• In Flint, Michigan, the tap water for the predominately minority, low-income population is contaminated with lead. While local and state officials knew about the problem for months, they did nothing. The lasting effects of the exposure to lead on the children of Flint are still uncertain, but they are likely to include long-term health and learning problems.
  • In Los Angeles, a lawsuit filed in November claims that the city has for decades pursued a pattern of permitting oil drilling operations in poor minority communities without sufficient environmental or health impact assessments.
  • In East St. Louis, even as air pollution is gradually decreasing, rates of asthma among children are climbing, now affecting one in six children who live there.  In the South Bronx, the rate of asthma is one in every four children.

Each of these examples reveals the impact that pollution can have on nearby communities. These communities, by virtue of their location, shoulder a profoundly unfair share of the environmental burden that accompanies modern industrial life. The fact that these communities are almost exclusively minority and low income is at the heart of environmental justice.

What is Environmental Justice?

Minority communities, which are often poor, have for many decades been routinely subjected to the negative environmental impacts of facilities located nearby.  Environmental justice is the response to unfairness. Van Jones, civil rights and environmental activist and former advisor to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has defined environmental justice as “[T]he movement to ensure that no community suffers disproportionate environmental burdens or goes without enjoying fair environmental benefits.”

This means that no population or community should be forced to endure a disproportionate burden of the negative environmental impacts of modern industrial life because of political or economic disempowerment. Environmental justice is part of the ongoing struggle to maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who have traditionally had no choice but to live close to the sources of pollution.

Born at the intersection of the civil rights and environmental movements

The movement now recognized as “environmental justice” arose out of the civil rights movement. The latter gradually included connected concerns about the human health effects of pollution, until the 1990 publication of Robert Bullard’s work Dumping in Dixie. Bullard catapulted environmental justice into a movement in its own right when he mapped the locations of all the municipal solid-waste and toxic waste disposal facilities in Houston, Texas. Bullard’s analysis led to the inescapable conclusion that these entities almost always ended up in poor, powerless, minority communities.

To address the issue, in February 1994, President Clinton signed an Executive Order requiring all federal agencies to examine the environmental and human health impacts of their actions on minority and low income communities. Agencies were directed to create strategy for addressing environmental justice.

Ever since then, February has been “Environmental Justice Month.”

Federal agencies may have a track record of assessing the impacts of their actions and decision on minority communities, but what about the private sector? Many argue that environmental justice is no longer a concern, since industrial operations, particularly those located in and near cities, have been declining over the past decades (largely off-shored to be borne by communities in China. With facilities closing, fewer communities are suffering the direct effects of proximity to their operation.

But there are other aspects of environmental justice that have not gone away; or even declined. On the contrary, new forms of unjust, unfair burdens being hoisted onto low-income, minority communities continue and grow.

Change isn’t happening fast enough

Even in 2015, the situation remains stubbornly resistant to change. Communities of predominately African-Americans are still more likely than their white counterparts to live near environmental hazards like power plants. Residents are still exposed to hazardous air pollution, including higher levels of nitrogen oxide, ozone, particulate matter, and carbon dioxide.

According to the American Lung Association, 71% of African Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards. Further, 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.

Take the example of the tragedy of the water of Flint. Many are asking why it took so long for state officials to acknowledge and address the crisis. In addressing a group of African-American voters in Harlem, Hillary Clinton squarely framed the issue as one of environmental racism: “It's a horrifying story, but what makes it even worse is that it's not a coincidence that this was allowed to happen in a largely black, largely poor community. Just ask yourself: Would this have ever occurred in a wealthy white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not.”  Few politicians have dared to speak the truth so plainly. It’s all too familiar terrain: decades of neglect and indifference, leading to serious negative health and social consequences, gaining attention only when a public health crisis erupts.

A few hopeful signs

The Flint water crisis has led to environmental justice activists joining with the Black Lives Matter movement, combining their voices to address the institutional racism that lies at the heart of the environmental injustice inflicted on minority communities every day. As a combined force that is sophisticated in the use of social media, they have the potential to focus attention and resources on real solutions for long-neglected communities.

These days, when income and wealth disparity is at the top of the political agenda, the issues raised by environmental justice have new relevance, particularly where they intersect with social justice. Add to that the challenge of addressing the effects of climate change (which have been and will almost certainly continue to be felt far more deeply and painfully by powerless communities) and there is a potential for a convergence that manages to provide solutions across a wide spectrum.

For his part, Van Jones sees climate change solutions as an opportunity to address both environmental and social justice concerns. Clean power has the potential to bring economic and social benefits to the communities that have suffered most from environmental injustice. Referring to “Green the Ghetto,” the movement founded by South Bronx activist Majora Carter, Jones sees opportunity to accomplish several things at once: 

“The exciting thing is you can come up with a plan that accelerates putting solar panels up in poor neighborhoods, planting urban forests, delivering free bus passes, creating more mass transit. We could cut pollution and poverty at the same time.”

So as of 2016’s Environmental Justice Month, the opportunity is there just waiting for us to seize it.