Environmental Justice: Beginnings Through Today (Part 2)

A continuing look at the disproportionate impact of industrial pollution on racial minority and low-income populations and EPA's attempt to deal with the problem

Ed. note: This is the second and concluding part of the article, "Environmental Justice: Beginnings Through Today (Part 1)" that appeared in Environmental Protection's June 2005 issue.

The environmental justice movement found its roots in the 1980s when studies were published describing environmental and public health injustices in minority communities. Impacted areas across the southern United States continued to surface throughout the decade. A 1990 meeting between the Congressional Black Caucus and officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) eventually led to the creation of environmental justice policy by the Agency. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council was established in 1993, and a year later President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which mandated that federal agencies focus on minority communities and work toward the environmental protection of all communities.1 While there has been some activity on the subject, environmental justice demands more attention. This article examines how the two dominant American political parties address environmental justice, and it studies non-governmental organizations and their response to environmental justice. Finally, the article proposes a policy by which federal, state, and local agencies can make environmental justice a priority in their policymaking.

Environmental Justice and the 2004 Election
In the 2004 presidential election race, the Democratic Party was the only one of the two main parties to specifically address the issue of environmental justice. Under the goal of obtaining cleaner water and healthier communities, the party vowed to work with communities to reduce water pollution from factories and large corporate farms. Specifically, the party stated they would "bring environmental justice to low-income, rural, and minority communities using federal funds and resources to improve public health and spur economic development by cleaning polluted sites."2 Though the GOP platform was more detailed, it never mentioned environmental justice. Rather, optimistic successes were described, including the fact that the Bush Administration fulfilled the promise to clean up more than 1,000 abandoned and polluted industrial sites known as Brownfields. Moreover, the Party generalized environmental achievements that empowered states and promoted economic growth. Specifically, a goal for creating jobs in an effort to "revitalize urban neighborhoods, both aesthetically and economically" was presented under the sub-heading "Revitalizing Urban Communities." 3

The only time the environment was addressed during either the presidential or vice presidential debates was during the second presidential debate, which was held at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 8, 2004. ABC Anchor Charles Gibson moderated the debate. The section of the debate covering the environment was relatively brief, with the main topics addressed being that of President George W. Bush's environmental policy record and Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) response, as well as talk, both in support and opposition, of the Kyoto Protocol. President Bush did, however, mention his goal of continuing to refurbish Brownfields in inner cities, and Sen. Kerry responded to his record and goals by saying: "When it comes to the issue of the environment, this is one of the worst administrations in modern history." 4

Environmental Justice and Non-governmental Organizations
Environmental interest groups have made large efforts to advocate environmental justice. These include the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Sierra Club, founded in 1893 by John Muir, is one of America's oldest and most influential environmental organizations. They say: "To achieve our mission of environmental protection and a sustainable future for the planet, we must attain social justice and human rights at home and around the globe." In order to obtain environmental justice, in 2001, the Sierra Club developed several principles: the right to a clean and healthful environment for all people, including the right to democracy; the right to participate; the right to equal protection; the right to know; the right to sustainable environmental benefits; the right to equity; the rights of native peoples; supporting an end to pollution; and supporting the precautionary principle. 5 The precautionary principle is defined as:

When an activity potentially threatens human health or the environment, the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof as to the harmlessness of the activity. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. 6

In regards to President Bush's record on environmental justice, the Sierra Club said that the 1994 executive order signed by President Clinton has not been enforced by the Bush Administration, nor has it been practiced by EPA. Specifically, the Sierra Club cited a March 1, 2004, report by the Inspector General's Office. The Sierra Club concluded that EPA does not implement environmental justice into its daily operations or into its core mission. The Sierra Club quoted the Inspector General's Office in that EPA "has made the decision not to identify the intended beneficiaries of the executive order, thus making it problematic to carry out the intent of the order?.(the agency is without) a clear vision, comprehensive strategic plan, and has not established values, goals, expectations, and performance measurements." 7

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is also a strong environmental organization, with one million supporters and the mission "to protect the planet's wildlife and wild places and to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all living things." 8 According to NRDC, they have built a strong record of defending the environment and public health for more than 31 years. Often, groups will approach NRDC to initiate teamwork for addressing environmental justice issues through litigation, general advocacy, and scientific research. Over the years, the group has worked to create urban parks, protect farm worker families, preserve historic neighborhoods, rid communities of toxins, and test children for lead poisoning. 9

Web Resources
According to Scorecard (www.scorecard.org/community/ej-index.tcl), a popular Internet resource to find information about pollution problems in communities across the nation, 10 there are hundreds of counties nationwide where a variety of demographic groups experience environmental burdens greater than the average population. The site ranks demographic groups in terms of environmental burdens relating to cancer risks from hazardous air pollutants, releases of toxic chemicals, superfund sites, and facilities emitting smog and criteria air pollutants. The specific demographic groups include children below poverty, renters, working-class people, families below poverty, people of color, non-high-school graduates, and low-income families. As an example, Galveston County, Texas, is found to have unequal burdens in all categories for the following groups: children below poverty, working class people, families below poverty, people of color, non-high school graduates, and low-income families.11 While this information is based on data from the 1990 Census, current figures show little change for some counties. For example, for Galveston County in 2003, the number of families below poverty level was 14.5 percent, with a lower figure of 10.6 percent and a higher figure of 18.5 percent. 12 The 1990 Census data showed that this percentage was about 13 percent, which means the numbers have stayed roughly the same (at least for this category). 13 Scorecard is in the process of updating their information according to 2000 Census data. 14 Uniquely, Scorecard is one of the first widely available resources to present data on environmental justice burdens in the United States.

Perceptions about Attitudes
In Beierley and Cayford's Democracy in Practice: Public Participation in Environmental Decisions, they note that those who are empowered to make and implement environmental policy are not eager to accept public participation. More commonly, officials view active citizens and organized groups as adversaries who impede sound decisions. Beierley and Cayford continue by describing the "unenthusiastic tolerance" of government officials as degenerating into "mere public relations, whereby decision makers attempt to sell their favored outcome to an uninformed public." The authors argue that society would be better served to reverse the model and instead of "seeing policy decisions as fundamentally technical, with some need for public input, we should see many more decisions as fundamentally public with the need for some technical input." 15

Policy Recommendation
There seems to be no sure way to prove that EPA and the current administration is adequately addressing the issue of environmental justice, despite the efforts taken a decade ago and the more recent smaller steps. Therefore, we propose the extension of EPA oversight through the creation of the Environmental Justice Act (EJA). The EJA would provide federal guidance to specifically address issues of environmental justice. The first component of the EJA would require that environmental justice studies be conducted and made publicly available by EPA's Office of Research and Development. Specifically, the law would mandate EPA scientists to work with the Census Bureau to determine which regions and areas are the most negatively impacted by environmental burdens. The EJA will require EPA to present and make this information available on EPA's public Web site. The Scorecard public Web site is an example of how useful this information could be. A presentation of government-supported data would be of benefit to federal knowledge and also act as a check on the state's role, as will be explained in the next component. The second component of the EJA includes EPA's requirement that the states include environmental justice in the creation of their state implementation plans or SIPs. For the purpose of the EJA, an SIP includes federally required state plans under the Clean Air Act, waste management plans under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, TMDLs (also known as Total Maximum Daily Loads) under the Clean Water Act, and any other type of federal/state work plan seeking to achieve environmental results under any law administered by EPA. State governments would use EPA's environmental burdens database and consult with local governments to design specific SIPs. Also, public participation and public comment on the SIP proposals and guidelines would play a large role in seeing that principles of justice are adhered to and practiced. The balance of the SIP, or any currently required provisions for any SIP, would remain the same. The only difference would be that EPA would oversee that the environmental justice component is addressed. EPA would monitor and evaluate the implementation of this new practice by requiring the states to submit an annual report on the status of the most negatively impacted areas in the regions in terms of environmental burdens, including a section on possible causes and steps for alleviating the burdens. The states would be required to ensure that the steps were followed, as well as develop a timeline for when the final solution would be achieved (similar to rate-of-progress requirements under federal environmental law). Finally, the state and local governments would be required to allow public access to all known environmental burdens. EPA would enforce the EJA by sanctioning or withholding federal funding for deficiencies, such as failure to address environmental justice in the SIP, failure to submit annual reports or failure to comply with the state's proposed timeline for alleviating an area of designated environmental burdens. Furthermore, if a state did not propose a reasonable timeline with reasonable steps for alleviation, a federal implementation plan may be instated. However, this would be determined at the time of initial SIP review or after SIP progress is deemed insignificant by EPA.

Environmental justice is an issue that impacts many citizens in American society and should thus be of great concern to the government and public alike. Passing a law, such as the Environmental Justice Act, which would allow EPA to oversee environmental justice, would likely enhance efforts to remedy environmental justice issues. The Environmental Justice Act would also serve as a "right to know" law, as it would increase the role and interest of EPA and open up the information for both private and public awareness. It is also in accordance with EPA's own definition of meaningful involvement. Simply having a decade-old executive order acknowledging the issue does not do much to achieve a solution. A new law is simply the next logical step in building on an existing framework. The EJA will manifest a new reality by demonstrating that environmental justice can be "achieved when everyone, regardless of race, culture, or income, enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work."16


  1. Stuckey and Fortin. "Environmental Justice," Environmental Protection. 2005
  2. Democratic National Convention Committee, Strong at Home, Respected in the World (2004 Democratic National Convention: Washington, DC, July 27, 2004) 35-36. Online: http://a9.g.akamai.net/7/9/8082/v2002/www.democrats.org/pdfs/2004platform.pdf
  3. Republican National Committee, 2004 Republican Party Platform: A Safer World and a More Hopeful America, (2004 Republican National Convention: New York, New York, August 26, 2004) 68-71. Online: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/Sections/News/Politics/Conventions/RNC-2004platform.pdf.
  4. 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.
  5. Sierra Club, Sierra Club Conservation Policies "Environmental Justice Principles" (Sierra Club: San Francisco and Washington, DC, February 17, 2001) Online: www.sierraclub.org/policy/conservation/justice.asp.
  6. Sierra Club, Sierra Club Conservation Policies "Environmental Justice Principles" (Sierra Club: San Francisco and Washington, DC, February 17, 2001) Online: www.sierraclub.org/policy/conservation/justice.asp.
  7. Sierra Club, Politics and Elections: W Watch "EPA Not Fully Implementing Executive Order on Environmental Justice" (Sierra Club: San Francisco and Washington, DC, March 1, 2004) Online: www.sierraclub.org/wwatch/human_rights/index.asp.
  8. Natural Resources Defense Council, "About Us" (New York, New York) Online: www.nrdc.org/about/.
  9. Natural Resources Defense Council, "Environmental Justice: Defending People's Right to a Healthy Environment" (New York, New York) Online: www.nrdc.org/cities/justice/pdfs/justice_eng.pdf.
  10. Environmental Defense, "About Scorecard" (New York, New York) Online: www.scorecard.org/about/about.tcl.
  11. Environmental Defense, "Locator for Environmental Burdens" Online: www.scorecard.org/community/ej-index.tcl.
  12. U.S. Census Bureau, "Ranking Tables 2003: Percent of People Below Poverty in the Past Twelve Months" Online: www.census.gov/acs/www/Products/Ranking/2003/R01T050.htm.
  13. Environmental Defense, "Demographic Profile: Galveston County Compared with State of Texas," (New York, New York) Online: www.scorecard.org/community/ej-report.tcl?fips_county_code=48167#demographics.
  14. Environmental Defense, "Important Note?Temporary Discrepancy," (New York, New York) Online: www.scorecard.org/env-releases/def/ej_burdens.html.
  15. Thomas C. Beierle and Jerry Cayford, Democracy in Practice: Public Participation in Environmental Decisions (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2002) 75.
  16. US EPA, "Environmental Justice," Office of Compliance and Enforcement/ Environmental Justice Web site: (www.epa.gov/compliance/environmentaljustice/index.html).

On June 22, 2005, EPA's Office of Environmental Justice made an announcement that it had submitted a draft "Environmental Justice Strategic Plan Outline" and "Framework for Integrating Environmental Justice" for public comment. The announcement appeared in the Federal Register. The plan was immediately criticized by environmental advocacy groups because it eliminates race as a leading factor in identifying groups that may be especially vulnerable to environmental and health hazards. The plan is available online at: www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/reports/ej.html. The official comment period expired on July 15, 2005, but comments relating to the proposed plan and framework can still be sent to
Mr. Barry E. Hill
Office of Environmental Justice - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Mail Code 2201A, Ariel Ross South Building Room 2226
Washington, D.C. 20460-0001
hill.barry@epa.gov (Subject line: EJ Strategic Plan Comments)

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 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.