Environmental Justice By Samantha Pline

Environmental Justice


Samantha Pline


Recent events, like the Flint Water Crisis, have hammered home the need for a national Environmental Justice Policy. Environmental Justice is 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.[1] Fair treatment, in this context, “means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies”.[2] “Meaningful involvement means that people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health; the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision; their concerns will be considered in the decision making process; and the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected”.[3]

The fair treatment of individuals’ environment matters greatly. Environmental justice goes hand-in-hand with equality. People depend on their environment for the basic necessities of life, like water and clean air. Without a policy in place to protect and ensure equal environmental access, then a huge deficit emerges in who has access to clean water or air, fishing, farm land, etc. But environmental justice isn’t just about major violations, like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or the BP/Horizon Oil Spill, it is also about the day to day exposure to pesticides and chemicals. The people most exposed to pollution or to chemicals are the people that are working everyday in the factories or fields. Increasing protection for them, and their families, is one major step toward Environmental Justice.

There are a variety of different ways to tackle the problem of environmental justice, including governmental regulation, impact litigation, and grassroots movements. Much of our environmental awareness arises from movements during the 1960s that brought some of the most egregious environmental violations to light. Books like Rachel Carsons’ Silent Spring directly attacked the businesses and government agencies that were spraying pesticides everywhere in the country without thought to who was being hurt by the diseases.[4] Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, agencies like the EPA have tried to correct some of the worst environmental injustices with varying measures of success.[5]

In recent years, two major issues of environmental justice have arisen, access to clean water and clean air. In 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order to establish the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC).[6] The NEJAC was created to “obtain independent, consensus advice and recommendations from a broad spectrum of stakeholders involved in environmental justice”.[7] The NEJAC has propsed actions on environmental permitting, school air toxics monitoring, goods movement and air quality standards, and consultations with Indigenous communities.[8]

This work continued with Plan EJ 2014, “which is meant to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice”[9]. One of the agencies newest pushes is to place environmental actions into the hands of the community.[10] “Through Plan EJ 2014, EPA intends to develop a suite of tools to integrate environmental justice and civil rights into its programs, policies, and activities. It seeks to build stronger relationships with communities overburdened by environmental and health hazards and build partnerships that improve conditions in such communities.”[11]

So why does this all matter? “The environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: people who live, work and play in America’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor.”[12] “Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts — say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls ‘environmental racism.’”[13] Part of the Civil Rights of every American, is the right to a clean and healthy environment. A lack of awareness and attention to these problems have allowed them to fester in poor, underserved communities for too long. Disasters like the Flint water crisis, the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the continued problems with Fracking chemicals, and others headline problems, have made Environmental Justice a more acceptable topic for study. However, even without them, people need to continue to fight for this aspect of human rights. “Environmental justice continues to be an important part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who have traditionally lived, worked and played closest to the sources of pollution.”[14]

[1] “Environmental Justice” epa.Gov http://www3.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/index.html (accessed Feb. 18, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] See Rachel Carson Silent Spring.

[5] The various EPA rules and regulations passed during this time can be found on the EPA home pages, at http://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations.

[6] See Exec. Order No. 12898,

[7] National Environmentla Justice Advisory Council Factsheet, Epa (July 2012), http://www3.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/resources/publications/factsheets/fact-sheet-nejac.pdf

[8] Id. See also, NEJAC Advice and Recommendations EPA (Oct. 20, 2015), http://www3.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/nejac/recommendations.html.

[9] Plan EJ 2014 EPA (Sept. 2011), http://www3.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/resources/policy/plan-ej-2014/plan-ej-2011-09.pdf.

[10] Id. at iv.

[11] Id. at vi.

[12] Renee Skelton and Vernice Miller, The Environmental Justice Movement, Nat’l Res. Def. Council (Oct. 12, 2006), http://www.nrdc.org/ej/history/hej.asp. (offers a good look at the history of the environmental justice movement).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.


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