A RIGHT TO CLEAN AIR, clean water and a healthy environment appears nowhere in the Constitution, but a growing network of civil-rights and environmental groups are spreading the message that they are just as important as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It's a change in focus for the civil-rights activists and environmentalists, reflecting an increased awareness of mounting evidence that health hazards frequently hit minorities harder than anyone else.
As part of what has become known as the environmental justice movement, some of the nation's best-known civil-rights organizations have been turning the strategies that helped them break racial and gender barriers toward attacking the heavy impact of environmental risks on blacks, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians.
They are suing to get broader and more sophisticated testing programs for lead poisoning, a problem that harms black children far more widely than white youngsters at all income levels. They are fighting such projects as the route of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, Calif., which is being rebuilt after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, because it would displace poor, black residents. They are helping community groups fight such potential hazards as toxic-waste incinerators.
The government also is getting involved in the movement in a way that activists believe will give their efforts added impetus.
In April, President Clinton asked the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department to begin investigating the inequalities in exposure to environmental hazards.
And EPA Administrator Carol Browner has pledged to take into account the disparities in environmental risks in every agency decision.
For years, the EPA took the position that its programs did not fall under the nation's civil-rights laws. But in the early 1990s the agency began looking into the problems of pollution in minority communities.
Supporting such a move was a study the National Law Journal published in September showing that from 1985 to 1991 the EPA moved more quickly and levied higher fines when polluters were in predominantly white areas than in minority communities.
The civil-rights groups have also stepped up lobbying on environmental issues and helped to organize networks of community groups that for years have been fighting the front-line battles virtually on their own.
Environmental groups that have long worked separately on health-related causes are teaming with organizers in affected communities; other environmentalists are asking how they can get involved.
"The same level of passion we had around racial discrimination, school desegregation . . . we need to have around environmental discrimination," the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, said at a conference on environmental justice in March.
Chavis previously headed the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, whose 1987 national study showed for the first time the extent to which race - even more than income - determines who bears the largest share of pollution burdens. …