The Environmental Justice Movement

Environmental justice is 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.

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Protestors block the delivery of toxic PCB waste to a landfill in Afton, North Carolina, 1982.

Credit: Ricky Stilley

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.

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.

The Facts of Environmental Racism

To civil rights activists looking on as the events in Warren County played out, the actions of the North Carolina state government in forcing a toxic landfill onto a small African-American community were an extension of the racism they had encountered for decades in housing, education and employment. But this time, it was environmental racism.

The Afton protests energized a new faction within the civil rights movement that saw the environment as another front in the struggle for justice. Many early environmental justice leaders came out of the civil rights movement. They brought to the environmental movement the same tactics they had used in civil rights struggles—marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, community empowerment through education, litigation and nonviolent direct action. Many veterans of the civil rights movement—often affiliated with black churches—showed up in Afton, helping to attract national media attention. Among them were Reverend Ben Chavis and Reverend Joseph Lowery, then of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Reverend Leon White of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice.

In the wake of the Afton protests, environmental justice activists looked around the nation and saw a pattern: Pollution-producing facilities are often sited in poor communities of color. No one wants a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus garage for a neighbor. But corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities. Poor communities and communities of color usually lacked connections to decision makers on zoning boards or city councils that could protect their interests. Often they could not afford to hire the technical and legal expertise they'd need to fight a siting. They often lacked access to information about how their new "neighbor's" pollution would affect people's health. And in the case of Latino communities, important information in English-only documents was out of reach for affected residents who spoke only Spanish.

Several studies published in the 1980s and early 1990s gave charges of environmental racism new credibility. Walter Fauntroy, District of Columbia Congressional Delegate and then-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, took part in the Afton protests. When Fauntroy returned to Washington, he tasked Congress's General Accounting Office with determining whether communities of color suffered disproportionate negative impacts from the siting and construction of hazardous waste landfills within them. The GAO study was published in 1983, and revealed that three-quarters of the hazardous waste landfill sites in eight southeastern states were located in primarily poor, African-American and Latino communities.

More evidence of environmental racism came through the efforts of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ), under the leadership of Reverend Benjamin Chavis, who had also stood with the protesters at Afton. With Chavis serving as its director, the CRJ published Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, a 1987 report that became an indispensable tool in galvanizing support for environmental justice action. The report, by the UCC's Director of Research Charles Lee, showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States. It also found that due to the strong statistical correlation between race and the location of hazardous wastes sites, the siting of these facilities in communities of color was no accident, but rather the intentional result of local, state and federal land-use policies. And in 1990, sociologist Robert Bullard's Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality reviewed the environmental justice struggles of several African-American communities; the stories underscored the importance of race as a factor in the siting of unwanted toxics-producing facilities.

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.

National Recognition

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.

Today, and Tomorrow

Many grassroots environmental justice organizations have formed since the dump trucks rolled into Afton, North Carolina, more than 20 years ago. Today, many of these groups have become strong and permanent forces for environmental protection and social change in their communities:

  • Concerned Citizens of South Central (Los Angeles), a housing and community development corporation that helped to lead the fight against the now infamous LANCER incinerator in the late 1980s, provides leadership on environmental issues and a range of other social justice issues.
  • West Harlem Environmental Action was created in 1998 to fight the siting of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, and has gone on to spearhead action on many other environmental problems in New York City and New York State.
  • Through the Louisiana Avatar project under the coordination of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, rural parish communities in Louisiana's Cancer Alley have made major strides in publicizing, researching and intervening in hundreds of environmental actions to protect communities from further degradation and harm.
  • Mothers of East L.A., originally organized to stop the siting of a prison in the East Los Angeles community, turned its attention to opposing a hazardous waste incinerator and has subsequently taken on other local environmental and social issues.

Traditional environmental groups have also formed partnerships to support environmental justice organizations in many of their struggles. Groups such as NRDC often provide environmental justice organizations with technical advice and resources, supply expert testimony at hearings and join in litigation. These partnerships are ongoing success stories in many parts of the country.

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.

Correction: August 3, 2020, this story was updated with the correct name of the Los Angeles incinerator project, LANCER.

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