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By Renee Skelton and Vernice Miller

Championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, 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. Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. 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." Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades. The following pages sketch out a brief history of the environmental justice movement.


Early 1960s - Farm workers organized by Cesar Chavez fight for workplace rights, including protection from toxic pesticides in California farm fields.

1962 - Rachel Carson's Silent Spring details the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment.

1964 - Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. The law's "Title VI" -- prohibiting use of federal funds to discriminate based on race, color and national origin -- will become an important tool in environmental justice litigation.

1967 - African-American students take to the streets of Houston to oppose a city dump that had claimed the lives of two children.

1969 - Lawsuit filed on behalf of six migrant farm workers by California Rural Legal Assistance plays a role in the ban on the pesticide DDT in the United States.

1970 - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established to enforce laws that protect human health and safeguard the natural environment.

1971 - President's Council on Environmental Quality acknowledges that racial discrimination negatively affects the quality of the environment for the urban poor.

1972 - The United States bans the use of the toxic pesticide DDT.

1973 - The EPA issues rules that phase out lead in gasoline over several years; lead levels in the air will fall by 90 percent.

1978 - Hundreds of families evacuated from Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, New York, due to rates of cancer and birth defects; toxic chemicals were buried decades before under neighborhood.

1979 - African-American community in Houston opposing a landfill brings first Title VI lawsuit challenging the siting of a waste facility.

A Movement Sparks

Poor, rural and overwhelmingly black, Warren County, North Carolina, might seem an unlikely spot for the birth of a political movement. But when the state government decided that the county would make a perfect home for 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs, the county became the focus of national attention.

The dump trucks first rolled into Warren County in mid-September, 1982, headed for a newly constructed hazardous waste landfill in the small community of Afton. But many frustrated residents and their allies, furious that state officials had dismissed concerns over PCBs leaching into drinking water supplies, met the trucks. And they stopped them, lying down on roads leading into the landfill. Six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests followed, and more than 500 people were arrested -- the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill.

The people of Warren County ultimately lost the battle; the toxic waste was eventually deposited in that landfill. But their story -- one of ordinary people driven to desperate measures to protect their homes from a toxic assault -- drew national media attention and fired the imagination of people across the country who had lived through similar injustice. The street protests and legal challenges mounted by the people of Warren County to fight the landfill are considered by many to be the first major milestone in the national movement for environmental justice.

Other communities of color had organized to oppose environmental threats before Warren County. In the early 1960s, Latino farm workers organized by Cesar Chavez fought for workplace rights, including protection from harmful pesticides in the farm fields of California's San Joaquin valley. In 1967, African-American students took to the streets of Houston to oppose a city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the lives of two children. In 1968, residents of West Harlem, in New York City, fought unsuccessfully against the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community. But the Warren County protests marked the first instance of an environmental protest by people of color that garnered widespread national attention.

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last revised 10/12/2006

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