or environmental inequality) is the unequal distribution of the negative environmental consequences burdened on certain demographics.1

To understand environmental justice, first look at environmental injustice.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”2

The environmental justice (EJ) movement began as a reaction to the placement of pollution sources in low-income areas and “communities of color.” The rich history of the EJ movement traces its roots to the early 1960s when Latino farm workers organized for (among other things) protection from harmful pesticides in the farm fields.3

Since then, statistical and demographic analyses have clearly shown that low-income areas and communities of color are overwhelmingly burdened with toxic landfills, polluting industrial plants, excessive truck and rail traffic and other pollution sources. The environmental justice movement has sought to remedy this injustice through organized action. A few of the early key moments include:

  • 1967 Houston, Texas: African-American students took to the streets of to oppose a city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the lives of two children.4
  • 1968 West Harlem, New York City: Residents fought unsuccessfully against the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community.
  • 1982 Warren County, NC: The poor, overwhelmingly black county became the focus of national attention when residents took action against the state’s decision to dump 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in a landfill near residential zones. Six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests followed, and more than 500 people were arrested. The battle was lost, but the media attention inspired others who experienced similar injustice.5

The 1982 Warren County sit-in prompted the U.S. General Accounting Office to conduct the 1983 study titled “Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities.”

Three out of four landfills were in communities with black residents comprising at least 26 percent of the population and whose family incomes were below the poverty level.

The study found that three out of four hazardous waste landfills were in communities with black residents comprising at least 26 percent of the population and whose family incomes were below the poverty level.6

“Toxic Waste in the United States” energizes the movement

The first national U.S. study looking into race, class and the environment was published in 1987, titled “Toxic Waste in the United States.” This study galvanized the growing environmental justice movement, noting that:

  • The socioeconomic status of residents plays an important role in the location of hazardous waste sites, but is not the foremost factor.
  • The residents' race was the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the U.S.
  • The siting of these facilities in communities of color was the intentional result of local, state and federal land-use policies.
  • Statistically, it was determined with 99.99 percent confidence that the pattern of hazardous waste facilities being sited in minority communities is intentional.7
It was determined with confidence that the pattern of siting toxic facilities in minority communities is intentional.

What’s meant by the term “environmental racism?”

Environmental racism refers to the fact that, controlling for all other factors, race is the single most important determinant of who bears the burden of society’s pollution.

One remarkable study done in the U.S. found that people of color are exposed to 38 percent more outdoor nitrogen dioxide (produced by vehicle exhaust and power plants) than whites. Published in 2014, the study looked at differences in pollution exposure by multiple categories, including race, income and education. While income plays a role, it’s not as pertinent as many assume.8

Low-income whites are exposed to less pollution than even the highest-income blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.

Both race and income matter, but race matters more than income," says Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Minnesota. "And that's a really important point, because when you start talking about differences by race people say, 'Oh, that's just income.'"9 The study also reveals that, in large urban areas, low-income whites are exposed to less pollution than even the highest-income blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.

"Both race and income matter,but race matters more."
- Julian Marshall, University of Minnesota

All around the world, members of minority groups bear a greater burden of the health problems that result from higher exposure to waste and pollution. This can occur due to unsafe or unhealthy work conditions where no regulations exist (or are unenforced) for poor workers, or in neighborhoods that are uncomfortably close to toxic materials.10

From activism to policy: Environmental Justice by Order

In 1994, President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice required that all federal agencies "make achieving environmental justice part of their mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations."

Environmental justice progressed from a reactionary movement to a preemptive requirement of policy planning.

It was the first major federal action on environmental justice in the U.S. The landmark Order lacks specific requirements, but it did serve to bring legitimacy and attention to the environmental justice movement. The Order also inspired regulatory and policy actions by states to include environmental justice considerations in decision making.11

With this Order, environmental justice progressed from a reactionary movement to a preemptive requirement of policy planning.

Currently, the 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice is considered part of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Currently, the 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice is considered part of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance. The responsibility to uphold environmental justice sits with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) serving a coordinating function. This leaves enforcement in the hands of the EPA, which some critics say has proven ineffective to moving environmental justice forward.12

An interesting suggestion to remedy this situation is reframing the legal aspect of environmental injustice as an issue of unequal protection under the law. This would shift the role of legally addressing the underenforcement of existing environmental laws from the EPA to the Justice Department.

Communities could turn to the DOJ and claim unequal protection under the law.

When environmental laws are not properly enforced in areas where minority communities live, it puts them at risk. In these cases, minority communities could turn to the federal DoJ and have their grievances addressed as unequal protection under the law.13 If the United States finds an effective avenue to fight environmental racism, it could then be used as a model for others around the world.

Thinking locally and globally

The concept of environmental justice is also spreading on a worldwide scale. Communities throughout the world are embracing environmental justice as they begin to understand its deep global context. Global problems include industrialized nations exporting toxic waste to poorer, developing nations. Pesticides pollute rivers that flow into neighboring countries. Air pollution from incinerators crosses borders to affect any communities or nations downwind.14

Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991 to develop and affirm a set of principles that apply globally. They affirmed that all people have the right to be free from ecological destruction, and called for public policy across the globe that is based on mutual respect and justice for all people, free from any form of discrimination or bias.15

How can I help the environmental justice movement?

Community-based groups play an important role throughout the world in leading the effort to achieve environmental justice. These groups identify local issues and mobilize local action. But every individual can also have an impact by joining in the effort to fight environmental racism and work for environmental justice for all. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Be an informed voter. Take a stand on environmental racism by researching candidates’ positions on environmental protection and supporting those who want to protect the environment for everyone, regardless of race or economic status. A helpful site to begin is usa.gov/voter-research.
  2. Support local community-based environmental justice organizations. Consider giving of your time, talents and pocketbook to help support local community groups that are defending environmental justice. A good place to start searching is volunteermatch.org.
  3. Keep up to date with environmental justice cases. Visit ejatlas.org and learn about environmental justice case studies currently happening anywhere in the world.
  4. Give kids a chance to breathe. Another way to make a difference is by supporting IQAir’s Clean Air for Kids. Poor classroom air quality affects the health of students and can impact academic performance and average daily attendance. Clean Air for Kids provides air filtration to schools in areas disproportionately affected by air pollution.
  5. Tell your representatives how you feel. U.S. citizens can go to countable.us to find out what bills are moving through the House and Senate. The site allows you to quickly contact your representatives to tell them how you feel about each piece of legislation.
  6. Become part of the solution. Buy less, consume less, and shop consciously. Buy products that are made responsibly and with a minimum of environmental damage, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere. Research companies’ environmental justice policies and reputation before buying.

Pollution does not discriminate who it affects. However, the evidence indicates that the burden of our collective pollution is unequally carried. When our most vulnerable communities are protected, everyone benefits. If we start there, a healthier future for all is achievable.

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