Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Environmental Justice Comes Back to Life

• September 29, 2010 • 5:00 AM

After a decade stored away in the basement of the White House, a new commitment to rooting out toxic messes dumped on poor communities has begun.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week resuscitated an interagency working group to tackle environmental justice, an issue that hasn’t been discussed much in Washington in nearly a decade.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the group’s first meeting — attended by Attorney General Eric Holder and the secretaries of Interior, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development — a historic event, as federal agencies recommit themselves to rooting out the “environmental discrimination” that occurs when landfills, coal plants and toxic waste dumps are located disproportionately in communities of color.

Advocates who have decried the problem since the 1970s want to see more than meeting minutes from the new government group, but they’re heartened that at least someone in the capital is talking about this again.

“Many of the problems and challenges that were identified more than three decades ago have actually worsened, even with the passing of time,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and the sociologist Grist calls the father of the movement.

Environmental discrimination isn’t simply a legacy of the pre-Civil Rights era. The EJRC documented this year that waste from the BP oil spill has been disproportionately trucked into minority communities. Minorities make up 26 percent of the population in coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, but they’re hosting 55 percent of the oil spill waste — 21,867 tons of it.

“What the environmental justice framework does is it penetrates this whole idea that all communities are created equal, that all communities are receiving the same level of protection,” Bullard said. “When you look at reality, the ZIP code in one’s neighborhood is probably the best predictor of one’s health, as well as one’s potential for environmental exposure.”

A landmark 1987 report found that race was the most significant factor in predicting the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. — more so than household income and property values. When Bullard and several colleagues updated the report’s conclusions 20 years later, relying on data from the 2000 Census, they found little had changed: Minorities still make up the majority of those living within 3 kilometers of the country’s hazardous waste sites.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] Back in the early 1990s, the first President Bush responded to the growing concern by creating an office of Environmental Equity within the EPA. President Clinton in 1994 expanded the move with an executive order charging all government agencies with integrating environmental justice into their missions.

That executive order didn’t establish new law; it reinforced the weight of environmental justice protections already embedded in two existing laws, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

All of that progress — and the first interagency working group established by Clinton’s executive order — was halted during the second Bush Administration, Bullard said. Officials believed environmental justice was an impediment to business interests, and that, as a concept, it was grounded more in an unfunded mandate than actual law.

“Environmental justice was not really taken seriously,” Bullard said. “In some cases, it was attacked vehemently. There was this atmosphere that if the lead agency, which is EPA, doesn’t take charge, that gave a really resounding signal to other federal agencies: ‘If EPA is not doing it, we don’t have to do it either.'”

Officials now must dust off 10-year-old strategic environmental justice plans, if they can find them. And they have to act on what Bullard says many communities have already discovered for themselves — that the challenge is interdisciplinary. It’s not just about the distribution of contaminants and pollution; it’s also about the distribution of clean energy and public transit.

“It’s talking about green jobs at the Department of Labor, how we have to make sure job training programs in place are also accessible to those communities,” Bullard said. “When we talk about communities having access to healthy foods and having access to green space, we’re talking about the Department of Agriculture, we’re talking about the Park Service.”

The sprawling nature of the interagency group suggests government gets this. But Bullard also warns that many communities have grown impatient over the last 10 years.

“I think something has to come out of this fairly quickly, and it has to be significant, and impactful,” he said. “That’s a high mark. And there will be some holding peoples’ feet to the fire.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.