Who gains and who loses?

Sabrina Torres

What is Environmental Justice?   

 Have you ever passed through a higher income neighborhood and recognized the space, the tidiness and the greenery? Now compare that to a time you passed by a lower income neighborhood. There are noticeably major differences between these neighborhoods that many people feel are due to income inequalities. Others may go one step beyond and state the socioeconomic factors behind this. However, a major bar of oppression is consistently left out of this kind of discussion. There is an injustice towards those who live in specific lower income or ‘minority’ communities who face negative environmental effects by surrounding enterprises.

     Environmental Justice is 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 (Harner & Kee). In this article I will discuss how Environmental Justice is a principle that environmental costs and amenities ought to be equitably distributed within society.

    The first question to ask is: Who are the stakeholders? While everyone experiences the environment and the dangers and risks released by destructive industries, it is those who live, work and play in the most polluted environments that face the most injustice. These people are commonly people of color and the poor. They are frequently targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts such as landfills, industrial plants and truck depots. This targeting, which is commonly referred to as “environmental racism,” is carried out by corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies, local planning and zoning boards that learned how much easier it was to site facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than white, middle-to-upper communities (Skelton & Miller). They learned that poor communities and communities of color usually lacked access to information about negative environmental externalities as well as their lack of connections to decision makers that would be able to protect their interests.  

      The historically recorded start of the Environmental Justice movement sprang from a protest in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982. The state of North Carolina was deciding where to place a waste landfill for PCB-contaminated soil from thousands of illegally dumped oil along the roadways. After creating a list of potential locations, they settled upon a small African-American community where a quarter of the population was living in poverty (Energy.gov). Although the protest was unsuccessful in preventing the siting of this disposal site, the media coverage and outreach Warren County gained to other poor minority communities going through similar experiences initiated the national start to the Environmental Justice movement.

PCB protest

     This learning experience established necessary knowledge for communities to address being targeted by industry for activities that threaten the environment as well as the high rates of illness associated with these sites. As this movement spread throughout the country, in 1994, “President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” The executive order directed the federal government to make environmental justice a part of the federal decision-making process that focused on the health and environmental conditions in minority, tribal and low-income communities (Newkirk). Policy and economics were beginning to become recognized by higher authority in regards to environmental justice concerns.


   What can policies do to help?

Since the early grassroots movements, many environmental justice organizations have formed and become strong forces for environmental protection and social change in their communities. Some examples of these organizations include West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT), Earthjustice, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), etc. These organizations defend the rights of marginalized communities, typically in courts, empowering these communities by offering a platform of voice as well as useful resources, and lastly influencing public policy by working with higher level, state and federal, government to ensure appropriate laws exist to protect people’s civil rights.


    Policies for Environmental Justice issues must understand and meet the needs of underserved communities through decisions and programs that reduce disparities while establishing places that are healthy and vibrant. It begins with the concept of equity, as opposed to the commonly used word: equality (EPA). Equitable development encourages environmental justice as it creates and carries out plans with public involvement to problem solve and make visible differences in communities that are commonly overburdened and under-resourced. This approach opposes gentrification which many people may deem as good thing because it contributes to job growth and higher property taxes. However, the “pros” of gentrification do not outweigh the health burdens and injustices lower income populations are forcibly burdened with (ACLU).  

   The failure to acknowledge these negative externalities is unsustainable. The disadvantage these communities continuously face caused by a plethora of pollutants they are not contributing to is unethical. Although Bill Clinton signed the environmental justice executive order in 1994 that stated “each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission,” it further reads that this order is “not intended to create any right enforceable at law or equity by a party against the United States,” thus meaning these environmental organizations will not be backed up by the government when a civil rights issue arises, which completely disregards the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reflection Piece:

  This is where it becomes the Environmental Protection Agency’s duty to commit to setting and reviewing standards, permitting facilities, and issuing licenses and regulations for businesses that are emitting these pollutants. These businesses causing harm do not aim to meet the needs of ethical standards. Instead, theses businesses display focus on efficiency as gaining the most profit from whatever resources and methods cost them the least amount whether it is ethical or not. This existing market is in direct correlation to environmental injustice (The Economist). It is time we reevaluate how we resolve environmental issues in the constraints of our current capitalistic economic model. Rather than adjusting to the current model, I suggest we build an alternative economic system that meets the needs of both humans and nature for a sustainable, inclusive present and future.


Works Cited

“About the ACLU.” American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, n.d. Web.

“Environmental Justice History.” Department of Energy. Energy.gov, n.d. Web.

“Equitable Development and Environmental Justice.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 11 Apr. 2017. Web.

Harner, John, Kee Warner, John Pierce, and Tom Huber. “Urban Environmental Justice Indices.” The Professional Geographer. Blackwell Publishing Inc., 05 Nov. 2004. Web.

II, Vann R. Newkirk. “Fighting Environmental Racism in North Carolina.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 10 July 2017. Web.

II, Vann R. Newkirk. “Fighting Environmental Racism in North Carolina.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 10 July 2017. Web.

“In Whose Backyard?” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 04 Dec. 2010. Web.

March 17, 2016 Renee Skelton Vernice Miller. “The Environmental Justice Movement.” NRDC. NRDC, 01 Nov. 2017. Web.


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