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 that those facilities had on the health and well-being of nearby residents.
Early Environmental Justice Protests
During the 1960s, people across the United States who were inspired by 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 Protests
In 1982, residents of the predominantly African American community of Afton, North Carolina protested against a new hazardous waste landfill. Residents were concerned about the possibility 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, more than 500 people were arrested. 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: rallies, marches, petitions, coalition building, education, litigation, and 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 Problem
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, multiple studies that were 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.
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.
Continuing the Fight for 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 to be done.
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 at (800) 959-1444 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.