Communities populated primarily by ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged people have long been burdened with a disproportionate number of environmental hazards such as garbage dumps, toxic waste facilitates, scrap yards, factories, and other sources of pollutants and foul odors that significantly lower the quality of life. This is not just a historical fact but a present-day reality. A study published in 2022 found that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, along with low-income communities, shoulder an outsized burden of the harm caused by pesticides in the United States.[1] And a 2021 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that people of color are likelier to live near polluters and breathe polluted air.[2] This disproportionate harm also extends to the effects of climate change, as these perpetually underserved communities are the least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other climate-related impacts.[3] 

When the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards is placed on people of color, many people consider it a form of racism – in this case, environmental racism. Dr. Robert D. Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement, defines environmental racism as “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.”[4] Some facts to consider:

  • In the US, approximately 68% of Black people live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.
  • Black people are 75% more likely than others to live near hazardous waste facilities.
  • In 46 US states, people of color live with more air pollution than white people.[5]

Greenaction, one of many nonprofit organizations on the frontlines of the environmental justice movement, states on its website that environmental racism “refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race. Environmental racism is caused by several factors, including intentional neglect, the alleged need for a receptacle for pollutants in urban areas, and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color. It is a well-documented fact that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries (and very specifically, hazardous waste facilities) and lax regulation of these industries.”[6]

The environmental justice movement is the response to environmental racism. Environmental justice represents the belief that all communities and individuals have the right to equal environmental protection under the law, and the right to live, work and play in communities that are safe, healthy, and free of life-threatening conditions.[7] The environmental justice movement is a vital part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who have traditionally lived and worked closest to the sources of pollution.[8]

Differing Views of Environmental Justice

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.”[9] According to the EPA definition, fair treatment means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harms and risks, including those resulting from the negative environmental consequences of industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or programs and policies. And meaningful involvement means that: (i) potentially affected community members have an appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions about a proposed activity that will affect their environment and/or health; (ii) the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision; (iii) the concerns of all participants involved will be considered in the decision‐making process; and (iv) the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.”[10] 

While the EPA definition is the standard for all U.S. government agencies, it is not without its critics. Some environmental justice organizations believe that the EPA and other government agencies have been “trying to co-opt the movement by redefining environmental justice as ‘fair treatment and meaningful involvement,’ something they consistently fail to accomplish, but which also falls far short of the environmental justice vision.”[11] According to Greenaction: 

“Environmental Justice refers to those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainability, where all people can hold with confidence that their community and natural environment is safe and productive. Environmental Justice is realized when all people can realize their highest potential, without interruption by environmental racism or inequity. Environmental Justice is supported by decent paying and secure jobs; quality schools and recreation; decent housing and adequate health care; democratic decision-making; and finally, personal empowerment. A community of Environmental Justice is one in which both cultural and biological diversity are respected, and where there is equal access to institutions and ample resources to grow and prosper.”[12]

While there is no single legal or even “accepted” definition of environmental justice, there is a consistent theme of equal protection, community involvement, and healthy living environments for all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.

A Brief History

In the early 1980s in Warren County, North Carolina, the state decided to place a toxic waste landfill in a poor, rural, and predominantly African-American community. This, in and of itself, was not unusual as the siting of such landfills in or near minority communities was (government) business as usual. What was unusual, however, was that when the first of a planned 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs neared the proposed site, they were met with massive protests resulting in over 500 arrests.[13] These were the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill. Though the demonstrations failed to stop the siting of this particular toxic waste disposal facility, this protest marked the beginning of a national environmental justice movement.[14] 

Then, in 1991, delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit met to discuss the environmental injustices their communities were suffering. This was a turning point in the environmental justice movement as no longer would the word “environment” connote remote wilderness areas and pristine natural landscapes – “environment” was now “where one lived, worked, studied, played, and prayed.”[15] The delegates drafted and adopted 17 principles or “best practices” of Environmental Justice which have become the defining document for the environmental justice grassroots movement:

  1. Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.
  2. Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.
  3. Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.
  4. Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.
  5. Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
  6. Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.
  7. Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.
  8. Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.
  9. Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.
  10. Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.
  11. Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.
  12. Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provided fair access for all to the full range of resources.
  13. Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.
  14. Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations.
  15. Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.
  16. Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.
  17. Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

Five years later, in 1996, forty members of the environmental justice movement met at the Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade held in Jemez, New Mexico. These representatives generated the following guidelines to create a shared understanding among people from divergent cultures, political backgrounds, and organizations:

  1. Be Inclusive
  2. Emphasis on “Bottom-Up” Organizing
  3. Let People Speak for Themselves
  4. Work Together In Solidarity and Mutuality
  5. Build Just Relationships Among Ourselves
  6. Commitment to Self-Transformation

Social and environmental justice groups have widely adopted these two sets of principles or “best practices.”

Examples of Environmental Injustice

There are numerous egregious examples of minority communities being exposed to higher proportions of air pollution, toxic waste sites, landfills, lead poisoning, and other industrial complexes compared to their white counterparts. Just a few include:

Cancer Alley, Louisiana 

Cancer Alley, Louisiana, is an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge lined with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. The predominantly Black residents of the area are 50 times more likely to develop cancer, respiratory diseases, and other health problems than the average American.[16]

Flint, Michigan

The water crisis of Flint, Michigan, has been called one of the most “egregious examples of environmental injustice.”[17] Despite complaints from city residents – most of whom were low-income people of color – city mismanagement resulted in the mass lead poisoning of hundreds of children and adults.

Hurricane Katrina

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, devastated the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and caused over 1,800 fatalities and $125 billion in damage.  Race and ethnicity put many residents of the hardest-hit areas at a severe disadvantage, as minority populations were disproportionately located in low-wealth neighborhoods with poor housing. These neighborhoods were located in areas more vulnerable to damage from natural disasters compared to more climate-resilient communities with higher incomes, better infrastructure, and fewer minorities.[18]

Climate Change and Environmental Justice

Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. A recent analysis undertaken by the EPA reveals that the most severe harms from climate change fall disproportionately upon underserved communities who are least able to prepare for and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts. The EPA’s analysis indicates that racial and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the most significant impacts of climate change.[19] For example, minority communities face increased exposure to urban heat given their location (e.g., few trees and more pavement). This, in turn, results in an increased level of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, dehydration, acute renal failure, and mental illness among the populations of these communities. So, while climate change threatens everyone’s health and well-being, socially and economically disadvantaged communities face greater risks. 

This is not just a U.S. issue but a global issue as well. According to the World Health Organization, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year worldwide from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.[20] And areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries and consisting primarily of people of color – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.

For citations please see the Environmental Justice snapshot.