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Environmental Justice for All

Robert D. Bullard
Professor of Sociology
Director, Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University
©National Humanities Center

A growing body of evidence reveals that people of color and low-income persons have borne greater environmental and health risks than the larger society. Hardly a day passes without the media discovering a community of color fighting some type of environmental threat. This was not always the case. For years, residents of the nation’s ghettos, barrios, reservations, and rural “poverty pockets” watched helplessly as their communities became the dumping grounds for garbage, toxic waste, incinerators, smelters, sewage treatment plants, chemical industries, highways, and a host of other polluting facilities.

Defining Environmental Justice: Roots of a Movement

A new movement has taken root in the United States, and spread around the world, that defines environment as “everything”—where we live, work, play, worship, and go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. This relatively new national movement is called the environmental and economic justice movement. Three decades ago, the concepts of environmental justice had not registered on the radar screens of environmental, civil rights, or social justice groups. Nevertheless, one should not forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis in 1968 on an environmental and economic justice mission for the striking black garbage workers. The strikers were demanding equal pay and better work condition. Of course, Dr. King was assassinated before he could complete his mission.

What is environmental justice? Environmental justice is defined 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. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies. Simply put, environmental justice means everyone (not just the people who can “vote with their feet” and move away from threats or individuals who can afford lawyers, experts, and lobbyists to fight on their behalf) is entitled to equal protection and equal enforcement of our environmental, health, housing, land use, transportation, energy, and civil rights laws and regulations.

Another landmark garbage dispute took place in 1978 in Houston, Texas when African American homeowners began a bitter fight to keep a garbage dump—also known as a “sanitary landfill” (it is hard to find anything sanitary about a landfill where garbage is dumped) out of their suburban middle-income neighborhood. Residents formed the Northeast Community Action Group or NECAG. NECAG and their attorney, Linda McKeever Bullard, filed a class action lawsuit to block the landfill from being built. The 1979 lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., was the first of its kind to challenge the location of a waste facility under civil rights law.

From the early 1920s through 1978, over 80 percent of Houston’s household garbage landfills and incinerators were located in mostly black neighborhoods—even though blacks made up only 25 percent of the city’s population. These findings were first written up in a 1979 report in support of the Houston citizens’ lawsuit and published in Sociological Inquiry (1983). In the Bean v. Southwestern Waste case, the lawyer, plaintiffs, and expert witness were all African American. The case was argued in Houston, the only major city in the United States that does not have zoning. Houston is also the world headquarters of Browning Ferris, Inc. (BFI)—the company that proposed building and operating the Whispering Pines sanitary landfill. The judge and the lawyers for the waste company were all white. When the case went to trial in 1985 (not 1885), the judge repeatedly referred to the black plaintiffs and the residents of Houston’s black neighborhoods as “Niggras.” Anyone growing up in the South knows that “Niggra” is another way some southerners call black people the other “N” word.

The Bean v. Southwestern Waste lawsuit was filed three years before the environmental justice movement was catapulted into the national limelight in the rural and mostly African American Warren County, North Carolina. Oil laced with the highly toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) was illegally dumped along the roadways in fourteen North Carolina counties in 1978. The roadways were cleaned up in 1982. The state needed a disposal site for the PCB-tainted soil and Warren County for some reason won the dubious prize of hosting the dump.

The PCB-landfill decision became the shot heard around the world. In 1983, it became the catalyst for mass mobilization against environmental injustice. Over 500 protesters were arrested—including District of Columbia Delegate Walter Fauntroy (chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus), Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., (Commission for Racial Justice), and Reverend Joseph Lowery (Southern Christian Leadership Conference)—protesting “Hunt’s Dump” (named for then Governor James Hunt). This marked the first time any Americans had been jailed protesting the placement of a waste facility.

The protesters put “environmental racism” on the map. Environmental racism refers to environmental any policy, practice, or directive that negatively affects (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.Environmental racism is a form of environmental injustice. It is reinforced by government, legal, economic, political, and military institutions. Environmental racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting costs to people of color (see Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots, 1993 for case studies).

The demonstrators were unsuccessful in blocking the PCB landfill. Nevertheless, they brought national attention to the way African American and other communities of color have been treated. They also galvanized African American church leaders, civil rights organizers, and grassroots activists around environmental issues in communities of color. Decades later, the state of North Carolina was required to spend over $25 million to cleanup and detoxify the Warren County PCB landfill.

Foundations of Environmental Justice Research

The Warren County demonstrations prompted District of Columbia Delegate Fauntroy to request a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation of hazardous waste facility locations in EPA’s Region IV—eight states in the South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee). The 1983 GAO report, Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities, discovered that three of the four offsite hazardous waste landfills in the region were located in predominately African American communities. African Americans made up about twenty percent of the population in EPA’s Region IV.

The events in Warren County also led the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to publish its landmark 1987 Toxic Wastes and Race report. The widely-quoted study documented that three out of five African Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites; sixty percent of Africans (15 million) live in communities with one or more waste sites; and three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are located in predominately African American or Latino communities and account for 40 percent of the nation's total hazardous waste landfill capacity in 1987.

The publication of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality in 1990 (the 3rd edition was published in 2000) gave the nation a firsthand account of environmental justice struggles in rural, urban, and suburban African American communities in the South—a region where over one half of all blacks live. The book examined municipal landfill disputes in Houston, a lead smelter in West Dallas (Texas), a hazardous waste incinerator in Alsen (Louisiana), a hazardous waste landfill in Emelle (Alabama), and a chemical plant in Institute (West Virginia). African American community leaders shattered the myth that people of color are not concerned about or involved in environmental issues.

All across the southern United States and other regions of the nation, grassroots community resistance emerged in response to practices, policies, and conditions that residents judged to be unjust, unfair, and illegal. For many communities of color, the environmental protection apparatus was broken and in need of fixing. Similarly, federal and state environmental protection agencies were seen as managing, regulating, and distributing risks—instead of protecting public health and the environment in low income and people of color communities. A permit was defined as a “government-granted license to pollute.”

Building Nets that Work

The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington, DC, was probably the most important single event in the movement's history. The four-day Summit broadened the environmental justice movement beyond its early anti-toxics focus to include issues of public health, worker safety, land use, transportation, housing, resource allocation, and community empowerment. The meeting organized by and for people of color, demonstrated that it is possible to build a multi-racial grassroots movement around environmental and economic justice. The “Summit Highlights” are captured in a 120-minute video (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1995).

Well over 700 grassroots and national leaders attended the Summit. Delegates came from all fifty states including Alaska and Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Chile, Mexico, and as far away as Africa and the Marshall Islands. People attended the Summit to share their stories, redefine the environmental movement, and develop common plans for addressing environmental problems affecting people of color in the United States and around the world.

On October 27, 1991, Summit delegates adopted 17 “Principles of Environmental Justice.” These principles were developed as a guide for organizing, networking, and relating to government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Delegates left the Summit energized and committed to building a national movement. By June 1992, Spanish and Portuguese translations of the principles were being used and circulated by groups at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The publication of the People of Color Environmental Groups Directory (first published in 1992 and updated in 1994 and 2000) further illustrated that environmental justice groups are networking across North America. The directory profiles people of color environmental groups in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico. It also lists groups working on a range of issues--including, pollution prevention, clean production, military toxics, affordable housing, sustainable development, sustainable agriculture, food safety, transportation, air pollution, energy, global warming, land use reform, land rights and sovereignty, and worker safety, and childhood asthma, and lead poisoning.

Making Government Respond to People of Color

Getting government to respond to environmental justice problems in communities of color has not been easy. Government has been slow to ask the questions of who gets help and who does not, who can afford help and who can not, why some contaminated communities get studied while other get left off the research agenda, why industry poisons some communities and not others, why some toxic dumps get cleaned up while others are not, and why some populations are protected and other are not protected.

As a result of prodding from environmental justice leaders, activists, and a few academicians, some positive first steps were taken in the early 1990s. In 1990, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) held a “National Minority Health Conference” in Atlanta. The meeting focused primarily on environmental contamination in communities of color. In 1992, the agency co-sponsored with the EPA and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) the “Equity in Environmental Health: Research Issues and Needs Workshop” in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Papers from the workshop are published in a special issue of Toxicology and Industrial Health (September/October, v. 9, no. 5, 1993).

In 1992, after meeting with community leaders, academicians, and civil rights leaders, the U.S. EPA (under the leadership of William Reilly) established the Office of Environmental Equity (the name was changed to the Office of Environmental Justice under the Clinton Administration). The U.S. EPA produced one of the first comprehensive documents to examine the whole question of risk, environmental hazards, and their equity report, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities(1992).

EPA also established a 25-member National Environmental Justice Advisory Council or NEJAC (EPA critics jokingly called the council “knee jerk”) under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The NEJAC divided its environmental justice work into six subcommittees: Health and Research, Waste and Facility Siting, Enforcement, Public Participation and Accountability, Native American and Indigenous Issues, and International Issues. The NEJAC was comprised of stakeholders representing grassroots community groups, environmental groups, nongovernmental organizations, state, local, and tribal governments, academia, and industry.

In February, 1994, seven federal agencies, including the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Institute of occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Energy (DOE), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsored a national health symposium, “Health and Research Needs to Ensure Environmental Justice.” Some of the recommendations from the symposium included: conduct meaningful health research in support of people of color and low-income communities; promote disease prevention and pollution prevention strategies; promote interagency coordination to ensure environmental justice; provide effective outreach, education, and communications; and design legislative and legal remedies.

In response to growing public concern and mounting scientific evidence, President Clinton on February 11, 1994 (the second day of the national health symposium) issued Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” This Executive Order attempts to address environmental injustice within existing federal laws and regulations.

Executive Order 12898 reinforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal funds. The Order also focuses the spotlight back on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that set policy goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment. NEPA's goal is to ensure for all Americans a safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing environment.

The Executive Order calls for improved methods for measuring, reducing, and avoiding impacts, health effect from multiple and cumulative exposure, collection of data on low-income and minority populations who may be disproportionately at risk. The Order focuses on “subsistence” fishers and wildlife consumers. This is not a small point since not all Americans get their fish at the supermarket. Some Americans subsidize their budgets and their diets by fishing from rivers, streams, and lakes that happen to be polluted. The Order also encourages participation of the impacted populations in the various phases of assessing impacts.

Winning on the Ground and in the Courts

Environmental justice networks and grassroots community groups are making their voices heard loud and clear. Grassroots groups are also winning on the ground and in some of the courts. They are making a difference in the lives of people from West Harlem to East Los Angeles and from Northeast Houston to the Southside of Chicago. Grassroots groups won important victories in the 1990s. They defeated a 6,000-acre landfill, dubbed “Dances with Garbage” slated for the Rosebud Indian reservation in South Dakota. In 1996, after five years of organizing, Citizens against Toxic Exposure or CATE convinced the EPA to relocate 358 Pensacola, Florida families from a toxic waste dump. Residents called the dump “Mount Dioxin” because the federal EPA dug up the Dioxin-contaminated soil, piled it high into mounds, and covered it with plastic. Residents charged the EPA with taking a “Band Aid” approach with its “Glad Wrap” plastic covering of the dump. CATE fought for and won relocation from the toxic dump. This marked the first time a black community was relocated under the federal government’s giant Superfund program.

West Harlem Environmental Action or WE ACT, a grassroots environmental group based in Harlem, won a $1.1 million settlement against New York City for its massive North River Sewer Treatment Plant. The massive treatment plant covers some eight blocks. A $130 million state-of-the-art state park, Riverbank State Park, was built on top of the sewer treatment plant. The one-of-a-kind in the U.S. Riverbank State Park has fantastic facilities. The problem is it sits on top of a sewer treatment plant. Pollution from the plant caused much concern for the residents and WE ACT members.

After eight years in a struggle that began in 1989, Citizens against Nuclear Trash (CANT) defeated the plans by Louisiana Energy Services (LES) to build the nation's first privately owned uranium enrichment plant. On May 1, 1997, a three-judge panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety and Licensing Board issued a final initial decision on the case. The judges concluded, “Racial bias played a role in the selection process.” The precedent-setting federal court ruling came some two years after President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898. The judges, in a 38-page written decision, also chastised the NRC staff for not addressing the provision called for under Executive Order 12898. The court decision was upheld on appeal on April 4, 1998.

Battle lines were drawn in another famous Louisiana environmental racism case in the late 1990s. Japanese-owned Shintech, Inc. applied for a Title V air permit to build a $800 million polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plant in Convent, Louisiana--a community that is over 70 percent African American; over 40 percent of the Convent residents fall below the poverty line. The community has a dozen polluting plants and an extremely high unemployment rate. The Shintech plant would add over 600,000 pounds of air pollutants annually. The plants are so close to some residents’ homes, the people could walk to work. Industries are lured into black communities like Convent with the promise of jobs. But in reality, the jobs are not there for local black residents.

After more than eighteen months of intense organizing and legal maneuvering, St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, the local groups formed to fight Shintech, and their allies forced Shintech to scrap plans to build the giant PVC plant in Convent. The decision came in September 1998, and was seen around the country as a major victory against environmental racism. The driving force behind this victory was the relentless pressure and laser-like focus of the local Convent residents.

Working together, environmental justice leaders, activists, and academicians have assisted public officials identify “at risk” populations, toxic “hot spots,” research gaps. They have also worked with decision makers to correct these imbalances. If this nation is to achieve environmental and economic justice, the environment in urban ghettos, barrios, reservations, and rural “poverty pockets” must be given the same protection as that provided to the suburbs. All communities—black or white, rich or poor—deserve to be protected from the ravages of pollution.

For additional information on environmental justice, i.e., articles, reports, conference proceedings, maps, annotated bibliography, curriculum guide, directories, videos, press releases, case studies, “heroes and sheroes,” etc., see the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University Website.

Robert D. Bullard is Ware Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He holds a Ph.D. from Iowa State University. A few of Dr. Bullard’s books include Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (1993); Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy (1994); Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color (1996); Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility (1997); Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (2000); People of Color Environmental Groups Directory (2000); and Sprawl City: Race, Politics and Planning in Atlanta (2000)

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To cite this essay:
Bullard, Robert D. “Environmental Justice for All.” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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