And Justice for All?

"Depending on whom you ask, the existence of environmental racism -- or the lack of environmental justice -- is well documented, is unsupported by the evidence, or is not intended to be a factual assertion,"

Michael W. Steinburg, JD, "Making Sense of Environmental Justice"

The issue of environmental justice has long been a lightening rod for controversy. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of their race, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies (

Proponents of environmental justice first became active in the early 1980s when they began raising concerns about what they viewed as the negative impacts on the poor and minorities from the placement of waste disposal sites in their communities, as well from less protection under the general environmental laws due to the lack of a political voice. In response to environmental justice advocates' complaints, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) conducted a study in 1983 on racism and discrimination in the placement of hazardous waste facilities in EPA Region IV, which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The study showed that 75 percent of hazardous waste landfills were located in predominantly African-American communities, even though they only made up 20 percent of the region's population.

In 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ conducted a similar study and found that approximately three out of every five Hispanics and African Americans lived in areas with toxic waste sites, and that race was the most significant variable in determining the placement of toxic waste sites. In 1992, the National Law Journal published the report entitled "A Special Investigation: Unequal Protection: The Racial Divide in Environmental Law," which further bolstered evidence of environmental disparities based on race. The study showed that the penalties in environmental lawsuits for the prior seven years for statute violations were 46 percent higher in white communities than in minority communities.

As a result of these findings, the federal government began taking steps to deal with this issue. Established in 1994 by Executive Order 12,898, the federal Interagency Working Group (IWG) is made up of 12 federal agencies and chaired by EPA. It coordinates federal resources to help environmentally and economically distressed communities. Also dealing with this issue is the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), which is a federal advisory committee that provides independent advice and recommendations to the EPA Administrator on matters related to environmental justice.

John Peter Suarez, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, stated earlier this year that the EPA enforcement office is looking at ways to better incorporate environmental justice into its case selection process. Suarez stated the agency is working on a policy that would encourage companies to do supplemental environmental projects (SEPs), which are environmentally beneficial projects that companies can agree to as part of settlement cases with EPA and/or the U.S. Department of Justice. The projects are related to the violation or violations at the core of the enforcement action and are often used to offset some of the penalty imposed by EPA. Suarez said that low-income, minority and tribal communities could particularly benefit from SEPs.

On the other hand, some critics of the environmental justice movement contend that it is doing serious damage to low-income minority communities. Steinberg, an environmental attorney whose above-referenced article was published by the National Legal Center for the Public Interest in 1999, points out that if industries relocate away from low-income neighborhoods to avoid environmental justice programs designed to internalize the externalities that facilities impose on communities, then jobs and other benefits provided by such companies will be lost. He contends that as economic development in a community slows, higher prices for goods and services will be the end result, further hurting the poor. In the past, communities were permitted to weigh for themselves the costs and benefits of accepting such nuisances as strip malls, prisons, landfills and power plants. According to Steinberg, by short-circuiting that process and creating an atmosphere where the process cannot even begin because economic development projects go unproposed, the environmental justice movement may do more harm than good for those they claim a desire to help.

Hopefully, steps can be taken to promote financial opportunities in low-income minority neighborhoods without increasing the residents' risk of exposure to toxic pollutants that sometimes accompany industrial facilities. One encouraging sign is that both environmental justice advocates and the business community strongly favor redeveloping brownfields, which EPA defines as "abandoned, idled or under-used industrial or commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination." By cleaning up contaminated sites that are often located in disadvantaged neighborhoods and putting them back to productive use, we can cut pollution without cutting economic development.

This editorial originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 14, No. 9.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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