Environmental Justice

views updated May 21 2018


Environmental justice encompasses distributive and political justice to address the interlocking relationship between environmental issues and social justice. Environmental justice can include a myriad of struggles experienced by local communities whose concerns include protecting the environments where people live, work, play, and pray. A central focus is on the environmental burdens of modern industrial society including, but not limited to, issues of toxic waste, pollution, workplace hazards, and unequal environmental protection. Another focal point involves the equal political representation of diverse groups in environmental values and decision-making processes. Environmental justice has served to effectively criticize the inequitable distribution of environmental benefits and harms that can be associated with many technological developments, often employing science to identify and assess these benefits and harms.

Historical Emergence

Because many of these issues are tied to specific grassroots organizations and networks, environmental justice fundamentally pertains to a larger social phenomenon referred to as the environmental justice movement (EJM). The EJM emerged in the 1980s when people of color formed grassroots responses to the location of environmental burdens, particularly toxic waste facilities and point production pollution sources. Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster (2001) identify six intersecting social movements as the undercurrents of the EJM: the civil rights movements, labor movements, Native American movements, the anti-toxic movement, movements in academic scholarship, and the mainstream environmental movement. Although not included in their six undercurrents, the women's movement must be considered a seventh tributary, because it serves as a historical linchpin to the sciences currently used in environmental justice cases and because 70 to 80 percent of grassroots leaders in the EJM are working-class women, many of them women of color.

As early as the work of Jane Addams (1860–1935) and Alice Hamilton (1869–1970), when Hull-House pushed bacteriology and the new sciences of toxicology and epidemiology into connections between health, environment, and politics, women have been critical to the scientific knowledge of the neighborhood. As a result, new methods of data collection and analysis were created by these early environmental reformists to improve the industrial living conditions of the modern city. The attention given to women's health issues and environmental dangers from industrialization carries a direct thread between Hull-House and the contemporary EJM. Contemporary science and policy agendas, like those found in the U.S. Superfund Act (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980), were spawned by the activism of women such as Lois Gibbs in Love Canal, New York. Thus the early advances in toxicology and epidemiology were partly due to environmental justice struggles led by women, and from that time policies to address environmental justice have had their origins in the activism of these community leaders.

Other important precursors that relate to Cole and Foster's six movements are identifiable as early as the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders observed that people of color suffer higher pollution and more denigrated environments. By the end of the 1970s a series of studies had again drawn the historical inference that different human environments are directly related to social stratification. In a chapter of their seminal book addressing environmental justice, Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, Paul Mohai and Bunyan Bryant compare studies dating from 1971 to 1992 that assess the correlation of toxics, including air pollution, hazardous waste, solid waste, and pesticide poisoning, with the impact on people of low income and racial minorities (Mohai and Bryant 1992). Two critical findings from this comparative study are worth highlighting. First, the study clearly proves that government agencies observed the relationship between social stratification and environmental burdens as early as 1971. Second, the comparisons provide empirical evidence that in the United States the distribution of environmental burdens has a strong correlation to race and socioeconomic class.

In addition to the Mohai and Bryant comparative study, the federal government in 1978 released a brochure called Our Common Concern that described the disproportionate impact of pollution on people of color. The struggle of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers to protect the health, environment, and rights of farmworkers was a vital precursor to the environmental justice movement. Studies of rural Appalachian living conditions were revealing the connection between poverty and environmental burdens, providing further evidence of trends of environmental injustice. Environmental justice also pervaded the struggles of Native Americans dealing with issues stretching from land rights to the hazardous industries of uranium mining, coal mining, and nuclear waste depository.

Addressing shared interests in environmental justice, the City Care Conference, held in Detroit in 1979, was jointly sponsored by the National Urban League and the Sierra Club. The intended purpose of this conference was to bring the civil rights movement and the environmental movement together for a dialogue to reconceptualize the very meanings of the terms environment and environmental issues. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, environmental justice became a newly established term used by scholars and policymakers. "Environmental justice" was first used in book and article titles by 1990, and the first environmental justice college course was offered in 1995. The latter came a year after President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, titled "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations," which introduced environmental justice as a federal mandate by White House fiat.

Founding Events

Although the EJM in the United States is not bound by a single event, many scholars and activists regard the 1982 protests in Warren County, North Carolina, as a historical launching point. These protests marked the first major civil rights–style response to an environmental issue. It involved nonviolent civil disobedience blocking trucks hauling PCB-laced soil from entering a newly placed toxic landfill, leading to over 500 arrests and drawing national media attention. The Afton site in Warren County prompted many questions about the direct correlation between African-American communities and hazardous waste sites. It incited District of Columbia Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, who was himself arrested in the protest, to initiate the 1983 U.S. General Accounting Office study of hazardous waste landfill siting, which found a strong correlation between sitings of hazardous-waste landfills and race and socioeconomic status.

Fauntroy's study spawned later comprehensive studies, including the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice's frequently cited Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States (1987), a national study not only confirming the disparate environmental burdens suffered by minorities and lower socioeconomic groups nationwide, but also centrally locating race in the disparity: "Race proved to be the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities" (p. xiii). At the presentation of Toxic Wastes and Race to the National Press Club in 1987, Benjamin Chavis, then director of the United Church of Christ, described the phenomenon as: "racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement" (U.S. House 1993, p. 4).

Environmental Racism

Numerous studies concerning what came to be called environmental racism followed. In 1992 Marianne Lavelle and Marcia Coyle published their seven-year study of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the National Law Journal, which revealed that polluters were fined more in white communities, responses were slower in people of color communities, and scientific solutions differed between the communities. The same science that would be used to determine the toxicity of a facility to a community was used differently between white communities and minority communities. Likewise, the same science that would determine the technological and economic responses, such as the technology of soil washing or soil removal or the shutting down of the polluting facility itself, would be compared to the economic assessment of community relocation because the implications of dangerous conditions involve costly relocations that make the project too expensive. Lavelle and Coyle revealed that different technological solutions would be used when the same scientific data described the health threats to the community. The different responses follow the trend that white communities receive more expensive and updated technological solutions and also receive higher compensation for health and property damage, and that polluters pay greater fines for damages to white communities than to minority communities even though scientifically, with regard to the pollution, the circumstances do not warrant these dramatic differences.

Further sociological and legal studies responded to the environmental racism charges by addressing fundamental methodological questions: Did the community or the environmental burden arrive first? Are there other categories to consider, such as age? How should a community be defined? Vicki Been (1994) argues that market forces drive the location of toxic facilities and the choice of many workers to come to a highly industrial sector. Admitting of racism in many social institutions, Been's study challenges the main measuring units used by earlier studies and raises important temporal questions about the relationship between minorities and environmental burdens. Other studies that altered the measuring unit of what constitutes a community found less disparity in the distribution of environmental burdens with regard to race than was initially claimed by the earlier studies defending the environmental racism charge. Numerous studies responded to this debate, thus generating a community of scientists, scholars, and activists to help deepen the ethical questions and broaden the scope of environmental sciences. What are the proper characteristics for determining the community that will host the environmental burden? What procedures will be used? Which scientific perspectives would best measure the risk of danger? How will race and socioeconomic background be considered in these risk assessments?

Discriminatory Environmentalism

The ethical considerations of these questions pertain to the discrimination undermining distributive justice and fair compensation for health or property loss. While environmental racism is indicative of actions considered illegal under federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, environmental discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic factors is not specifically illegal. Ethically, however, fundamental principles of distributive justice are violated. Peter S. Wenz has studied the environmental racism debate as a form of double effect in which race may be incidental to the socioeconomic target (Wenz 2001). Even if the market forces argument is true, he argues, distributing the environmental burdens onto the poor violates the principle of commensurable benefits and burdens, which stipulates that unless there are morally justifiable reasons, persons receiving the benefits of modern industrial technology should also receive the commensurate burdens. Those who receive an abundance of consumer goods should therefore be the targets of hazardous waste facilities and polluting industries, whereas those who receive noticeably fewer benefits, the poor residents, should be relieved of this incommensurable burden. Compensatory justice would follow the same moral foundation for redistributing benefits for incommensurable burdens.

Environmental justice also pertains to the principles of equality that require respect for the basic rights of all individuals. The most pronounced right in environmental justice is the right to a safe environment, which has assignable duty holders in the public (government) and private (corporate) sectors. In addition, the principle of self-determination, which honors the autonomy of individuals and their moral capacities to direct the activities that impact them the most, is of vital importance in the participatory justice dimension of environmental justice. The principle of self-determination entails that citizens ought to participate in the process of siting hazardous waste, as well as the procedures for determining fair compensation. Direct political participation, however, is not available for many residents in the burden-affected neighborhoods. The environmental decision-making is typically made prior to the time when community members are able to voice their opinions in the public review-and-comment meetings that are standard political mechanisms in the siting process.

The lack of representation in the mainstream environmental movement or the vital decision-making sectors can be referred to as discriminatory environmentalism. In discriminatory environmentalism, representation and participation in mainstream environmental groups, participation in environmental policymaking, representation in federal, state, and local environmental agencies, and decision-making power over the location of environmental burdens and benefits are either intentionally or unintentionally exclusionary. Underrepresentation in the mainstream environmental movement is also a fundamental contention of injustice against political recognition and participatory justice. In an effort to establish a genuine voice that would better represent the environmental concerns of people of color in the United States, alternative environmental caucuses were created. Often highlighted is the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington, DC, in 1991, which symbolizes two important foundations of the environmental justice movement. The summit represents the lack of political representation of people of color in the greater environmental movement, and it generated seventeen "Principles of Environmental Justice."

Discriminatory environmentalism also identifies the ways in which mainstream environmental ethics has considerably overlooked the poorest and most disenfranchised peoples of the world in its efforts to securely ground moral obligations to nonhuman nature. In particular, the biocentric and ecocentric approaches of land ethic philosophy and "deep ecology" received criticisms for discriminatory environmentalism. The Indian ecologist Ramachandra Guha (1989) argues that the broad-sweeping universalist claims of deep ecologists would cause further distribution of resources for biological protection and environmental improvement away from poor nations to the wealthy nations. Various expressions of misanthropy emerged from deep ecology, which served to undermine environmental struggles of the poor and failed to distinguish between those who hold institutional control over our resource use and those who are subjected to the worse side effects of resource depletion and consumption. By making all human responsible for ecological impacts, deep ecologists overlooked not only the dramatic distinctions between the rich and the poor, but also who has consumed and controlled the use of the natural resources.

Originators of the deep ecology philosophy fundamentally distinguished this non-anthropocentric ethic from "shallow forms" of environmentalism that reflected anthropocentric ethics directed at pollution, work place hazards, and public health. This distinction between anthropocentric (shallow) and non-anthropocentric (deep) environmental ethics overlooked the populations of people struggling with the intersection between shallow and deep ecology. An irony of the split between non-anthropocentric environmental ethics and anthropocentric environmental ethics—a split that is often used to characterize the EJM as a shallow environmentalism—is that while the Principles of Environmental Justice reflect a challenge to the discriminatory environmentalism of mainstream environmentalism in the 1990s, it also shares fundamental values that clearly echo deep ecological sentiments. The first principles states, "Environmental justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction" (Lee 1992). Although the mainstream environmental movement maintains an affluent, white membership, many of the mainstream environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, Ancient Forest Rescue, and the Sierra Club, have addressed discriminatory environmentalism by fusing environmental justice dimensions to their respective environmental agendas.

Greater pollution, cumulative climatic impacts, and mass consumption of resources have tremendous environmental consequences for the poorest and marginalized populations in the world. Many technological advances have been introduced around the world as strategies for economic development; the introduction of technologies, however, does not necessarily entail the introduction of environmental safety. In 1969 Union Carbide Corporation expanded its global production of pesticides, specifically methyl isocyanate, to Bhopal in central India. A technological disaster occurred in 1984 when a chain reaction of pressure, leaking hydrogen cyanide, and other lethal chemicals exploded and enveloped 40 square kilometers with a poisonous cloud. Failure to maintain safety systems and poor community communication led to the deaths of more than 2,000 residents and over 200,000 further injuries in the region (Applegate, Laitos, and Campbell-Mohn 2000). This tragedy, the worst chemical disaster in world history, is linked directly with global environmental justice in terms of transnational corporate responsibility, distribution of the most dangerous products and conditions to the least well-off, and the violation of public participation in the environmental issues that most affect the local residents. According to S. Ravi Rajan (2001), the Bhopal disaster should be considered "technological violence" because design engineers and executives at Union Carbide decided against a common corporate practice of keeping methyl isocyanate storage tanks underground. The high storage capacity and aboveground tanks at Bhopal aggravated the potential dangers to the environment and local residents, and the failure to install common safety features, when greater safety was warranted under the design conditions, made the corporation accountable for the massive technological disaster. Sophisticated modern technology involved in chemical manufacturing and petrochemical production, and even systems such as those found in military and space programs, involve numerous technological and scientific uncertainties. Basic safety precautions do not address this range of possibilities, and the level of disaster that can follow accidents makes risk assessment a statistical gamble for the local residents.

The magnitude of technological disasters such as that in Bhopal, the global reach of transnational corporations, and the existence of a select group of powerful global scientists and policymakers has given global environmental justice a dramatic scope. Issues pertaining to indigenous land rights and compensation for damages from technological expansion fall directly under the study of environmental justice. New technologies such as genetically modified foods and the ability to acquire and patent the traditional environmental knowledge of indigenous people have emerged as environmental justice concerns. Compensation and donor policies between the global North and South, as well as the environmental and economic consequences of global trade agreements, spark the distributive and participatory justice dimensions of the EJM. Transcontinental pollution and environmental impacts to the global commons find their ethical implications in the EJM. And across the globe there are localized environmental justice movements, such as Japan's Soshisha movement to address victims of Minamata disease, a debilitating neurological disorder caused by the dumping of mercury oxide into the public water supply, or Nigeria's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), struggling against military aggression in a region of petrochemical corporate neglect. All this provides evidence of the expansive scope of global environmental justice, which Lois Gibbs has declared to be the fastest-growing, largest social movement in the world.

Basic Issues

The environmental justice movement has generated a host of ethical questions regarding environmental benefits and technological advances: To what extent is industrial technology implicated in the underlying struggle for the fair distribution of environmental burdens? What is the appropriate relationship between scientific analysis and environmental policies? What technological solutions are available and to whom? How can environmental burdens and benefits be fairly distributed to Earth's populations? What kinds of risks and social conditions constitute an unfair distribution of environmental burdens?

The movement has also produced ethical questions concerning the fair representation and inclusion in the decision-making and social dynamics surrounding environmental hazards: Do marginalized groups receive their proper voice in the process that is likely to affect them the most? How are racial dynamics related to environmental decision-making and environmental harms? What role does gender play? Is it morally acceptable to environmentally discriminate against communities, such as working-class and poor neighborhoods, if it is legal? To what extent are all interests represented in the process? Is the process appropriate for understanding the social and scientific relationships, and the community perception of risk compared to the scientifically acceptable range of risk?

Environmental justice has given scholars and activists the tools to address the environmental conditions of social justice. A vocabulary and conceptual framework now exists to discuss the relationship between environmental values and institutional racism. The political underpinnings of dominant environmental movements are now more easily exposed by the lens of environmental justice. False distinctions between social problems and environmental problems, which caused the splintering of movements such as the civil rights movement and the environmental movement, are now confronted by environmental groups, civil rights groups, and the numerous grassroots groups that have formed to address environmental injustices in their communities. The movement has broadened the possible interpretations of justice itself by combining distributive justice with political justice and economic justice with cultural justice, under a new rubric of environmental empowerment for the least-well-off populations around the world. Indeed, the dimensions of nature and environment are being revised and transformed by the closer scrutiny that the environmental justice perspective entails. The contention that environmental justice brings new rigor to anthropocentric environmental ethics is an underestimation of the potential critique forged by environmental justice.


SEE ALSO Environmental Ethics;Justice;Pollution;Race;Sierra Club;United Nations Environmental Program.


Applegate, John S.; Jan G. Laitos; and Celia Campbell-Mohn. (2000). The Regulation of Toxic Substances and Hazardous Wastes. New York: Foundation Press.

Been, Vicki. (1994). "Locally Undesirable Land Uses in Minority Neighborhoods: Disproportionate Siting or Market Dynamics?" Yale Law Journal 103(6): 1383–1422.

Cole, Luke W., and Sheila R. Foster. (2001). From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press.

Ferris, Deeohn, and David Hahn-Baker. (1995). "Environmentalist and Environmental Justice Policy." In Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions, ed. B. Bryant. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Gottlieb, Robert. (1993). Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, DC: Island Press. A revolutionary environmental history revealing various origins of the environmental justice movement and its early parallel path with the mainstream environmental movement.

Guha, Ramachandra. (1989). "Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique." Environmental Ethics 11(1): 71–83.

Lavelle, Marianne, and Marcia Coyle. (1992). "Unequal Protections: The Racial Divide in Environmental Law." National Law Journal 15(3): S2.

Lee, Charles, ed. (1992). Proceedings: The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. New York: United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial Justice. A crucial moment in the environmental justice movement, and a defining document of the breadth and depth of the movement.

Mohai, Paul, and Bunyan Bryant. (1992). "Environmental Racism: Reviewing the Evidence." In Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, ed. Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. A seminal study of race and the disparate distribution of hazardous waste.

Rajan, S. Ravi. (2001). "Toward a Metaphysic of Environmental Violence: The Case of the Bhopal Gas Disaster." In Violent Environments, ed. Nancy Lee Peluso and Michael Watts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Schlosberg, David. (1999). Environmental Justice and the New Pluralism: The Challenge of Difference for Environmentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. (2002). Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

United Church of Christ. Commission for Racial Justice. (1987). Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. New York: Author. First national study of the correlation between race and class and the distribution of hazardous waste sites. Concluding that race plays the stronger role, this study sets off the environmental racism debate.

U.S. General Accounting Office. (1983). Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. House. (1993). Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. Environmental Justice: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary. 103rd Cong., 1st sess. A testimony of the environmental racism debate which influenced a number of federal and state agencies.

Wenz, Peter S. (1988). Environmental Justice. Albany: State University of New York Press. The first book titled "environmental justice."

Wenz, Peter S. (2001). "Just Garbage." In Faces of Environmental Racism: Confronting Issues of Global Justice, 2nd edition, ed. Laura Westra and Bill E. Lawson. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Environmental Justice

views updated May 17 2018

Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is broader in scope than environmental equity (equal treatment and protection under statutes, regulations, and practices), emphasizing the right to a safe and healthy environment for all people, and incorporating physical, social, political, and economic under the heading of environments. It is also a less incendiary term than environmental racism, which can be intentional or unintentional, and suggests discrimination in policymaking, the enforcement of laws, and targeting communities of color for disposal sites and polluting industries.

Issues central to environmental justice revolve around the siting of municipal landfills, hazardous waste facilities, and nuclear-waste dumps; manufacture and sale of hazardous products; the international distribution of toxic wastes; emissions from chemical plants; lead paint exposure and other public health risks in urban residences; and occupational hazards including pesticides on agricultural lands. In addition, environmental racism not only applies to African-Americans, but also Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other people of color throughout the world.

The emergence of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s stimulated debate on the extent to which race, class, and political power have been or should become central concerns of modern environmentalism and environmental management. Movement leaders charged that mainstream environmental organizations and environmental policy demonstrated greater concern for preserving wilderness and animal habitats than protecting the homes and workplaces of humans. Some advocates disassociate themselves from environmentalism altogether, identifying instead with a heritage of broader social justice imbedded in the civil rights activities of the 1950s and 1960s.

Some observers date the environmental justice movement to Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. (1979), in which African-American residents of the Northwood Manor subdivision in Houston, Texas, filed the first class action lawsuit (later unsuccessful) challenging the siting of a waste facility in their neighborhood as a violation of civil rights. The key event was a related protest in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ), is credited with coining the term "environmental racism." He became interested in the connection between race and pollution when residents of predominantly African-American Warren County asked the CRJ for help in preventing the siting of a PCB dump in their community. The protest did not reverse plans for the disposal site, and it resulted in the arrest of more than 500 people, including Chavis. However, this event galvanized environmental justice advocates, and a full-scale movement formed as a result.

In October 1991 a multiracial group of more than 600 advocates met in Washington, D.C., for the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. In their Principles of Environmental Justice, conference participants asserted the hope "to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities. . . ." Dramatic charges of environmental racism, and the call for a new program of environmental justice took center stage. Among the goals stated in the principles was "to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples."

The movement found strength at the grassroots level, especially among low-income people of color who faced serious environmental threats from hazardous wastes. Its leaders are academics like sociologist Robert Bullard and social activists like Chavis. For those articulating the goals of environmental justice, grassroots resistance to environmental threats is seen as a reaction to more fundamental injustices brought on by economic and social disparities. In some instances, the critique extends to questioning the capitalist system and bias in favor of Eurocentricor Western whitesocial viewpoints. On one level, efforts to characterize the environmental justice movement as having its historic roots in civil rights activism, but not in the environmental movement, grew out of a desire to maintain a unique identity for the sake of its political goals.

The Warren County incident and other cases convinced Chavis and his colleagues that a national study correlating race and toxic waste sites was in order. In 1987 the CRJ published Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States (1987), the first comprehensive national study of the demographic patterns associated with the location of hazardous waste sites. It stressed that the racial composition of a community was the single variable best able to predict the siting of hazardous waste facilities in a community, and added that it was "virtually impossible" that these facilities were distributed by chance. The report, especially its strong inference of deliberate targeting, strengthened the position of environmental justice advocates, but it also set off a controversy over the importance of race as the central variable in that targeting. Contradictory opinions stressed the importance of economic class instead of or in addition to race, and some questioned the extent to which the placement of toxic facilities was clearly intentional.

For environmental justice advocates, the culprit in deliberate targeting was not simply private companies, but government inaction amplified by political impotence linked to race and class. The federal executive branch, however, became more visible in the 1990s in helping to elevate environmental justice concerns to national attention. In 1992 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Office of Environmental Justice. Its purpose was to ensure that all citizens, especially those of color or low income, received protection under existing environmental laws. Other initiatives within the EPA soon followed, and the Department of Energy (DOE) also drafted environmental justice guidelines for consideration in compliance issues. Similar action to craft policy on the basis of environmental justice concerns was carried out in states like New York and Texas.

A 1992 EPA report supported some of the claims regarding the exposure of racial minorities to high levels of pollution, but it linked together race and class in most cases. A study conducted by the National Law Journal that same year questioned the EPA's environmental equity record, pointing out that in the administration of the Superfund program, disparities existed in dealing with hazardous waste cleanups in minority communities as compared with white neighborhoods.

Although President Bill Clinton signed an executive order "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations" in 1994, frustrations among environmental justice advocates deepened when an official Environmental Justice Act failed to pass Congress. Furthermore, no successful lawsuits have been litigated to date. Not surprisingly, enthusiasm for government action on environmental justice issues has waned among activists, and the movement's programmatic activities have instead primarily focused on public information campaigns, media outreach, brownfield economic redevelopment pilot projects, and internal organizational changes. Debate also centers on what determines 'disproportionate burden' for the poor and people of color as stated in the EPA definition of environmental justice. Aggressive litigation against polluters or congressional support for more stringent protection have not been forthcoming.

There is little doubt that the environmental justice movement has gained the attention of federal and state governments, mainstream environmentalists, scholars, and others. Some traditional environmental groups and environmental justice activists have made attempts to form alliances or sponsor joint ventures such as an environmental consortium for minority outreach in Washington, D.C. The successful campaigns for social justice have publicized the movement's cause and continued its mission. It has drawn on traditional grassroots support to reinforce its claim of being a broad-based movement and it has questioned the will and objectives of modern environmental groups to offer a definition of environmentalism that is sufficiently broad to encompass the interests of minority groups, the poor, the disadvantaged, and the politically impotent.

see also Activism; Earth Summit; Gauley Bridge, West Virginia; Poverty; Warren County, North Carolina; Yucca Mountain.


Bullard, Robert D. (1994). Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Foreman, Christopher H., Jr. (1998). The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Lester, James P.; Allen, David W.; and Hill, Kelly M. (2001). Environmental Injustice in the United States: Myths and Realities. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Internet Resources

Environmental Justice Resource Center Web site. Available from http://www.ejrc.cau.edu.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site. Available from http://www.epa.gov/swerosps.

Martin V. Melosi

Environmental Justice

views updated May 21 2018


Does every income, racial, ethnic, and age group have an equal right to protection from environmental hazards? This question is central to the emotionally charged debate about the location of industrial and waste management facilities and the application of regulations and funds to protect people and neighborhoods. The environmental justice movement came to the forefront of environmental health politics during the 1980s when a landfill for PCB-contaminated waste was located in a poor, largely African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina. That controversial siting led to a study by the United Church of Christ (UCC) which found that hazardous waste management facilities in the United States were disproportionately located in areas that had minority and poor populations.

The UCC research prompted more than two dozen studies that have examined waste management and industrial facility locations, air pollution incidents, and measures of public exposure to toxins to determine whether minority and poor populations bear an unfair toxic burden. The research, which has produced contradictory results, has looked for evidence that the process used to make decisions were equitable, and that the outcomes were equitable. Differences in the findings are largely explained by differences in what populations were chosen as potentially burdened, what activity was supposedly causing the burden, what burden was measured, what the spatial scale was of the analysis, and what statistical methods were used in the analysis. Overall, the evidence proving that poor and minority populations across the United States are disproportionately at risk from environmental hazards is not conclusive.

Nevertheless, this research has made environmental equity an important policy consideration. On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which required all federal agencies to take steps to overcome any disproportionately adverse environmental effects on the poor and minorities. Many federal agencies now have environmental justice offices, take steps to consider the impact of their activities on poor and minority populations, and try to increase minority representation in their agencies. Some states have followed the federal example, and citizens groups have also been active. For example, in May 1996 a citizens group in Chester, Pennsylvania, sued the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for approving the location of a waste management facility in a largely African-American neighborhood that already had five such facilities and had high rates of morbidity and mortality among its residents. Title VI considerations have become important in the siting of new facilities.

On the other hand, mayors such as Dennis Archer of Detroit have expressed concern that a blanket application of environmental justice concerns hurts the redevelopment of inner-city neighborhoodsprecluding, for example, the placement of new factories on remediated brownfield sites. Environmental injustice is also invoked as a reason to curtail suburban sprawl, which removes resources from inner cities and leaves unwanted land uses and poor people in its wake.

Michael R. Greenberg

(see also: African Americans; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; Assessment of Health Status; Brownfields; Environmental Determinants of Health; Environmental Movement; Ethics of Public Health; Ethnicity and Health; Hazardous Waste; Minority Rights; Not In My Backyard [NIMBY]; Poverty and Health; Risk Assessment, Risk Management; Toxic Torts; Toxicology )


Bryant, B. (1995). Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Sexton, K., ed. (1999). Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 9(1):Environmental Justice Issue.

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