Environmental Justice: Beginnings Through Today (Part 1)

An examination of the disproportionate impact of industrial pollution on racial minority and low-income populations and EPA's attempt to deal with the problem

In the 2004 election year, the environment has taken a back seat to other more publicized issues. According to the presidential candidates, their campaigns, and much of the American population, issues such as Iraq and the War Against Terror, tax relief, and healthcare are much more important. For example, the only time the environment was mentioned over three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate was during the second presidential debate in which it was only briefly addressed.(1) Furthermore, specific issues such as environmental justice remain overlooked and without enforcement from the many levels of bureaucracy.

Early Catalysts for Environmental Justice

One of the major incidences leading to the environmental justice movement occurred in 1982 with protests in Warren County, N.C., a predominantly black community. Protests sparked upon learning that the community was "selected as the location of a landfill for soil contaminated with highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)."(2) By the late-1980s, the movement was underway with the publication entitled Dumping in Dixie. In this work, the author concluded that "waste facilities were heavily concentrated in minority communities." Other conclusions found that "African Americans bore a higher risk of exposure to contaminants in these facilities and often played no role in the decisions to site the waste facilities in their communities." The research was based on five areas, which included west Dallas; Institute, W.V.; Alsen, La.; Emelle, Ala.; and Northwood Manor in Houston.(3)

Other studies from the 1980s to the present concluded that "minorities often cannot escape polluted communities, in part because of federal housing policies, institutional, and individual discrimination in housing markets, federal funding of freeway projects which cut through and disrupt stable minority neighborhoods, and limited incomes."(4)

Environmental Justice and EPA
EPA defines environmental justice as the following: "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. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including a racial, ethnic, or a socioeconomic group, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies. Meaningful involvement means that: (1) potentially affected community residents have an appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions about a proposed activity that will affect their environment and/or health; (2) the public's contribution can influence the regulatory agency's decision; (3) the concerns of all participants involved will be considered in the decision making process; and (4) the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected."(5)

Pressing need for addressing environmental justice came about in early 1990, when the Congressional Black Caucus "met with EPA officials to discuss their findings that EPA was unfairly applying its enforcement inspections and that environmental risk was higher in racial minority and low-income populations."(6)

In response, EPA created the Environmental Equity Workgroup in July 1990. By June 1992, the Workgroup published a two-volume report that supported the claim titled, "Reducing Risk in All Communities." The report also presented recommendations to address the problem initiated by the Congressional Black Caucus. One recommendation resulted in the creation of the Office of Environmental Equity, which was established November 6, 1992 (the name changed to the Office of Environmental Justice in 1994). Then, in 1993, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) was established under a charter to "provide independent advice, consultation, and recommendations to the administrator of EPA on matters related to environmental justice." The council became the first of its kind to unite individuals from the "community, academia, industry, environmental, indigenous, and state/local/tribal government groups" in order to define and propose solutions to environmental justice problems.(7)

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 into law, which had the intent of focusing "federal attention on the environmental and human health conditions of minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities." The order intended to "promote nondiscrimination in federal programs substantially affecting human health and the environment, and to provide minority and low-income communities access to public information on, and an opportunity for public participation in, matters relating to human health or the environment."(8)

Executive Order 12898 established the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (IWG). At the time, IWG was comprised of 11 federal agencies and several White House offices, under EPA authority, working to integrate environmental justice into their own programs. The IWG has three task forces: Health Disparities, Revitalization Demonstration Projects, and Native American.(9)

In May, 2000, the IWG released the Integrated Federal Interagency Environmental Justice Action Agenda, which identified 15 programs to insure the "targeting of coordinated federal initiatives and resources to help environmentally and economically distressed communities." The agenda set a goal to improve "the quality of life in 15 minority and low-income areas that suffer disproportionate environmental impact."(10) In order to implement environmental justice programs, EPA has required "educating its officials to recognize that certain populations who are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution are excluded from the decision and policy making process."(11) Environmental justice programs also include: "securing the commitment of senior management; environmental justice guidance for all staff; environmental justice training within the agency; a cross-media team approach; coordination with states, Indian tribes, industry, and all stakeholders; devotion of resources to program implementation, systematic review and integration of environmental justice priorities into activities, establishment of pilot projects; and development of measurement tools for accountability."(12)

Finally, the EPA provides an internship program to teach students and individuals about environmental justice and offers Community Small Grants "to help communities, grassroots organizations, and other non-governmental organizations become knowledgeable about environmental justice." Since the Community Small Grants Program was established in 1994, "more than 900 grants of up to $20,000 each have been awarded to community organizations."(13)

According to EPA, some environmental issues that plague lower-income urban areas are lead, waste sites, air pollution, pesticides, and wastewater. For example, "there is a particularly high concentration of lead problems in low-income and culturally diverse populations, who live in the inner city where the public housing units were built before 1970." Also, landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste treatment facilities are likely to be located near these areas. Another example of lower-income populations being exposed to hazardous substances can be found in many U.S. agricultural operations: "approximately 90 percent of the 2 million hired farm workers in the United States are people of color, including Chicano, Puerto Ricans, Caribbean blacks, and African Americans. Through direct exposure to pesticides, farm workers and their families may face serious health risks. It has been estimated that as many as 313,000 farm workers in the U.S. may suffer from pesticide-related illnesses each year."(14)

Lastly, while EPA has in the past responded that charges of "environmental racism" are unfounded, a 1992 study identified a preference given to white communities by the federal government in cleaning up toxic waste sites. The study further documented that the timing and intensity of cleanups of abandoned and hazardous waste sites in minority communities was slower when compared to more economically advantaged areas.(15)

Even though the 2004 election year did not raise environmental issues as a priority, environmental justice is historically a concern. A review of the topic illustrates an on-going process that impacts many Americans, describing decades of inattention and injustice. Only recently has the subject been addressed as a matter of national policy through EPA. While it's clear that EPA has a role in environmental justice, the topic demands more attention. In the second article of this two-part series, we will examine how the two dominant American political parties address environmental justice. We will also study non-governmental organizations and their response to environmental justice. Finally, we will propose a policy recommendation in which federal, state, and local agencies can make environmental justice a priority in their policymaking.


  1. Commission on Presidential Debates, Debate Transcript: October 8, 2004. "The Second Presidential Debate," Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri Online,www.debates.org/pages/trans2004c.html
  2. Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer, Environmental Politics: Domestic and Global Dimensions (New York: St. Martin's P, 1994) 90.
  3. Daniel J. Fiorino, Making Environmental Policy (Los Angeles, California: U of California P, 1995) 218.
  4. Ibid.
  5. EPA, "Environmental Justice," Office of Compliance and Enforcement Justice Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/environmentaljustice/index.html
  6. EPA, "About Environmental Justice," Office of Compliance and Enforcement Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/about/ej.html
  7. EPA, "National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Overview," Office of Compliance and Enforcement/ Environmental Justice Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/environmentaljustice/nejac/overview.html
  8. EPA, "What is Executive Order 12898 "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations" Office of Compliance and Enforcement Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/faqs/ej/index.html#faq6
  9. EPA, "Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group," Office of Compliance and Enforcement/ Environmental Justice Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/environmentaljustice/interagency/index.html
  10. Ibid.
  11. EPA, "10. How are environmental justice strategies being implemented at EPA?" Office of Compliance and Enforcement Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/faqs/ej/index.html#faq10
  12. EPA, "15. How Do We Empower the Public?" Office of Compliance and Enforcement Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/faqs/ej/index.html#faq15
  13. Ibid.
  14. EPA, "20. What Are Some Examples of Environmental Problems?" Office of Compliance and Enforcement Web site, www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/faqs/ej/index.html#faq10
  15. Switzer 91.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Authors

Dr. Troy Stuckey is a research assistant professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he specializes in environmental science.

Jacqueline Fortin is a recent graduate of SMU with a major in public policy.

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