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.
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.
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?