The Environmental Justice Movement
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Finding New Allies
By 1990, leaders of the growing environmental justice movement began to look for allies among the traditional, primarily white environmental organizations. These were groups that had long fought to protect wilderness, endangered species, clean air and clean water. But they had had little or no involvement in the environmental struggles of people of color under constant assault from neighboring hazardous waste landfills, waste transfer stations, incinerators, garbage dumps, diesel bus and truck garages, auto body shops, smokestack industries, industrial hog and chicken processors, oil refineries, chemical manufacturers and radioactive waste storage areas. That year, several environmental justice leaders co-signed a widely publicized letter to the "Big 10" environmental groups, including NRDC, accusing them of racial bias in policy development, hiring and the make up of their boards, and challenging them to address toxic contamination in the communities and workplaces of people of color and the poor. As a result, some mainstream environmental organizations developed their first environmental justice initiatives, added people of color to staff and resolved to take environmental justice into account when making policy decisions.
Environmental justice leaders also pushed their agenda within government. In 1990, a group of prominent academics and advocates within the movement sent letters to Louis Sullivan and William Reilly, both top officials in the first Bush administration, to report some of their findings on the disproportionate impact of environmentally damaging facilities. The letters requested meetings to discuss needed government action. Sullivan, who is African-American, ignored the letter. Reilly accepted the offer and later that year he met with the group, a session that led to the creation of the U.S. EPA's Office of Environmental Equity.
In October 1991, the growth of the environmental justice movement became evident when the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit met for three days in Washington, D.C. The summit brought together hundreds of environmental justice leaders from the United States, Canada, Central America, the Marshall Islands and elsewhere, for the first time to network and strategize. But the list of attendees -- which included Reverend Jesse Jackson, Dolores Huerta, Cherokee tribal chair Wilma Mankiller and the heads of NRDC and the Sierra Club -- also demonstrated that environmental justice was beginning to be taken up by many in the American mainstream. What's more, the summit produced the "Principles of Environmental Justice" and the "Call to Action," two foundational documents of the environmental justice movement.
By 1992, when Bill Clinton became president, it was clear that environmental justice was becoming important to leaders of a core constituency of the Democratic Party. Clinton appointed two environmental justice leaders, Reverend Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard, to his Natural Resources transition team, where they helped make environmental justice an important part of Clinton's stated environmental policy.
During the Clinton administration, environmental justice finally became federal government policy. As movement leaders from across the country looked on, including NRDC's then-director of environmental justice, Vernice Miller-Travis, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 in the Oval Office on February 11, 1994. The groundbreaking order directed federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high adverse health or environmental effects of their policies or programs on low-income people and people of color. It also directed federal agencies to look for ways to prevent discrimination by race, color or national origin in any federally funded programs dealing with health or the environment.
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