What is meant by environmental justice?

By Roddy Scheer
Environmental policies should be fair to all people.
Environmental policies should be fair to all people.
Dear EarthTalk: What is meant by “environmental justice” and how is it under assault in the new Trump administration? 

               -- Mike Garner,
                   New Orleans
    Environmental justice is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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.” It means making sure specific groups of people don’t bear a disproportionate burden from potential and existing environmental threats.
    Traditionally, we think of situations like the placement and construction of a pollution-spewing factory in or near a low-income minority community as an example of environmental injustice. Some recent examples ripped from the headlines include the lead contamination of the water supply of predominantly African-American Flint, Michigan, and the placement of the potentially hazardous Dakota Access Pipeline adjacent to sacred and ecologically sensitive Standing Rock Sioux tribal land.
    “The federal government has recognized for decades that air and water quality are especially poor in low-income areas and communities of color, and some of that imbalance stems directly from government permitting decisions, such as where to allow the dumping of toxic materials,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental advocacy nonprofit.
    Environmental justice has been a hot topic lately as it relates to who bears the brunt of climate change impacts. According to EPA research, city dwellers and the poor are among the Americans most likely to suffer from climate change. NRDC points out that 24 to 27 percent of urban African-Americans, Latinos and indigenous people in the U.S. are living below the poverty line, compared with only 13 percent of urban whites—meaning that minority groups are at the greatest risk from the heat waves, bad air, stronger storms and other negative consequences of a warming climate.
    The federal government has been working on environmental justice issues since at least 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush created a White House office dedicated to “environmental equity.” President Bill Clinton took office in 1993 and, one year later issued an executive order calling for the federal government to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”
     Clinton’s order created the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice to coordinate and oversee implementation of the rule across different federal agencies and spawned the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, which has awarded upward of $24 million since then in funding to more than 1,400 community-based and tribal organizations working in areas facing environmental justice problems.
    That is likely to change now that President Donald Trump has proposed slashing the EPA’s overall budget by $2 billion and cutting funding for environmental justice programs by 78 percent, from $6.7 million to just $1.5 million. “These cuts are a direct attack on low-income communities and communities of color everywhere who are on the front lines of toxic pollution,” says Al Huang, NRDC’s environmental justice head.


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    This column was reprinted with permission. EarthTalk is produced by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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