Environmental equity strives to ensure that no community faces a disproportionate share of environmental hazards. Creating environmental equity is the objective of the environmental justice movement. Environmental justice lawyers play an important role in achieving this goal by holding powerful groups accountable through litigation.
National nonprofit organization MobilizeGreen states: “Environmental equity describes a country, or world, in which no single group or community faces disadvantages in dealing with environmental hazards, disasters, or pollution. Ideally, no one should need extreme wealth or political connections to protect the well-being of their families and communities. Environmental equity is a basic human right.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adds that environmental equity is an important goal in a democratic society.
Components of Environmental Equity
One central component of environmental equity is fair treatment, meaning that no group should face environmental hazards because of institutional policies. Every community should experience the same benefits under environmental law, free of discrimination.
The second component of environmental equity is meaningful involvement, which means that groups can offer their input on decisions that will affect their environment and their health. Lawmakers should seek feedback from communities that face the consequences of environmental inequity.
Effects of Environmental Inequity
Environmental inequity means that some people experience the effects of pollution and environmental degradation more than others because of their race, ethnicity, gender, and/or socioeconomic status.
Environmental equity issues and climate change disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color. The EPA notes that racial minority and low-income populations experience higher-than-average exposure to selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish, and agricultural pesticides. The EPA’s environmental equity efforts have addressed some of these concerns.
Disenfranchised People Can Remain Trapped in Hazardous Communities
People who live in communities impacted by pollution and environmental degradation can remain trapped in those areas because of cyclical poverty. Residents surrounded by forms of pollution and contamination usually cannot move out of those neighborhoods because they cannot afford to live elsewhere.
Long-Term Exposure to Pollutants Can Cause Long-Term Health Problems
Long-term exposure to environmental contamination can lead to a host of health concerns, including respiratory and neurological problems. Other factors, such as malnutrition, limited access to health care, smoking, and chronic stress, can increase individuals’ risk of experiencing negative health outcomes related to environmental pollution. Health issues stemming from environmental contamination can contribute to shortened life expectancies in low-income and minority communities.
Medical problems can also force people to miss time from work. For those workers whose employers do not provide paid sick days, taking time off can contribute to the cycle of poverty.
Climate change affects everyone, but communities of color face disproportionate challenges. Those disparities are often not adequately addressed, and many people in low-income and minority communities lack the resources and clout necessary to bring about changes in laws and government policies.
According to the Greenlining Institute, policymakers generally do not take into account minority communities while making important decisions. Without the ability to influence decision-makers, minority communities face a wealth of life-altering consequences.
An Environmental Inequity Example – Camp Lejeune Water Contamination
The events surrounding Camp Lejeune have re-entered the popular media sphere. This military base, located in North Carolina, had a contaminated water supply between August 1953 and December 1987. Service members stationed on this base during this period were exposed to carcinogenic chemicals.
Veterans are already a vulnerable group, making the Camp Lejeune water contamination event an issue of environmental equity. However, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 could allow veterans to pursue lawsuits against the U.S. government, provided they meet eligibility requirements.
This new legislation is an example of effective environmental equity measures. While this act hasn’t been written into law yet, it’s garnered bipartisan support in both the Senate and House.
Importance of Systemic Change in Environmental Equity
Governments across the United States have repeatedly chosen minority and low-income communities to build toxic waste disposal facilities, landfills, and other sites that can negatively impact the surrounding environment and the people who live there.
According to the EPA, data on environmental factors, health, and health risks posed by multiple industrial facilities are generally not collected and analyzed by income and race. However, risk assessment and risk management procedures can better account for equity considerations.
The Fight for Environmental Equity
Governments have passed numerous laws and have made decisions on the use of land that has had negative environmental effects. Those policies disproportionately impact people who live in low-income and minority neighborhoods. These problems have existed for decades, and bringing about widespread change will take a concerted effort by people across the United States.
Ben Crump Law, PLLC advocates for people who have suffered because of the choices and actions of others. Many of the clients we represent suffer harm because they lack economic and political power. We are working to right the wrongs of the past and bring about environmental equity.
Call our office to speak to a member of our staff about what you and other members of your community have experienced. Our team can help you seek justice.