Environmental Justice is the equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, and of meaningful participation in environmental decision-making. This means that all people have the right to equal protection from environmental and health hazards, and the right to live, work, play, worship, or learn in safe, healthy communities.1 The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also offers a comprehensive definition: “Environmental justice 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.” 2 In order for all people to receive fair treatment, no group should bear a disproportionate burden of the environmental health impacts that result from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or regulations. For all people to be meaningfully involved, they must have equal access to opportunities to participate in and influence the decision-making processes that affect their livelihood. This means that the public’s concerns will be addressed and that decision makers will seek them out in matters that are relevant to their health or environment. Under US federal law, various departments, like the EPA and the Department of Justice (DOJ), must have environmental justice offices in order to address these issues in their programs, policies, and activities.
Policies to enforce environmental justice are necessary because statistically, certain communities are more likely to suffer disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards and environmental health impacts. This phenomenon, which predominantly affects people of color and the poor, is called environmental racism. In 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice found that race was the strongest predictor of the location of waste facilities. People of color and the poor are more likely to live, work, and play in the country’s most polluted areas. Similarly, pollution-producing facilities like landfills or industrial plants are routinely placed in poor communities of color. This may occur through institutional neglect or by conscious design, such as under-enforcement of laws in certain communities or intentional targeting. Corporate decision makers and local authorities, such as regulatory commissions and zoning boards, are met with less resistance when they place contaminating facilities in poor minority neighborhoods than in middle-class, primarily white ones. These communities tend to have fewer connections with people in power who might protect their interests and also lack the financial resources to hire legal or technical experts to defend themselves. They are also likely to have reduced access to information about how new facilities might affect their health. In Latino communities with residents who speak only Spanish, information presented in English alone is particularly inaccessible.3
The environmental justice movement took off in the late 1980s, after a report by the Commission for Racial Justice brought attention to the relationship between toxic waste and race. This relationship had been documented previously, particularly after an incident in 1982 in Afton, North Carolina, where thousands of tons of soil containing PCBs was intentionally dumped in a facility in an African American community despite residents’ opposition. Such incidents spurred research and mobilization from both the civil rights and environmentalist movements, who came together to form the environmental justice movement. It is an intersectional movement led by a network of local, national, and international organizations that work within marginalized communities and advocate for governmental action.4
The federal government first began to take on environmental justice in 1994 with Executive Order 12898 – Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. Through this executive order, environmental justice was incorporated into the missions of all federal agencies, in order to identify and address any disproportionate health or environmental effects on minority or low-income communities. The DOJ, in its function to ensure that all communities live in a safe, healthy environment, carries out the investigation and litigation of environmental, civil rights, and criminal cases. It coordinates with other federal agencies, including the EPA and the Department of Transportation, to investigate complaints and make sure that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is enforced correctly and consistently.5 The EPA prioritizes environmental justice in all of its work, from setting standards, awarding grants and permits, issuing licenses, administration and enforcement of laws and regulations, and reviewing proposed actions by federal agencies. Some regulations, like the Toxic Substances Control Act, include provisions that explicitly direct the EPA to assist low-income populations, or to consider them when establishing standards. Within the EPA, the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) coordinates the integration of efforts to protect the environment and public health in minority, low-income, tribal, and other vulnerable communities, through grant opportunities, consultations, enhancing public participation, and enforcing regulations.6
In 1991, the People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference established a list of seventeen Principles of Economic Justice, which affirm the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural, and environmental justice, free of discrimination or bias.7