ELIMINATING "environmental racism" has become one of the premier civil rights and ecological 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 disproportionately to bear the ill effects of pollution, compared to more affluent whites. What is more, they contend, the discriminatory application of environmental regulations and remediation procedures essentially has let polluters in minority communities off the hook.
To remedy this perceived imbalance, policymakers in Washington have mounted a full-court press. On Feb. 11, 1994, Pres. Clinton issued an executive order on environmental justice, requiring Federal agencies to demonstrate that their programs and policies do not inflict environmental harm unfairly 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 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 often are 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 addressing environmental justice claims, and what reasonable steps should society take to ensure that environmental policies are enacted and implemented fairly?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the answers to these questions are not simple or 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 so clear-cut. Before approving additional regulations on facility siting and permitting, policymakers would be well-advised to assess candidly the quality of the existing environmental racism research as well as the likely costs and benefits of proposed solutions. Only with such a critical eye can legislators be certain that the measures ultimately enacted are cost-effective and successful in addressing the equity concerns of minority and low-income communities.
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 organizations aggressively challenged local developments they considered undesirable, becoming an effective voice for the concerns of inner-city residents. In the absence of detailed research, however, the evidence for their 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. Bullard, a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, in the late 1970s. …