Does every income, racial, ethnic, and age group have an equal right to protection from environmental hazards? This question is central to the emotionally charged debate about the location of industrial and waste management facilities and the application of regulations and funds to protect people and neighborhoods. The environmental justice movement came to the forefront of environmental health politics during the 1980s when a landfill for PCB-contaminated waste was located in a poor, largely African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina. That controversial siting led to a study by the United Church of Christ (UCC) which found that hazardous waste management facilities in the United States were disproportionately located in areas that had minority and poor populations.
The UCC research prompted more than two dozen studies that have examined waste management and industrial facility locations, air pollution incidents, and measures of public exposure to toxins to determine whether minority and poor populations bear an unfair toxic burden. The research, which has produced contradictory results, has looked for evidence that the process used to make decisions were equitable, and that the outcomes were equitable. Differences in the findings are largely explained by differences in what populations were chosen as potentially burdened, what activity was supposedly causing the burden, what burden was measured, what the spatial scale was of the analysis, and what statistical methods were used in the analysis. Overall, the evidence proving that poor and minority populations across the United States are disproportionately at risk from environmental hazards is not conclusive.
Nevertheless, this research has made environmental equity an important policy consideration. On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which required all federal agencies to take steps to overcome any disproportionately adverse environmental effects on the poor and minorities. Many federal agencies now have environmental justice offices, take steps
On the other hand, mayors such as Dennis Archer of Detroit have expressed concern that a blanket application of environmental justice concerns hurts the redevelopment of inner-city neighborhoods—precluding, for example, the placement of new factories on remediated brownfield sites. Environmental injustice is also invoked as a reason to curtail suburban sprawl, which removes resources from inner cities and leaves unwanted land uses and poor people in its wake.
MICHAEL R. GREENBERG
(SEE ALSO: African Americans; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; Assessment of Health Status; Brownfields; Environmental Determinants of Health; Environmental Movement; Ethics of Public Health; Ethnicity and Health; Hazardous Waste; Minority Rights; Not In My Backyard [NIMBY]; Poverty and Health; Risk Assessment, Risk Management; Toxic Torts; Toxicology)
Bryant, B. (1995). Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Sexton, K., ed. (1999). Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 9(1):Environmental Justice Issue.