What Is Environmental Justice? An Introduction to Fair Treatment

City with pollution from smokestacks impacting the environment.

For more than a decade, the predominantly African American population of Uniontown, Alabama, protested a sprawling landfill’s relocation from a mostly white community to their backyards. Toxic fumes from the landfill spawned health problems throughout the community, including eye irritation, breathing problems, and even cancer.

In March 2018, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed the town’s civil rights case protesting Arrowhead landfill, citing a lack of evidence. This prompted one resident to comment, “The protection we’ve got from the government is little to none. I can’t help but feel it’s because the population is mainly black and poor. This was forced on us. If this was a white, wealthy community, this would’ve never happened.” A 2018 article in The Guardian summed up the situation as “one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism in the U.S.”

What is environmental justice? The answer is grounded in equitable treatment for all. Even though everyone deserves to live, work, and thrive in a healthy environment, not all of us do. Environmental justice aims to ensure that government policies distribute the burden of environmental impacts — such as where to locate toxic landfills — among all groups equally.

After all, whether a person stays safe from environmental hazards should not be determined by skin color or financial net worth. Unfortunately, this type of discrimination is all too real. Proponents of environmental justice fear the resulting health disparities — unfair differences in health outcomes rooted in systemic problems such as racism and poverty — may be killing us.

The Origin of Environmental Justice

More than 40 years ago, a tenacious Southern community spoke up and sparked a movement. In 1982, an industrial dump of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in the largely African American community of Warren County, North Carolina, threatened residents’ reproductive and nervous systems, in addition to causing other health problems. Hundreds of local activists protested the toxic dump, and the public heard them. That’s when environmental justice shot to the frontlines of the social justice and environmental movements.

The grass-roots protests in Warren County inspired widespread research. One key finding: Corporations choose to locate their off-site toxic facilities in minority communities more often than in predominantly white communities. Furthermore, contemporary studies revealed that three-quarters of toxic waste dumps in Southern states were located in African American communities, even though African Americans made up only one-fifth of the area’s population.

Disparities in environmental justice continued to surface, and the federal government responded. In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order stating that every federal agency must make environmental justice a priority. However, administrations transition in and out of power, and their political priorities shift. EPA rollbacks mandated by the Trump administration are threatening the progress set in motion by the people of Warren County. At Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and around the nation, public health leaders are pushing to publicize the issue of environmental justice and the need for community involvement in policy decisions that affect individuals and families.

What Is Environmental Justice Today?

Environmental justice is a key factor in shaping community health, well-being, and productivity. However, barriers to equality persist, in part due to our nation’s history of racial discrimination. That history continues to allow the enactment of environmental policy decisions that ignore the input of the very people whose health and well-being are at stake. Here are some of the issues that define what environmental justice is today.

Race and Health Disparities

Environmental justice takes many forms, including equal access to affordable housing, the right to live in a home free of poisonous lead-based paint, and the ability to walk outside without breathing in toxic fumes. Time and again, however, people of color take the biggest hit from negative environmental policies. In other words, they are disproportionately likely to experience health disparities — unfair, race-based negative health outcomes. Consider a few key facts about health disparities in people of color from the American Public Health Association:

  • In 2016, African American children and children of Puerto Rican descent were about twice as likely to experience complications from asthma as white children.
  • African Americans are more than 50% more likely than the population as a whole to have health problems due to air pollution.
  • More than 11% of African American children and 4% of Mexican American children get lead poisoning from their environment, compared with 2.3% of white children.

Fair Housing and Climate Change Preparedness

What is environmental justice when it comes to fair housing? During the Obama administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) worked with researchers, academics, and social justice advocates to address this question, according to a recent article in the Journal of Affordable Housing that discusses challenges ahead. Looking to the future, environmental justice means addressing the following issues, among others:

  • Improving health and safety inspections for subsidized housing
  • Safeguarding against toxins such as lead and radon that cause lifelong harm to children’s brain development
  • Preparing communities for climate change issues, such as flood disaster preparedness
  • Including energy enhancements in new subsidized housing
  • Financing home utility retrofits for low-income housing in preparation for weather conditions caused by climate change

As suggested by the key issues above, when access to quality housing is unevenly distributed, the impacts of climate change — such as extreme temperatures, floods, and hurricanes — affect some communities more than others. Our ability to prepare all of our communities for the consequences of climate change will be an integral part of what environmental justice is in the future.

However, according to the JAH article, conditions have been slow to improve due to a lack of funding and other issues. Advocates of increasing access to housing that is more resistant to extreme climate conditions may face roadblocks in the future: “The initiatives developed by the [Obama] administration left much work to be done. In addition, the Trump administration’s focus on deregulation and its rollbacks to civil rights and environmental enforcement are presenting serious new challenges.”

Health Impacts From Natural Gas Facilities and Oil Refineries

Environmental justice advocates are also calling for tighter oversight of oil and gas facilities that emit large amounts of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Researchers have also found that natural gas plants and oil refineries cause air contamination that increases the risk of cancer and respiratory disease in local communities.

Because a disproportionate number of oil and gas facilities are located in states with large African American populations, the harmful effects of air contamination put people of color at greater risk than their white counterparts. According to a recent Clean Air Task Force report, “It is not a coincidence that so many African Americans live near oil and gas development. Historically, polluting facilities have often been sited in or near African American communities.”

This historic inequity driven by systemic racism continues to create damaging health problems for African Americans today.

The Future of Environmental Justice

The dangers of climate change will continue to be a focus of U.S. environmental justice groups and national environmental groups in 2020 and beyond. In July 2019, leaders formed the National Climate Platform (NCP) to confront “racial, economic, and environmental injustice as it enacts deep cuts in climate pollution.”

According to the Sierra Club, an NCP member, “The [NCP] signatories are committed to working in partnership to define new policy ideas that tackle climate change and address environmental injustice — as well as to ensure that those ideas become reality.”

The bottom line? As the environment becomes increasingly toxic, vulnerable populations face the highest risk. The path forward is clear — public health leaders and policymakers must join forces to ensure a healthy future and a healthy planet.

Explore the Crossroads of Environmental Justice and Public Health at Tulane

Understanding how environmental justice relates to climate change and health disparities is just the beginning. At Tulane University, thought leaders such as Dean Thomas LaVeist and other faculty experts focus on preparing public health professionals to be culturally competent and equipped to support environmental justice for all. Find out how you can prepare for a career in public health and become an advocate for fair treatment, community by community. Explore more at Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health.