Efforts to provide environmental justice to all communities are gaining momentum at the state and federal level.

Oped by Haley Maher

June 28, 2021

The term “environmental justice” has gained popularity in political speech and policy in the past few years. However, environmental justice (EJ) is far from being a new issue. According to the current definition provided by the EPA, EJ is “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.” The movement stems from a culture of “environmental racism” in the United States. The main leaders of the movement belong to communities mostly made up of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, who are all highly underrepresented in the federal, and often state government. Without a change in unsustainable industry processes, companies will always find somewhere to pollute. Communities of color become a prime target due to their lack of political representation and economic power.

Rev. Ben Chavis, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill near Afton, North Carolina in 1962. Warren County is considered by many to be the birthplace of the EJ movement. although there are many other incidents that also were happening simultaneously.

Commonly, EJ crises result from the strategic placement of some kind of manufacturing center/hazardous material, or the lack of proper infrastructure. Some cases of environmental injustice have become household names; the water crisis in Flint, Michigan exposed major inequities in the infrastructure delivering basic needs to low-income and minority communities. The recent storms in Texas exposed the lack of appropriate infrastructure to withstand the extreme weather effects of climate change that will only intensify in the following years. Even the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted major inequalities in health, and therefore COVID-19 mortality rates in communities of color, mostly due to pre-existing conditions stemming from long-term exposure to pollution in the form of particulate matter. The conversations surrounding these modern examples of environmental racism are only the tip of the iceberg in relation to calls to action in the EJ community throughout history.

The specific origins of the fight for EJ are up for debate, but sentiments of Latino farm workers in the 1960’s follow many of the same principles and arguments of the modern EJ movement. Cesar Chavez led these workers to fight for their rights to safe working conditions without the presence of dangerous pesticides. Throughout the 1970’s, the EJ movement gained momentum through the passage of landmark policy, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Another marked event in the EJ movement occurred in North Carolina in 1982. In a textbook case of EJ offenses, the government tried to burden a primarily African American county with PCB contaminated sediments. This county became a battleground for front-line environmental activists, who eventually lost their fight to the state government.

Cesar Chavez led these workers to fight for their rights to safe working conditions without the presence of dangerous pesticides.

This defeat resulted in a major pushback from the EJ community. Activists pressured the major environmental organizations to include EJ in their efforts, as more data came out that pointed to solid evidence of environmental racism. However, the movement was slow to gain true political attention, partly because of partisan barriers, but largely due to the underrepresentation of people of color in the foremost environmental organizations. It is only fitting that the most affected individuals should have the most prominent public platform, but like many other social justice movements, intersectionality has been slow to develop, and the lack thereof still remains a major issue. The silencing of these voices leaves a gaping hole in the amount of collaboration needed to achieve equitable conditions.

At the federal level, efforts towards EJ have been primarily disappointing. Presidents Clinton and Obama placed EJ policy within the structure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, at the beginning of the Trump Presidency, the tone surrounding EJ was set through the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a major blow to Native American tribes. Additional rollbacks of policy, regression of federal renewable energy support, and budget cuts to the EPA threatened federal regulation of injustices in disproportionally affected communities.

This year, for the first time, the White House has an Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which directly advises the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. President Biden has committed to direct 40 percent of clean energy investment to disadvantaged communities. This development was a huge win for activist groups that have been pushing for EJ policy far before the council came into fruition. In this case, decades of persistence paid off. Granting a legitimate public platform for EJ will possibly set the tone for federal policy going forward.

Many states have taken action on EJ issues without waiting for the federal government to catch up. As of May 2021, sixteen states have EJ enforcement explicitly addressed in state law. An additional 10 states are sitting on proposed EJ legislation. Some states leading the country in rigorous EJ policy, such as New Jersey, have cracked down on companies through strict permitting processes and have clearly identified affected communities. The larger the base of laws surrounding EJ becomes, the more likely courts will hold up cases supporting the rights of communities.

In 2020, a significant precedent was set for EJ cases in Virginia’s Fourth Circuit in the case Friends of Buckingham v. State Air Pollution Control Bd. The Board had awarded a permit for the construction of a compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Union Hill, Virginia, a predominately African American community. The court ruled that the Board failed to (1) consider possible cleaner alternatives, (2) independently assess the site, and (3) address the potential of disproportionate effects on the predominantly African American community. Not only did this decision go beyond the required enforcement of pollution limits, but also directly blocked probable environmental injustice consequences.

Assuming current trends in activism, policy, and litigation continue, environmental justice will become commonplace in discussions about the effort to improve environmental conditions. Changes in regard to any source of emissions, pollution, etc., are not furthering the preservation of the environment if they simply dump the burden on other communities. Comprehensive environmental policy considers EJ as a primary decision-making factor.

The dialog needs to be opened up between members of different communities and their representatives; very moving personal stories elicit empathy and action. The communities affected by these issues often do not have the number of votes it takes to swing the vote in the election of their own state and or federal representatives. Educating the whole voting populous as to why environmental justice connects to such deep-rooted issues may affect the choices they make when casting their vote. Going forward, have those conversations with people that need to have their eyes opened a bit. Educate yourself and reach out to your representatives; or best yet, find the time to see the problems first hand in affected neighborhoods and participate in psychical resolutions. Listen to the stories of those who may not have a large enough platform to gain attention. Members of this movement have started being heard, but meaningful teamwork across all classes and races would amplify their voices exponentially.