Environmental Justice in America

The 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.  This movement addresses the statistical fact that usually the people who live, work and play in the most polluted parts of America are people of color and the poor. As the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) website says, “Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts — say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls ‘environmental racism.'”  

According to the EPA, the origin of the environmental justice movement lies in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. During this time, those afflicted by the inequity of environmental protection in their communities, primarily people of color, came together to start the environmental justice movement, although it may not have been called that at the time. The first national action taken towards promoting this justice was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Memphis Sanitation Strike on February 11, 1968. This strike, conducted by African American activists, advocated for fair pay and better working conditions for Memphis garbage workers.  

The next major action taken to combat environmental racism was the sit-in against a PCB landfill in the predominantly poor, rural, and African American county of Warren County, NC in 1982. This landfill was to house 6,000 truckloads of soil that contained toxic PCBs; residents of the small town of Afton, where the landfill was built, blocked the dump trucks heading towards the hazardous waste site by laying down in the middle of the road. They were angry that state officials had not listened to their concerns over the possibility of the PCBs contaminating their water. After six weeks of marches, protests, and over 500 people being arrested, the residents ultimately lost the battle. The hazardous waste was deposited in the landfill anyway. However, this extraordinary display of fortitude from the ordinary citizens of Afton sparked a flame in the nation for those living under similar environmental injustices.  

Image result for environmental justice cities in america

Since this time, many studies have been done to show the correlation between race and the zoning of hazardous waste sites and hazardous waste producing facilities. By the 1990s, some leaders of the then predominantly white environmental organizations joined forces with leaders of the environmental justice movement to develop environmental justice initiatives, add people of color to their staff, and to take environmental issues into account when making policy decisions. Environmental justice became a part of federal government policy in 1994 under the Clinton administration through Executive Order 12898; this order “directed federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high adverse health or environmental effects of their policies or programs on low-income people and people of color.” (NRDC) The order also directed federal agencies to prevent discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in federally funded programs that dealt with health or the environment. Although this was an essential step towards justice for all, how far have we come since then?

A recent example of environmental injustice happening in our country is found in Minnesota. Similar to the Dakota Access Pipeline issue, Embridge Energy has proposed to construct a new pipeline that will replace the old pipeline by taking a new route that will stretch across Minnesota. The problem with the new pipeline, called Line 3, is that it will cross the Anishinaabe territory without the consent of those living there. The proposed project has faced major resistance from local tribes and is now going through a process of public hearings. More recent and publicized examples of environmental injustice include: the Flint Michigan water crisis, Standing Rock, and Louisiana’s Cancer Alley.

Image result for flint michigan water crisis

Some important grassroots organizations that have formed to combat environmental injustice today include: Concerned Citizens of South Central (Los Angeles), West Harlem Environmental Action, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and Mothers of East L.A. 

Although many steps have been taken towards conquering environmental injustice in this country, how far have we really come? Living in Athens Clark County, which has a poverty rate of 37.8%, what kind of environmental justice issues have you encountered here? Can you think of other examples of environmental injustice going on in our country now? As engineers, how can we address this problem? 


Fun fact: Did you know that in 2013, the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program gave the Athens Land Trust, a local non-profit organization, a grant to implement the “West Broad Garden Environmental Empowerment Project” in order to fight food insecurity in the West Hancock corridor of Athens? 








15 thoughts on “Environmental Justice in America

  1. This is a really interesting topic as it is sort of an untouched area of environmentalism as far as addressing issues. We gravitate toward changing things for the better when it comes to climate change or America’s energy future, but minus the Flint crisis environmental justice gets to take a backseat. Whether this is due to the fact that environmentalism in of itself is hard enough of a political challenge without tossing in wholesale socio-economic issues is a moot point to the fact that it is still occurring today. Historically as mentioned we see the struggle that African-Americans endured in conjunction with civil rights being fought. Nowadays we see Native Americans being targeted, mostly for pipeline related issues, but is this a shifting of injustice onto the Native people or are we just better covering injustices that they are/have facing/faced? Social injustices seem to congregate around the newer immigrants to the U.S. and with the Arab-American population increasing, could we see these injustices shift into their areas? As an engineer, the best thing we can do is be ethical to the highest standard. Do not sit idly by and watch a community suffer and let a harmful design be implemented.


    1. I agree that it is not covered nearly as much as it should be; for example, the flint water crisis is still a problem to this day, but coverage on the issue has gone down drastically so most Americans believe the issue is resolved. As far as which communities are affected the most today, I think that the news is covering the issues that Native Americans are facing better than the issues that other minorities are still facing due to the large resistance these communities were able to produce against their injustice. In my research conducted for this topic, I found many Hispanic and African American communities that are suffering due to industrial pollution and air pollution, but they have not received the same media coverage as other issues because they occur in poorer communities where there voices are not being heard.


  2. I just read recently read about the proposed Sabal Trail Pipeline that would run through low-income minority neighborhoods in southeast Georgia. Residents are not happy about the possibility of a pipeline running beneath them but their thoughts have been ignored. And the planned compressor station will be located next to one of the largest African American churches in the state. It seems as if communities like these are constantly being taken advantage of all over the country.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Environmental justice is a very interesting subject to me and I would be interested to delve more into the statistics of the matter. I think a major issue in environmental justice is the lack of power associated with the minority and impoverished voice. I would think lower income people in general have less power over their living conditions. If they have a financially unstable situation, inability to move, or less legal connections, they have less power to use against their landlord if a rental property has poor living conditions.

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  4. The best example of environmental justice came out of the Keystone Pipeline and ultimate Standing Rock protest and showdown with the Dakota government. For some background information, the original location for the keystone pipeline was not through the Sioux territory (and way too close to Native American burial grounds and needed creeks and waterways) but rather the majority white city of Bismark. When residents adamantly complained about the potential for the Pipeline to ruin its precious water resources, the state agreed and moved the pipeline to the Native American Territory. Throughout the process and protest and debate, numerous pipelines across the country spilled oil and crude. The North Dakota police cracked down on the Native American peaceful protesters like in Selma, Alabama.

    Who you vote for truly matters not for yourself, but for the people around you, especially the ones whose voice aren’t truly considered worth listening to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Environmental Justice, as well as most injustices, has always been directed towards people of color in this country. If you think about the treatment of the Native American people it is hard to ignore. Let’s focus on the reservations that we picked out for them. The reservations were a plot of land that the United States deemed to be for the Native American people. Not only was a lot of this land undesirable and not traditionally where the native people would live, it is also the source for a lot of nuclear mining. A lot of Uranium deposits happen to lie underneath these Native American reservations. When we mine for this nuclear material the native people are exposed to the radiation at a higher percentage than most american citizens. Unfortunately these people are also the least equipped to deal with this exposure and once they get sick they can’t get the help they need to deal with it.


  6. This was an interesting read. Environmental justice is something not really touched on in most textbooks. This goes back to the NIMBY concept. Usually people or areas with money have a greater chance or power to vote no to potential environmental hazards. It’s not really fair that communities of color which are already often poor, automatically gets picked to host dangerous facilities. It just digs them in a deeper hole, not allowing them to thrive. This is an issue that can be tricky to solve – the issue has to go somewhere regardless.


  7. This article really shows how social media creates flash-in-the-pan issues from problems that last for more than decades. The problem that this article does well in highlighting is the fact that environmental issues are used to segregate people. Americans dump their environmental problems onto other people and countries, just so that they can have the upper hand. This is a problem within the system that needs to be handled, and the only way to solve such a problem is education to ALL people and REPRESENTATION IN GOVERNMENT. People of color are not represented in policy, and thus, they have no voice when it comes to issues that will directly effect them.


  8. Environmental injustice is no different from any form of injustice. It manifests itself like income inequality in many situations. No pipelines are being built through rich neighborhoods. No dumps are being made near gated suburbs. The lower income population has less power and less say in what happens in their environment.


  9. I am glad you chose to write about this matter. Often in environmental-related discussions, social justice is not brought up or even thought about. Along with the example you mentioned, I remember learning about the disposal of hazardous waste, and how usually the city that decide to build hazardous waste dumps are those that are poor, so the government pays them a lot of money to allow them to dump hazardous waste in their city. Also, the waste is not even local; sometimes the waste will travel to other states to be dumped elsewhere, which makes even a greater environmental impact due to the emissions produced during traveling. As engineers, I feel like it’s really important to design the products that does not harm others while the benefiting others. We often can forget about the reality and the long term effects when we are designing products.


  10. Thanks for your post. This is a really concerning issue and one that we do not often hear or think about. I’d like to believe (maybe naively so) that detrimental environmental policy decisions are not made to control groups of people, rather they are made because of corporate and industrial influence through lobbying and fundraising to greatly benefit those “in charge.” Unfortunately this decision making has horrible impacts on people that historically do not have a voice whether that is a result of education or poor social constructs. Regardless of WHY these decisions are being made, the problem ultimately lies in the fact that human health and environments are being devastated. Additionally, these harmful policies have impacts that perpetuate problems that potentially surpass environmental concerns. An interesting aspect of environmental justice is the Broken Windows Theory, introduced in 1982. It says that lack of urban maintenance and the general state of a given setting can heavily influence crime, vandalism, and generally decrease law and order. Governmental policy that detriments communities can signal to those communities that they are not cared for and are not a part of the greater wellbeing. These policies and actions can leave some of the most at-risk citizens behind and perpetuate the stereotype that poor communities should be and are neglected because of crime and poverty. This cycle is horrific. We as engineers have the utmost responsibility to design and implement innovations that protect and improve the lives of ALL participants in our communities.


  11. Yeah Jill, I agree with those who have commented above in being glad you decided to write about this, and with a level of sincerity and interest. Environmental justice can be a vague issue, I think, for those of us not well versed in it, but is indubitably a solid trend. The concept is exaggerated in less-developed countries around the world, where environmentalism and environmental justice are not seen as two separate issues, but as one. They fight for the environment, and in so doing fight for their rights and existence. Its an interesting thought to ponder and gives a clearer picture of the understanding of dependence those less-developed countries have that we do not fully grasp with deep conviction.
    As for here, I have been curious to hear about environmental justice issues in the Athens-Clarke county area. I tried to look for some, but don’t really know what I am looking for… a thought had crossed my mind to use a sustainability grant to identify and rectify such an issue in the community, bringing leaders in the community into the project to help them see those issues too, if they don’t already. I think that would be a good step for the community, instead of those issue being handled by folks outside of the community.


  12. And also, another thought in what we as engineers can do is in how we approach waste. Waste management is only one arena where environmental injustice is cultivated, but with a proper approach and effort, the injustice can be rooted out. I’ve recently become disillusioned with the term “waste management.” We don’t need management, we need leadership in the area; people who will not just deal with what we have, but will strive to take our communities to better places in terms of how we handle waste. We don’t need to just manage where we are at, we need people to craft a better future; to go somewhere. It’s semantics, yes, but the simple word change can present a whole new picture to those who hear it. “Waste handling” holds a bit more exciting tone than “waste management,” I think.
    My point is, if the way we handle our wastes can be improved, crossing all our t’s and dotting all our i’s, our facilities handling those wastes will have less of a decaying affect on our communities nearby, whether in municipal allocations or on-site. Then those sites can be moved to any area with little push back.
    Or the folks in leadership can grow a spine and tell the affluent communities to suck it up and accept the ramifications of their lifestyles. The first point seems more compromising, but I think I like this last point better.


  13. Environmental injustice is a major issue Jill. Thanks for bringing it up. I know in Athens we have this issue with housing. A lot of student housing displaces local residents and even residents that can not afford housing. Recently, Athens Clark County government decided to do something about this and established that no new apartment buildings could be built in historic districts. I think this was the right decision for the sake of maintaining a balance between the local community and the University.


  14. Great article! Environmental justice is something that unfortunately is a bit difficult to address from a policy perspective – our misuse of environmental resources has consequences, and unfortunately those tend to fall on the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. I think this is something we do on a global scale as well. As a country, we have shifted much of our environmental burdens in terms of manufacturing and waste management to the developing world. This post is a good reminder that just because we don’t necessarily see the environmental burdens of our choices doesn’t mean they don’t exist.


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