Facilities that negatively affect the environment, such as landfills, industrial plants, and toxic waste storage sites, have historically been located in areas populated by poor people and communities of color. The environmental justice movement grew out of concerns over the effects those facilities had on the health and well-being of nearby residents. This brief history of environmental justice will familiarize you with how the movement has evolved.
Early Environmental Justice Protests
During the 1960s, people across the United States who were inspired by how the civil rights movement fought for environmental justice in their communities, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
In the early 1960s, Cesar Chavez organized Latino farmworkers in California to fight for workplace rights and protection from harmful pesticides. In 1967, African American students in Houston protested against a garbage dump where a child had drowned in a pond. The following year, residents of West Harlem in New York City waged an unsuccessful protest against the siting of a sewage treatment plant.
National Spotlight on Environmental Justice Protests
In 1982, residents of the predominantly African American community of Afton, North Carolina, protested against a new hazardous waste landfill. Residents were concerned that toxic PCBs could leach into the local water supply.
Protesters lay inroads to block trucks heading to the landfill. During six weeks of marches and nonviolent protests, police arrested more than 500 people. Although the protesters lost their battle and toxic waste was deposited in their community, the protests were a milestone because they garnered national media attention and inspired people to fight against similar cases of environmental injustice in other places.
Focus on Civil Rights and Environmental Justice
After the protests in Afton, many people who had been involved in the civil rights movement recognized environmental justice as another important area to address in the overall fight for equality. Numerous early leaders of the environmental justice movement had already been active in the civil rights movement and were affiliated with Black churches. They brought many of the strategies of the civil rights movement to the fight for environmental justice:
- Coalition building
- Nonviolent direct action
Environmental justice activists saw a clear pattern across the United States. Corporate decision-makers and government authorities located facilities that could negatively impact the environment and local residents’ health in areas that were disproportionately home to impoverished people and communities of color. People in positions of power knew that residents of those communities often did not have the resources and connections to fight back successfully.
In Latino communities, language barriers sometimes added to the problem. Residents who did not fully understand the dangers they faced were particularly vulnerable.
Recognition of the Importance of Environmental Justice
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, multiple studies published in the 1980s and 1990s provided statistical evidence to support protesters’ claims of environmental racism. Congress’ General Accounting Office published a study in 1983 that looked at hazardous waste landfills in the southeastern United States and found that three-quarters were in poor, African American, and Latino communities.
In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published a study that stated that race was the single most important factor influencing the locations of toxic waste facilities. The report also found that sites that disproportionately impacted minority communities were chosen intentionally. A 1990 report by sociologist Robert Bullard presented similar findings.
Until then, environmental justice organizations had been mostly staffed and led by white people and had not focused on the environmental struggles of people of color. In a 1990 letter, the leaders of several environmental justice organizations accused the “Big 10” environmental groups of racial bias. The letter called on those groups to address the effects of environmental contamination on poor and minority communities.
Governmental Action on Environmental Injustice
Leaders of the environmental justice movement began working with government officials. Those efforts led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Equity Work Group and the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. That summit produced the “Principles of Environmental Justice” and the “Call to Action,” two critical documents that served as a foundation for the environmental justice movement.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to identify and address policies and programs that had disproportionately high negative impacts on the health and environments of low-income people and people of color. The executive order also directed federal agencies to identify ways to prevent discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in federally funded health and environmental programs.
Environmental Justice Today
The history of fighting for environmental justice in the U.S. is long, and the struggle is still ongoing today. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Marines stationed at any one of the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina installations for at least 30 days could have been exposed to contaminated water.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states that multiple contaminants, including benzene and industrial solvents, tainted the area’s water supply for decades. These and other chemicals are responsible for a variety of serious illnesses and conditions, including:
- Various kinds of cancer, including bladder cancer, breast cancer, and leukemia
- Parkinson’s disease
- Fertility problems, including miscarriage
- Neurobehavioral issues
- Renal toxicity
Although the Camp Lejeune contamination occurred decades ago, the effects are still being felt by the Marines and their families who continue to suffer from the symptoms associated with these conditions, and all that the conditions have cost them in financial security, career opportunities, and quality of life.
Any act of environmental justice must include remembering the long history of injustice and continuing to fight for those impacted by corporate and government neglect, carelessness, and willful misconduct. While preventing future injustices is vital, victims of the past must never be forgotten.
Continuing the Fight for Environmental Justice
Traditional environmental groups and organizations that support environmental justice have continued to collaborate by providing technical advice and resources and assisting each other with litigation. Those partnerships have produced some success stories, but much work remains.
Ben Crump Law, PLLC helps people across the United States who suffered harm by the actions of others seek justice. We file class action lawsuits to hold those in positions of power accountable for their actions. Call our office to speak with a member of our team about how we may be able to assist you and others in your community who have been impacted by environmental injustice.