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Environmental Justice 101

History, principles, terms, and what's happening at the federal level.

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What is EJ?

U.S. EPA defines Environmental Justice as:

“…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.”

EPA states that fair treatment means no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.

EPA provides that meaningful involvement means:

  • People have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health;
  • The public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision;
  • Community concerns will be considered in the decision-making process; and
  • Decision makers will seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.

And EPA notes that environmental justice will be achieved when everyone enjoys: (1) the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and (2) equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

Dr. Robert Bullard states that “environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulation.”

History of the Environmental Justice Movement

Like most movements for justice, the Environmental Justice movement does not have a single starting point or timeline. Its development involved the critical thinking, organizing, and protesting of many groups and individuals over time. The summary and timeline below include some of the key moments in the movement.

The first lawsuit directly addressing environmental justice was filed in 1968 on behalf of the Northeast Community Action Group in Houston, Texas by Linda McKeever Bullard. It alleged environmental discrimination in violation of civil rights laws in the siting of waste facilities. While the suit was not successful, it led to Dr. Robert Bullard’s ground-breaking 1982 study Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community, which documented the fact that Houston’s city owned landfills, 80% of municipal trash incinerators, and 75% of privately owned dumps were in majority Black neighborhoods, despite the fact that Black persons made up only 25% of Houston’s population.

A similar study conducted at the request of Congress by the U.S. General Accounting Office – Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities – mirrored Bullard’s study in finding that Black persons made up the majority of the population in communities surrounding three quarters of the hazardous waste landfills in eight southeastern states. The study also concluded that at least 26% of the population surrounding these landfills had incomes below the poverty level.

The environmental justice movement is often referred to as the convergence of the civil rights movement and environmentalism. An early and galvanizing example of the merging of environmental concerns with the civil disobedience practiced by the civil right movement involved the 1982 protests and mass arrests in Warren County, North Carolina over the state’s plan to dump PCB contaminated waste in a landfill in Afton, a predominantly Black community. Protestors sat in the road to block the trucks carrying the PCB waste and over 500 were arrested.

While they did not stop the dumping of PCB contaminated waste in Afton, the Warren County protests prompted a number of studies, including Toxic Waste and Race, a report released in 1987 by the United Church of Christ, which found that three out of five persons who were African American or Hispanic lived in a community that included a toxic waste site. It also found that while income played a role in the location of hazardous waste sites, race was the most significant factor among the variables analyzed in the siting of such facilities. A follow up report in 2007, found that the concentration of people of color around hazardous waste facilities had increased.

In 1990, the Indigenous Environmental Network was formed to, among other things, build the capacity of indigenous communities to protect their land, resources, health, and sacred sites.

In 1991, the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington D.C. Over 1,000 participants worked together to create The Principles of Environmental Justice which remains an important guiding document for the environmental justice movement.

Principles of Environmental Justice

The Principles of Environmental Justice from the First People of Color’s Environmental Leadership Summit, lays out foundational concepts for the EJ movement.  These include the recognition that EJ:

  • demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice and free from discrimination or bias
  • affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination and the right to participation in environmental decision-making and enforcement
  • demands that producers of waste be held strictly accountable for detoxification and containment at the point of production
  • recognizes the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.

At a 1996 meeting in Jemez, New Mexico, sponsored by the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, attendees developed the Jemez Principles of Democratic Organizing.  These principles include: being inclusive, emphasizing bottom-up organizing, letting people speak for themselves, working together in solidarity and mutuality, building just relationships within the EJ community, and committing to self-transformation.

EJ at the Federal Level

In 1990 the Environmental Protection Agency created an Environmental Equity Workgroup and in 1993 created the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC).  The NEJAC provides advice to the EPA Administrator on issues related to environmental justice.  NEJAC is made up of 25 members and one designated federal official.  Members include representatives of   community-based groups; business and industry; academic and educational institutions; state and local governments; tribal governments and indigenous organizations; and non-governmental and environmental groups. The Council also has seven subcommittees, including:  air and water, indigenous peoples, health and research, and waste/facility siting.

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. The Order requires federal agencies to take actions, including:

  • identifying and addressing the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations,
  • developing a strategy for implementing environmental justice,
  • promoting nondiscrimination in federal programs that affect human health and the environment, and
  •  providing minority and low-income communities access to public information and public participation.

The Order also established an Interagency Working Group (IWG) on environmental justice, which is chaired by the EPA Administrator and is composed of the heads of 11 departments or agencies and several White House offices.

Over the next 25 years, the U.S. EPA and other federal agencies released a series of guidance documents related to environmental justice including the following:

  • Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Justice Guidance Under the National Environmental Policy Act (1997)
  • EPA Statutory and Regulatory Authorities Under Which Environmental Justice Issues May Be Addressed in Permitting (2000)
  • EPA Framework for Cumulative Risk Assessment (2003)
  • EPA Toolkit for Assessing Potential Allegations of Environmental Injustice (2004)
  • EPA Interim Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of An Action (2010)
  • EPA Office of General Counsel, EJ Legal Tools (2011)
  • Actions that EPA Regional Offices Are Taking to Promote Meaningful Engagement in the Permitting Process in Overburdened Communities (2013)
  • Promising Practices for Permit Applicants Seeking EPA-Issued Permits:  Ways to Engage Neighboring Communities (2013)
  • EPA Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples (2014)
  • Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of a Regulatory Action (2015)
  • Promising Practices for EJ Methodologies in NEPA Reviews (2016)
  • Technical Guidance for Assessing Environmental Justice in Regulatory Analysis (2016)

In 2015,  EPA introduced its EJSCREEN mapping tool to the public. EJSCREEN can be used to map demographic and pollution data, and screening level indicators related to air pollution, lead paint, traffic, superfund sites, hazardous waste, wastewater, underground storage tanks and risk management plan facilities.

More recently,  the Biden Administration has adopted a series of Executive Orders that address environmental justice, including the following:

As part of implementing EO 14008, The Administration adopted its Justice40 Initiative, which provides that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments will flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. Investments subject to Justice40 include those related to climate change, clean  energy, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure.

Also pursuant to EO 14008, the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) was established to advise the Chair of the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the newly established White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC).  Many of the 25 current members of the WHEJAC are community members with lived experience as well as expertise in the areas of environmental justice, climate change, disaster preparedness, and/or racial inequity.

EPA has recently released additional guidance regarding environmental justice, including the following:

  • Strengthening Enforcement in Communities with Environmental Justice Concerns (2021)
  • Strengthening Environmental Justice Through Criminal Enforcement (2021)
  • FAQs:  EPA Activities to Promote Environmental Justice in the Permit Application Process (2022)

On April 21, 2023, the Biden Administration issued Executive Order 14096 entitled Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All. EO 14096 functions as an update to EO 12898, defining “environmental justice” and naming, in detail, the range of communities in the United States with environmental justice concerns, including:

  • communities in urban and rural areas and areas within the boundaries of Tribal Nations and United States Territories.
  • communities with a “significant proportion of people who have low incomes or are otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”
  • communities with a significant proportion of people of color, including individuals who are Black, Latino, Indigenous and Native American, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander.
  • geographically dispersed and mobile populations, such as migrant farmworkers.

The EO clarifies agencies’ obligation to “identify, analyze, and address disproportionate and adverse human health and environmental effects (including risks) and hazards of Federal activities” and strengthens mandates on the development and integration of disproportionate and cumulative impact research and analysis into agency decisionmaking.

For up-to-date information on implementation of recent federal executive orders on environmental justice, consult the Harvard Environment & Energy Law Program Federal Environmental Justice Tracker.

EJ and Title VI

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance, including state and local environmental agencies, from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin. EPA’s regulations implementing Title VI prohibit entities that are funded by the EPA, including state and local environmental agencies, from taking actions that are intentionally discriminatory or that have a discriminatory effect. 40 CFR Part 7. Other federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) (49 CFR Part 21) and U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (24 CFR Part 1), have similar regulations prohibiting discrimination by funding recipients.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is responsible for ensuring that Title VI is applied consistently across federal agencies and has its own regulations addressing Title VI at 28 CFR 42.101 et. seq. and 28 CFR 42.401 et. seq. DOJ has published a comprehensive legal manual on Title VI.

The public can file a Title VI complaint with the entity accused of discrimination or with the federal agency that funds the entity accused of discrimination.  Both DOT and HUD have responded to complaints with findings that recipients of their financial assistance have discriminated. EPA has made very few findings of discrimination in response to civil rights complaints and environmental justice communities have historically faced barriers in seeking redress under Title VI, as documented by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. EPA is currently responding to recommendations from the agency’s Office of Inspector General about improved oversight over the civil rights obligations of its funding recipients.

EPA has recently established an Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights to support “the agency’s mission by providing leadership on EPA’s environmental justice and external civil rights priorities.” EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance, which is housed within this new office, provides information about filing complaints and governing laws and policies, as well as a searchable database of complaints received by the agency.