Claire Chen: Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice


by Claire Chen


Not every environmental disaster is created equal. From a suddenly-contaminated river to a decades-long rise in particulate pollution, we have to decide where to devote our limited resources; to the project that’s most easily resolved? The ones that have been a problem for longer? Or the ones that are the least likely to be resolved without outside help?


Unfortunately, this last group- those least able to resolve environmental issues on their own- often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to injustice or crisis in their communities. Even when recognized, these issues often take much longer to be addressed. Environmental justice arose to combat this perceived discrepancy; why are the communities that most need government intervention instead given the lowest priority?


The term “environmental justice” traces its roots to the small town of Afton, North Carolina. In the mid-20th century, the state experienced a manufacturing boom, thanks in part to including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the process [1]. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency classifies PCBs as a carcinogen and all-around toxic class of chemicals, causing severe harm to neural and reproductive health [2]. Designated areas for dumping this toxic waste were often located in rural areas or in other states, making it an expensive and painstaking process.


Understandably so: PCBs aren’t exactly something anyone wants dumped in their state, country, or neighborhood. Yet some rural communities rarely get a say in where such dumping occurs.


Such was the case in summer 1978, when employees from the Ward Transformer Company allowed some 31,000 gallons of PCB- filled oil to be dumped along a 240 mile highway. In response to outcry by local and state newspapers, the company designated a landfill area in Afton, NC for disposal. Afton, a rural town with a 70% African American population and one-fifth below the poverty line, was chosen for its sparse population and proximity to polluted areas [3].


That same demographic fought back. Over 500 people were arrested that summer, where protestors lay in front of trucks carrying PCB waste to the site [4]. With the support of African-American church groups, civil rights leaders, and citizens, the protests inextricably linked the issues of environmental protection with those of civil rights.

The story of Warren County reflects some realities of many environmental impacts; they disproportionately affect poor communities who have few alternatives. Environmental justice involves asking the “who” question: who is living near landfills? Who suffers most when companies fail to follow clean air and water guidelines? Who gives input on natural gas extraction sites? In general, who will be first-and-worst affected by the negative effects of development?


The EPA has taken note. They created the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2004, the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJ CPS) Program was created to provide “direct financial and technical assistance” to communities in need [5]. Last September, they launched the EJScreen, a web application that tracks all environmental complaints and EPA responses [6]. Other initiatives include the Small Grants program and the State Environmental Justice Cooperative Agreement (SEJCA), both of which provide funding for EPA or state partnerships with community groups [7]. Have all these efforts (comprising decades and millions of dollars) been effective?


Unfortunately, the EPA has yet to resolve many problems that Warren County protested decades ago. A 2015 review of the EPA’s OCR found that, on average, a community that submitted a civil rights request had to wait 350 days for the agency to decide whether or not to investigate, long enough that the original problem had become “moot” [8]. The report also found that 95% of civil rights claims to environmental damages were denied, and that the agency had never made a “formal finding” of a civil rights violation. The report further called on the EPA to devote more resources to the dozen or so cases that had been “investigated” but failed to make progress for years.


Such criticism shouldn’t be placed entirely on the EPA’s shoulders; the EPA’s budget has fallen from a high of $10.3 billion to $8.1 billion, in addition to a staff cut of 15% in the last five years. Water and soil protection programs, in particular, have suffered cuts upwards of 24% [9]. Finding an official civil rights violation is also rare because of the legal implications that such a decision would set, a risk that the already-strained EPA is unwilling to take [10].

Even so, citizens will continue to demand environmental justice in an age of increased public scrutiny. For example, officials in charge of the Flint, Michigan water contamination faced international criticism and potentially massive costs when the city’s water became contaminated after years of lax maintenance. Thus, even if the EPA simply wants to avoid such disasters in the future, stagnating environmental problems like the ones in Flint are worth addressing.


The site of the Ward Transformer landfill would be put on the Superfund national priority list in 2003, and detoxified over 3 years. Yet the goals of Afton’s protestors have not been fully realized; there continue to be inequities in the way we regulate our environment. With the right reforms, however, the consequences moving forward may not involve a two-decade cleaning process and a stain on the EPA’s record of environmental advocacy.


I think that environmental justice is a very interesting and multifaceted issue. I think you raise an interesting point that rural communities rarely get a say in risky environmental practices. This leads me to ask: why don’t they get a say? How did the targets of environmental injustices end up in a position where they are unfairly targeted? One thing that I found interesting when studying environmental justice in an environmental health class was that there seems to be some sociological aspect behind it. For instance, studies have shown that many environmental injustices occur in the southern United States because of settlement patterns as a result of segregation that have persisted simply because families haven’t moved, and not because of explicit segregation anymore. Old practices of dumping at factories and mills that have resulted in the release of toxins into the area thus impact these families because of parents and grandparents who worked there before.

As you point out by describing civil rights issues within the field of environmental justice, there is a social justice aspect. Minorities have less economic and political power a lot of the time, and largely because of the remnants of policies that were oppressive. When trying to solve environmental injustices, I think cooperation will be key. Perhaps, in the spirit of cooperative governance, efforts should be taken to ensure that members of communities are thoroughly consulted before decisions are made that could alter their environment. Simply being aware of who is being affected and how could make so much difference in resolving unfair practices.


I think this is a really even-handed, well-considered blog post and I really agree with most of what you’re saying, Claire! Personally, if I were to pick one of your outcomes as the course of action taken by the EPA and Federal government, I would probably pick the latter option where more strict and preemptive policies are put into place rather than not reinstating the tax to preserve job creation. I found that particular argument made by the chemical companies, that taxing them for their mishandling of toxic chemicals would reduce job creation opportunities and be economically unfavorable, to be literally hysterical. What’s the point exactly of creating new jobs, in fields that create pollution and hazardous sites from mishandling the chemicals, when the actual, physical, fields, streams, and residential areas are made toxic? While I understand that argument has economic standing — job creation is important especially right now when many people fear that they will be made obsolete in their job by a machine — it read to me as an argument for increasing their industry, which would possibly lead to an increase in the exact problem that the tax would be instated to mitigate.


I found your argument on environmental justice really interesting as it relates to income disparity as well as the NIMBY issue. You raise a good point regarding potentially harmful environmental practices being implemented in areas without the inhabitants of these areas really getting to voice their opinions on whether or not they are in favor of these practices.

The example you provided of Afton, North Carolina brings up a common problem regarding risky environmental practices in the United States. It seems that historically, poorer neighborhoods with primarily minority populations are forced to experience more than a proportional amount of potentially harmful consequences to actions by governments and industries. Landfills are frequently located in impoverished areas, and it seems that there is a lesser value placed on poorer areas that apparently justifies dumping all of our potentially hazardous waste in these areas. This raises an important issue, that being are poorer neighborhoods worth that much less to our society that we find it appropriate to make them our primary waste deposit zones? These practices make it seem like industries and governments do not care about the safety and well-being of these impoverished communities as much as they do about more affluent and financially secure communities.

There is no reason why trash and potentially harmful waste should be dumped in specific areas just because they are not as financially well-off as other areas. Choosing sites for landfill creation should be completely independent from socioeconomic status. That being said, there needs to be another way to determine in a fair, safe, and equitable manner, where these visually displeasing, potentially toxic waste sites will go. Nobody wants a landfill, hazardous waste, or toxic chemicals in their backyard regardless of race or economic status, hence the creation of the NIMBY principle. In order for our society to truly become environmentally just, we need to be more innovative as we select future sites to store our waste.

When we discuss environmental issues, it’s natural to hear about those issues which affect the most people. This does generally make sense, we want to resolve the issues which hurt everyone. We hear so much about climate change etc. But the issue of minority or low-income neighborhoods bearing the brunt of waste disposal is probably worse than people realize. This seems to be the inherent nature of the issue. It has to be under-discussed. People with less money are generally less-capable of having a political voice. As a result, we hear about these problems less.

I found the community’s opposition to the waste dumping particularly striking. Despite significant opposition, they still weren’t able to prevent the waste from going to their community. In fact, I imagine the situation playing out very similarly to how another issue you mentioned played out. The Flint Water Crisis was big news for a little while. It garnered national media attention, and several politicians made inspiring speeches about the human condition. Yet, Flint definitely can’t pay to fix its own problems. The federal and state governments don’t seem set to pitch in enough money to fix the problem for the long-term any time soon. This seems like one of those problems which will haunt the community far longer after the national spotlight has moved on. It’s a sad issue really. There are many other issues in communities around the country, which I will simply never hear about because some people just don’t have a political voice. Though, being cognizant of this issue is the first step. Your blog accomplishes this. Nice article Claire.

The Environmental Justice movement, arguably put to name by Robert Bullard during his extensive study of the issue in his work “Dumping in Dixie”, is one of the many existential fights we seeing being undertaken against systemic racism. Sometimes the racism is an offering of ill-will toward low-income folks and people. It is disheartening to hear the statistics. People of Color and low income communities are far more likely than others in the US to find a waste dump or hazardous facility near their home, just in the same way that these communities are more likely to be without adequate health care facilities to treat the future ailments caused by these proximities. Cities like Detroit, which is majority black, has the highest rate of asthma in its youth of any big city in the US. As I experienced in Dallas while doing work on the subject, many cities choose to pour their resources into the already developing, “up and up” areas within their limits rather than the frail, disenfranchised neighborhoods that actually need the existential assistance.

One positive action taken at the Federal level was Bill Clinton’s E.O. 12898 in 1994. This Executive Order requires all federal agencies to identify and consider the scale of environmental and public health effects that could be disproportionate experienced by POC and low-income communities as a result of these agencies’ undertakings. By bringing it to the attention of at least the federal government, the hope has been that environmental justice would continue to pervade into the public conscious. However, the effectiveness of EO 12898 can be put to scrutiny. And, as you wrote, when an act has actually been committed (whether by the government or a private entity), the response time is lengthy, only further permitting the degradation of livelihoods already suffering from other forms of systemic discrimination.

We should also consider the environmental justice implications of our actions internationally. Cheap clothing, cheap devices, cheap materials are often sourced from countries that follow less-stringent laws when it comes to public health and safety. The 1,130 dead in the 2013 garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh are a single example among many about how our lack of sensitivity to our personal purchases exploit the health of others. There is much work to be done, and I am thankful that this article points out some of the key components necessary to better our own system in dealing with environmental injustices at home.




This is a great overview of the birth of the environmental justice movement. As I’ve mentioned (in passing) in other comments, environmental issues cannot be divorced from the social/political context in which they are situated. Sure, one can argue that environmental concerns outweigh social/economic concerns because of widespread exploitation of ecological resources, but the way in which current conversations revolve around pitting ecology against the economic uplift of corporate produces glosses over the very real consequences that certain industries (especially waste disposal industries) have on low-income communities/communities of color.

The history of the US is one that is marked with racism, through regimes of violence and exploitation (slavery), segregation laws like Jim Crow, and more recent de facto segregation practices like redlining and mass incarceration. These legacies have created structural inequities within the social fabric of the US, and much of the disproportionate exposure to pollutants that we see today are remnants of those structures. Today, it will take more than merely community input to fix these inequities, it will take a holistic approach that puts people before corporations and builds a consideration for low-income and historically oppressed folks into the very debates that frame these issues. The problem is structural, so solutions must also be structural.
[1] Bullard, R. D. (1990) Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Publishing, 46.

[2] United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2007, May 4). Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

[3] Bullard (1990), 52-60.

[4] McGurty, E.M. (2000) Policy Review: Warren County, NC, and the Emergenge of the Environmental Justice Movement: Unlikely Coalitions and Shared Meanings in Local Collective Action. Society and Natural Resources; Taylor and Francis.

[5] United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2006) Case Studies: From the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Program.

[6] United States Environmental Protection Agency. EJScreen, Web Application

[7] United States Environmental Protection Agency.

[8] Lombardi, K. (2015) Environmental Justice, Denied. The Center for Public Integrity.

[9] United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2016) EPA History: Today

[10] Terry Satterfield and Joshua Levin, “Risk Communication, Fugitive Values, and the Problem of Tradeoffs: Diagnosing the Breakdwn of Deliberative Processes”. (2000) The Environmental Protection Agency.