The proposed siting of a hazardous waste facility near a mostly black community in Warren County, North Carolina was a key event in the history of the Environmental Justice movement. Protesters tried to block the placement of the hazardous waste facility by blocking the movement of trucks transporting hazardous waste to and from the proposed facility. Although unsuccessful in preventing the siting of this facility, they brought wider attention to the proximity of environmental hazards to low-income and people of color communities. Subsequent research focused more attention on the distribution of environmental hazards, often finding the same pattern of disproportionate exposure to hazards in disadvantaged communities. These hazards are not benign in that they result in poor health outcomes for nearby populations. Proximity to pollution is exacerbated by structural factors like economic inequality and racism that impact the ability of affected communities to address these hazards.
A report issued by the General Accounting Office in 1987 documented a correlation between the siting of hazardous waste facilities and the proportion of black residents in impacted communities. After its release, other studies were conducted that confirmed that environmental hazards tended to be concentrated in largely low-income and people of color communities. In California, environmental justice issues include high rates of asthma that disproportionately affect black children and proximity to areas with high pesticide use that predominantly affect Latino children.
An individual's vulnerability is shaped by exposure to hazards, underlying sensitivities to hazards, and adaptive capacity. These three vulnerabilities determine how much of a contaminant gets into a person, that person's bodily ability to fight off that hazard, and what options the person has to adapt and mitigate the harm caused by that exposure.
In response to community organizing against environmental injustice, former president Bill Clinton signed into law Executive Order 12898 which required all federal agencies to be part of the solution. The executive order reads in part that "...each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations..."
Plans of Action from federal agencies ranging from USDA and EPA to DOT are released to the public to explain how they are working on addressing environmental injustice. The Environmental Protection Agency 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 has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work."
The meaningful involvement of disadvantaged communities in decision-making is a key aspect of addressing environmental injustices. For environmental justice to be achieved, meaningful involvement means that decision-making about environmental regulations designed to protect human health must include those communities that are most impacted by the outcomes of these decisions.
The CDC?s Office of Minority Health describes meaningful involvement as the following:
- potentially affected community residents have an appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions about a proposed activity that will affect their environment and/or health;
- the public's contribution can influence the regulatory agency's decision;
- the concerns of all participants involved will be considered in the decision making process;
- the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.
These tenets of environmental justice have helped guide the development of our program and our on-going work. Learn more about how we carry out this commitment.