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Environmental Justice: Its History and Where We Are Now

Updated: Sep 10, 2021


In the past year, we have seen one of the largest mobilizations against racial injustice in history. Following the murder of George Floyd, the summer of 2020 and the months that followed brought thousands of protests and sparked an anti-racist awakening for white people in America. Of course, for Black Americans and other people of color, none of the recent displays of racism and brutality come as a surprise. Having experienced institutionalized prejudice and violence for centuries, many are frustrated that white Americans are just now "discovering" that racial injustice is still deeply engrained in our 21st-century society.

What is Environmental Justice?

A large component of anti-racism work involves driving forward understanding and action around environmental justice. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as "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." Achieving this goal will involve every person enjoying the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, as well as equal access to decision-making processes around such issues.

The environmental justice movement was founded by individuals—primarily people of color—who sought to address environmental inequities within their own communities. Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the "Father of Environmental Justice," wrote: "whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural 'poverty pockets', or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation." For example, in the U.S., Black individuals die from asthma-related causes at almost three times the rate of white Americans; half of the Latinx population lives in counties that do not meet EPA health standards, and; 40 percent of Native American tribes are located in areas where climate change impacts jeopardize livelihoods and infrastructure. Formerly redlined neighborhoods—areas where government policies reinforced segregation (and still perpetuate racial and economic inequality today)—have fewer trees and more paved surfaces, putting communities at heightened risk for heat waves and flooding from extreme storms.

We have also seen the intertwined threads of environmental injustice and human health during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black communities and other people of color. These populations are often overrepresented in frontline essential work, have intergenerational disparities in wealth and income, and have historically experienced discrimination, mistreatment, and lack of access to healthcare (as well as heightened rates of pre-existing conditions). As a result, people of color have experienced increased numbers in both COVID contraction and resultant death.

History of Environmental Injustices and North Carolina Connection

People have been sounding the alarm about environmental injustices and health dangers since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s; however, the first major catalyst toward change took place right here in North Carolina. In 1978, a trucking company began illegally dumping liquid contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) along roads in 14 rural North Carolina counties. In response, the state government ordered cleanup and denoted 6,000 truckloads of contaminated soil to be dumped in a landfill in Warren County. Rural Warren County is historically one of the poorest areas in North Carolina, and was overwhelmingly non-white, with the highest percentage of Black residents in the state. When state officials dismissed concerns of PCBs leaching into area water supplies, frustrated Warren County residents and allies such as the NAACP and United Church of Christ gathered in protest, lying down in the road in front of the soil-bearing trucks. In the six weeks of marches and protests that followed, more than 500 people were arrested, and were unsuccessful in halting the toxic landfill's construction.

The landfill was eventually detoxified, but the protests had further ramifications in garnering national attention. People across the nation who were living through similar inequity identified with Warren County's plight. It became increasingly apparent that decisionmakers within corporations, regulatory agencies, and local planning/zoning boards found it easier to build pollution-producing facilities in low-income and communities of color than white, primarily middle-to-upper-income areas. The targets of environmental injustice were usually such given lack of power: little to no access to decision-making bodies, legal and technical expertise, or even information about how pollution would impact their health.

And so the environmental justice movement grew. In the 1990s, environmental organizations and the U.S. government joined on as allies to impacted communities. The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit took place in 1991; in 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, directing federal agencies to identify and address environmental injustices and create programming to prevent racial and income-driven discrimination. Though environmental organizations had long fought to protect wilderness, endangered species, and preserve clean air and water, they had barely been involved with the barrage of environmental and health assaults against communities of color. Several environmental justice leaders signed a letter to "Big 10" environmental groups accusing them of racial bias in policy development, sparking many organizations to develop their first environmental justice campaigns.

Where Are We Now?

However, we unfortunately are fighting the same issues today. To begin, the values many environmental organizations were founded on—for example, conserving nature—do not often hold space for people of color. Black individuals have repeatedly been targets of racial violence and hate while simply trying to enjoy nature, have been barred from access by lack of resources and information, and have not been included in the "environmentalist" movement, nonprofits, or outdoor companies.

In 2021, environmental nonprofits like the Sierra Club are working to actively unpack the racist legacy of their organization, beginning with the racism of their own founder, John Muir. Muir was a preservationist, and while focused on preserving land and water, he pushed problematic ideologies about making nature "pure." Related preservation and conservation work has historically been white-dominated, offering outdoor experiences primarily to white men, often excluding white women, and completely barring people of color from access to the wilderness. For decades there was segregation in national parks and public spaces, and groups such as Native Nations were (and often still are) removed from decision-making on their own lands. This intrinsic background still holds power in environmental spaces today, as more than three times as many communities of color live in nature-deprived spaces compared to white communities.

The Sierra Club currently acknowledges the intrinsic racism in their work and has stated intentions to center anti-racism and increase representation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BiPOC) leaders. This includes drawing on grassroots environmental and social justice organizers and building coalitions with BiPOC individuals on the ground, and "learning from the values of organizations and people who have connected the dots long before and far better" than they have.

There is still a long way to go. Both local and national governments are also actively righting environmental injustices within their foundations. Environmental injustice increased under President Donald Trump as he cut EPA funding and enacted numerous environmental rollbacks. President Biden has promised that "environmental justice will be at the center" of his environmental campaigns and will employ an "all-of-government" approach to ensure that issues are no longer siloed at separate agencies, but rather considered in a cross-cutting manner across all areas. He has ordered federal agencies to review internal equity within 200 days and develop plans to remove "unequal barriers to opportunity" in policies and programming; other goals include developing a Climate Task Force, reorganizing existing environmental justice groups and developing a scorecard for yearly effectiveness assessment, and increasing Justice Department oversight in enforcement against polluters.

A New White House

Just this week, the White House announced the members of a new Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which will provide advice and recommendations to the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and the White House Interagency Council on addressing current and historic environmental injustices.

Part of President Biden's efforts thus far have included nominating and confirming the former Head of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, Michael Regan, as the new EPA Administrator. Regan is the first Black man to run the EPA and brings 20 years of experience as a regulator and environmental justice advocate. During his time in North Carolina, Regan facilitated the largest coal-ash cleanup in the country following a settlement with Duke Energy, achieved action preventing dangerous PFAS chemicals from leaching into waterways, and enacted a number of other environmental justice initiatives.

Said Regan, "I'm grateful to President Biden for entrusting me to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at this critical moment in our country's history. EPA's career officials are the backbone of this agency, and I am humbled to work alongside them as we confront climate change, stand up for justice and equity, and ensure science is at the heart of our decision-making. We will prove that environmental protection and economic prosperity go hand in hand - and we will seize this opportunity to create a healthier, more just future for all."

Administrator Regan is also joined in efforts toward diverse representation in the national environmental space by Brenda Mallory, a Black woman and the new head of the White House Council of Environmental Quality, as well as Congresswoman Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior.

With these changes in the works, we can hopefully make rapid strides in mitigating and eliminating environmental injustices within our country. Given U.S. history, undoing institutionalized racism and discrimination is difficult, and the work here must be done correctly, enacted aggressively and be long-lasting. And for many Americans, these changes cannot come soon enough.

Image courtesy of Poster Art for Social Justice - Ricardo Levins Morales

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