What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental justice is the idea that everyone, regardless of race, ethnic background, gender or economic status, has an equal right to environmental protection. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as the "fair treatment for people of all races, cultures, and incomes, regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations, and policies." The environmental justice movement works to empower minority and low-income communities so that they can take an active role in environmental policymaking, and participate in sustainable development programs.
A Brief History of the Environmental Justice Movement
Although dating back somewhat farther, the environmental justice movement gained modern focus in the late 1960s, through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement. Through both a celebrated struggle to stop a toxic North Carolina landfill and the evolution of environmentalism, the early 1980s saw heightened concern that minority and low-income communities disproportionately suffered the adverse health and economic effects of environmental hazards. Within 10 years, several highly influential books and analyses had been published including Robert Bullard's Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality and Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, a sweeping study by the UCC Commission for Racial Justice. EPA staff, the Michigan Coalition, the Congressional Black Caucus and other public representatives created a national forum for voicing concerns that minority communities continued to lack representation when important environmental decisions were made. In response, EPA in 1990 formed the Environmental Equity Workgroup to assess the evidence of environmental injustice. The workgroup, consisting of staff from all EPA offices and regions, confirmed the existence of major environmental justice issues. Among its recommendations was that environmental equity be given a high priority by the agency.
Highlights of the Environmental Justice Movement
- 1992: EPA created the Office of Environmental Justice, at the recommendation of the Environmental Equity Workgroup. The Office is responsible for the integration of environmental justice into EPA's policies, programs and activities.
- 1993: EPA Administrator Carol Browner made environmental justice one of the seven principles underlying the agency's strategic plan. As a result, environmental justice became one of EPA's top priorities.
- 1993: The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council was chartered as an independent advisory group to EPA on all matters relevant to environmental justice.
- 1994: President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12,898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations." The Executive Order directs all federal agencies that deal with public health and the environment to develop strategies to identify and address the inequitable effects of their programs, policies and activities. Significantly, E.O. 12,898 extends to class as well as race.
Information on this page was derived from web pages of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance: "Environmental Justice F.A.Q." http://es.epa.gov/oeca/main/ej/faq.html; and "Welcome to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council" http://es.epa.gov/oeca/oej/nejac/mainpage.html.