Environmental Injustice

By Boerner, Christopher; Lambert, Thomas | The Public Interest, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Environmental Injustice


Boerner, Christopher, Lambert, Thomas, The Public Interest


Eliminating "environmental racism" has fast become one of the premier civil rights and environmental issues of the 1990s. Over the past 15 years, what began as a modest grassroots social movement has expanded to become a national issue, combining environmentalism's sense of urgency with the ethical concerns of the civil rights movement. According to "environmental-justice" advocates, discrimination in the siting and permitting of industrial and waste facilities has forced minorities and the poor to bear disproportionately the ill-effects of pollution compared to more affluent whites. What's more, advocates contend, the discriminatory application of environmental regulations and remediation procedures has essentially let polluters in minority communities "off the hook."

To remedy this perceived imbalance, policy-makers in Washington have mounted a full-court press. On February 11, 1994, the Clinton Administration issued an executive order on environmental justice, requiring federal agencies to demonstrate that their programs and policies do not unfairly inflict environmental harm on the poor and minorities. The order also creates an interagency task force to inform the president of all federal environmental-justice policies and to work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Equity as well as other government agencies to ensure that those policies are implemented promptly. In addition to the president's executive order, Congress is debating several separate bills designed to guarantee environmental equity. These proposals would affect the location of industrial facilities.

With charges of racism, discrimination, and social negligence being bantered about, discussions of the environmental justice issue are often passionate and, occasionally, inflammatory. Behind the emotion, however, two critical questions arise: does the existing evidence justify such a high-level commitment of resources to environmental-justice claims; and what reasonable steps should society take to ensure that environmental policies are fairly enacted and implemented?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the answers to these questions are neither simple nor readily apparent. While it certainly seems noncontroversial to assert that environmental officials ought to enforce existing laws equally, the question of siting and permitting reforms is not unambiguous. Before approving additional regulations on facility siting and permitting, policy-makers would be well-advised to assess candidly both the quality of the existing environmental-racism research as well as the likely costs and benefits of proposed solutions to this problem. Only with such a critical eye can legislators be certain that the measures ultimately enacted are both cost effective and successful in addressing the equity concerns of minority and low-income communities.

Evidence of racism?

The call for environmental justice first surfaced during the late 1970s with the work of grassroots organizations such as the Mothers of East Los Angeles and Chicago's People for Community Recovery. While ostensibly formed to combat specific local environmental problems, each of these groups seemingly shared one unifying belief: that the poor and minorities are systematically discriminated against in the siting, regulation, and remediation of industrial and waste facilities. Through social and political protest, these neighborhood groups aggressively challenged local developments they considered undesirable, becoming an effective voice for the concerns of inner-city residents. In the absence of detailed empirical research, however, the evidence for these organizations' claims of discrimination remained largely anecdotal. As a result, their influence on policy was limited. Not until several studies appeared to substantiate their assertions did the movement gain national attention.

The first major attempt to provide empirical support for environmental justice claims was conducted by Robert D. …

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