Yet in many respects, the two movements are inseparately linked. Environmental justice, the right of all people to be treated fairly and equally when it comes to the development and enforcement of environmental laws and policies, was a revolutionary concept when the civil rights movement began to take shape more than 30 years ago. The idea that low-income residents near an industrial zone, for example, had the same rights when it came to noise or air pollution limits as a middle-income family on the other side of the town had never been adequately addressed.
Remedies for these injustices came in several fairly slow stages, says Vernice Miller-Travis, who is a senior associate in the consulting firm Skeo Solutions. An expert on environmental justice and brownfields revitalization, she serves on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council for the Environmental Protection Agency, and is Vice-Chair of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.
She said the first step that activists and environmental organizations took was to determine why these problems weren’t being noticed by either the federal government or local and state agencies.
“Why were these communities not on anyone’s radar, why were they not being given equal attention when it came to the enforcement of environmental laws and regs?"
The answer lies in government oversight and enforcement, she said.
“It turned out there were several gaps," said Miller-Travis. “One of the biggest … was a complete and utter lack of identification by the federal government, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that these communities were suffering disproportionately from exposure to pollutants, and that local and state governments were not doing their jobs in terms of making sure that these communities were not being adversely impacted.”
“And so we turned to the federal government, harkening back to a time when the federal government took the lead in enforcing newly created laws and statutes to protect communities of color from discrimination.”
In 1983, the Government Accounting Office published data on hazardous waste operations in the U.S., three of which were being housed within African American communities (pg. 3). The revelations of this report were followed in 1987 by the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) landmark study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which helped to put a visual map on what it labeled “an insidious form of racism.” The goal of the 86-page report was “to better enable victims … not only to become more aware of the problem, but to participate in the formation of viable strategies.”
The work of the UCC led the way to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, which highlighted the need for new enforceable policies on environmental justice and served as a cohesive force for EJ efforts across the country. More than 500 grassroots organizations were represented, leading eventually to a consensus on what constituted environmental justice and what its guiding principles should be.
But those EJ advocates that expected that this would be the summation of their battles would be disappointed.
“It took a really long time before federal agencies began to really enforce the Executive Order or pay attention to what the Executive Order was tasking them to do,” said Miller-Travis. Even though Executive Order 12898 was now on the books, enforcement and remedy moved slowly.
“(Lots) of people talked about it, we referenced it, we highlighted it, but there was no energy behind implementing the EO until 2009,” when President Barack Obama appointed Lisa Jackson as administrator of the EPA. “That was really the first time that the Executive Order on Environmental Justice was really implemented with the full sweep and intent of what it was designed to do when it was signed by President Clinton in 1994,” said Miller-Travis.
She cited California as the “gold standard” example of a state that has exemplified proactive changes to environmental policies, starting with a 1994 lawsuit that was lodged against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority for discriminating against the transit needs of low-income populations in the L.A. County.
“The suit charged the MTA with violations of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by establishing a discriminatory, separate, and unequal transportation system while using federal funds,” says the LCSC, per its website. According to Miller-Travis, an agency that was found in violation of Title VI could be forced to pay back all of the funding it had received from the federal government.
The landmark civil rights case, which was awarded to the LCSC and BRU in 1996 led to a settlement that would have far-reaching effects on the transit system in California's largest county. The MTA agreed to improve its transit system for low-income populations, upgrade its fleet and services and to change its fare structure to meet the economic needs of its riders.
Other states and local agencies have also stepped forward to address environmental justice inequities. States like Maryland, South Carolina and Massachusetts have investigated ways to ensure that environmental justice policies are not only addressed, but that their residents have an active role in crafting those policies and laws.
“This is an effort to really lay out a plan for the full integration and implementation of the Executive Order on environmental justice,” said Miller-Travis.
“It’s a plan that speaks mostly to the EPA, but other federal agencies have come forward with their own implementation plans.”
Plan EJ2014, which the EPA calls a “road map,” is directed toward:
The EPA no doubt knows that while it can set the groundwork for ensuring environmental justice policies are fully implemented, it is the grassroots efforts and the voices of like-minded communities that ensure that they are followed. Getting involved, learning about our rights and the rights of our communities is the best way to ensure that EJ2014, and the many stakeholders that have made it possible over the years, continue to meet the needs of the country's many diverse and changing communities.
Image of old industrial site at rehabilitated Estuary Park, Oakland California courtesy of Brooke Anderson
Image of dumped barrels of toxic waste found in East Boston in 2010 courtesy of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.