What Is Environmental Justice?
Environmental justice refers to both a social movement and a field of scientific research. As a movement, it is a marriage of civil rights and environmentalism, emerging in 1982 when black citizens lay down on the road to stop the government from dumping 120 million pounds of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls in Warren County, North Carolina.74 Although the Warren County waste site ultimately was established,75,76 the protests captured the nation’s attention.
The study of environmental justice began in earnest in 1983, when the Government Accountability Office (then known as the General Accounting Office) investigated the racial composition of communities near four hazardous waste sites in the Southeast, three of which were located in predominantly black communities where at least 26% of the population lived below the poverty level.77 In 1987 the first national study to analyze the issue with multivariate statistics found that even after controlling for household income, housing values, amount of hazardous waste generated in an area, and other factors, the percentage of minority residents in a zip code proved the greatest predictor of hazardous waste facility siting. Zip codes with hazardous waste sites had double the percentage of minority residents compared with those with none, and zip codes with more than one facility had triple the percentage of minority residents.74
By the early 1990s, the federal government first acknowledged environmental justice with a working group that published the report Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities.78 Soon after, the Environmental Protection Agency created the Office of Environmental Equity, since renamed the Office of Environmental Justice. The agency defines environmental justice as “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.”79