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Skeo Solutions Sponsored Series

Introduction To Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice and the Structure of Human Rights

In a very basic way, Environmental Justice is about the intersection of human rights, infrastructure and how people--rich and poor, living in rich or developing countries--equitably and sustainably access the resources and things they need to survive and prosper. Robert Bullard, an environmental sociologist and Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, is passionate about the human side of Environmental Justice and "unequal" environmental protection.

"Environmental Justice embraces the principle that people and communities are entitled to equal protection of our environment, health, employment, education, housing, transportation and civil rights laws….Environmental Justice brings it all together under one tent."

The Environmental Justice movement has grown both in public awareness, attitudes and action since the signing of Executive Order 12898 in 1994. Progress has been made, but is it a success? President Clinton's order was 20 years ago, and the question remains whether EJ today is more than a finger in the dyke in the face of forces such as the House of Representatives members who would like to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, or countries and companies bent on the privatization of water. Many programs to improve communities focus on small issues like bike paths, parks and sidewalks, but we still plan to send hundreds of coal export trains through low income communities and site landfills in them.

A major question facing people who live on the "other side of the tracks" -- places where landfills, water treatment plants, chemical plants and refineries tend to be located -- is if the Environmental Justice movement is real and effective. The results are mixed, because as Bullard says, "there is always the other side of the tracks" for the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the homeless and those without access to cars or to transit systems. Poor communities wind up with a "disproportionate share of the bad stuff and a shortage of libraries, sidewalks, parks and greenspace."

Sustainable communities

Sustainable communities mean lower transportation costs, reduced air pollution and stormwater runoff, decreased infrastructure costs, less time spent in cars and preservation of historic properties and sensitive lands. However, these benefits are difficult to enact at the systemic level and are always at risk of budgetary cuts. 

For example, a recent Congressional budget measure proposes to end all funding for the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a program that unifies three federal departments (EPA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation) and funding resources around sustainable community development projects including transportation, affordable housing, and community development. All forward progress of this initiative would halt due to a Congress focused on the short-term.


Executive Order 12898 required agencies receiving federal funds to develop and implement Environmental Justice strategies, such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) also developed a program with three basic principles for the transportation sector:
  • To avoid, minimize, or mitigate disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects, on minority and low-income populations.
  • To ensure the full and fair participation by all potentially affected communities in the transportation decision-making process.
  • To prevent the denial of, reduction in, or significant delay in the receipt of benefits by minority and low-income populations.
These goals further the Environmental Justice movement, but how effectively are the agencies tracking their adoption?

An analysis by the Georgia Tech School of Civil & Environmental Engineering Infrastructure Research Group says the principles have been the guiding objectives for the development of Environmental Justice programs at various state transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations.

"Although these guidelines served as objectives for EJ programs, there was no explicit guidance from the regulatory agencies. This has led to the development of EJ programs as an evolving practice through peer communication and benchmarking."

The analysis goes on to recommend that agencies develop better methods to track their work.


Last month in Sao Paulo, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., attorney and environmental activist, said privatization of water is the most troubling issue the globe is facing.

"Water ought to be a right for all human beings," he asserted at the World Environmental Forum. Free market capitalism is the best solution, he continued, but it must be managed with a social interest, otherwise future generations will have to pay for present day mistakes and excesses. "We should encourage a more rational use of water, but we cannot restrict the use of water by the poorest people through pricing."

Kennedy referenced Cochabamba, Bolivia, where water was privatized in order to pay for infrastructure improvements. However, privatization occurred in such a way that people were dying because they could not access water. An ensuing revolt was so great that the French and American companies managing the city's water supply were forced to leave the country.

A paper by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, of the Pace University School of Law (with Erin Derrington), Investment in Water and Wastewater Infrastructure: An Environmental Justice Challenge, a Governance Solution, stresses the importance of the “rule of law” and sound environmental governance in this area. “Although water and wastewater infrastructure privatization is a legitimate response to the costs and challenges of water treatment and distribution, environmental decision makers have an ethical and moral duty to ensure that all people have access to reliable and affordable drinking water and sanitation.”

Access to water and improving water quality for everyone ought to be a given, however, progress is proving to be mostly a tough, piecemeal process.

Last year, the California-based Environmental Justice Coalition for Water celebrated when California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 685, a measure that makes the basic human right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water a part of state policy. AB 685 directs relevant state agencies to advance the implementation of this policy when those agencies make administrative decisions about the use of water for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.

“For years, grassroots activists, community leaders, faith-based groups, and dedicated environmental justice, public health and environmental organizations, drawn together by a shared commitment to improve access to safe drinking water in our poorest communities, have been advocating at the local, regional, and state level, combating powerful, entrenched interests determined not to change the status quo in California water policy,” the Coalition said.

Similar water and environmental justice efforts have progressed at the state and local levels in Oregon and Massachusetts and through the EPA’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, which since 1994, has awarded more than $23 million to 1,253 community-based organizations and local and tribal organizations working with communities facing EJ issues. Many of the EPA grants involve water and shoreline issues, with a focus on the environment and public health.

The power of individual action

Despite the challenges that infrastructure improvements face at the policy level - individuals can make a difference in their communities. Majora Carter, an activist for EJ, brought the South Bronx its first open-waterfront park in 60 years, Hunts Point Riverside Park. Then she was awarded $1.25 million in federal funds for a greenway along the South Bronx waterfront, bringing the neighborhood open space, pedestrian and bike paths, and space for mixed-use economic development.

“Environmental justice [means that] no community should be saddled with more environmental burdens and less environmental benefits than any other,” she says. “It’s time to stop building the shopping malls, the prisons, the stadiums and other tributes to all of our collective failures. It is time that we start building living monuments to hope and possibility.”

Yes, Environmental Justice and infrastructure—for all.

[Image: Infrastructure by the Value Web Photo Gallery via Flickr cc]

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Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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