During the course of my college career, my interests and passions have changed, gradually evolving to an intensified mix of all that my Interdisciplinary Studies major encompasses. I began my college career seeking a Mass Communication degree; a course of study that focused primarily on community organization and mobilization. After feeling the harsh reality of advertising and public relations evils, I decided that Social Work was my calling. I felt a deep need to help others in situations where if they only had some assistance their lives could be changed for the better. However, after taking an Introduction to Environmental Issues course, I felt strongly that a change of studies was necessary. I began to formulate a study plan that included all of my previous interests and integrated a whole new section-policy and law. I was particularly interested in the politics of environmental issues and how government and society view the environment and handle problems or issues that arise. Thus, when my senior project topic was due, the obvious choice for me was to research environmental justice within the United States. The Environmental Justice Movement has elements of my formulated major-communication, sociology, and political science; in every local/national issue there are social concerns, communication breakthroughs and barriers, and a very political atmosphere when dealing with policies and the environment. Throughout the course of my research I want to draw on my knowledge I have gained during my college career. I hope to obtain awareness of environmental justice issues by utilizing a holistic, integrated perspective; a view that will allow me to not only understand the root of the problem, but foresee some viable political solutions.
Definitions, Beliefs & Concerns
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Justice (or environmental racism, the terms will be used synonymously in this paper) is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. The essential piece of the complex environmental justice movement is the assurance that every group of people, no matter their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background will bear a proportionate share of negative environmental consequences.
This movement which began as scattered protests against perceived environmental injustice had coalesced into "one of the strongest new forces for environmental reform to emerge in many years"(Adams., 1994) since finding federal backing in the civil rights legislation of 1964. Beginning in early 1980s, environmental advocates have been publicizing and protesting the fact that environmental hazards at the workplace, in the home, and in the community are often disproportionately visited upon poor people and people of color.(Blank) The issues of urban blight, and the tendencies of factories to proliferate in limited geographic regions exposed residents of these regions to the effects of factory presence - such as decreased forestation, increased amounts of paved land, and the presence of environmental toxins which the factories produces.
Beginning in the 1980's, ten years of grassroots efforts to move forward the agenda forward met with only limited progress. When President Clinton's signed an executive order aimed at promoting environmental equity, he signaled that the movement's concerns had begun to reach the political mainstream.(Exec Order 12898, 1994) Legally, however, the campaign to promote environmental justice -- an effort which has been marketed as one on the "cutting edge of a new civil rights struggle"(Lavelle and Coyle, 1995) -- is still very much in its developmental stages.
The environmental movement has transmogrified into the environmental justice movement with the help of a creating reading of Title VI of the 1964 Civil rights legislation. A number of legal claims have been directed toward improving environmental qualities in the name of those struggling against environmental racism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin in federally funded programs and activities. The basic argument is this: "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides large amounts of federal funds to state environmental agencies. These state agencies, in turn, are the governmental bodies responsible for much of the nation's environmental policy -- the enforcement of pollution standards, the permitting of waste treatment and disposal facilities and industrial polluters, and the citing of those facilities. If the actions of those federally-funded state agencies create a racially discriminatory distribution of pollution, then a violation of Title VI has occurred and a civil rights lawsuit is warranted." (Fisher, 1995)
The consequences of the new federally empowered environmental rights movement include having stronger governmental involvement through environmental policies that will protect "disadvantaged groups of people from suffering from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations." (Fisher, 1995)
Federal, state, and local environmental programs and policies have been reviewed, challenged, modified, and created in order to address the issue of equity in environmental problems.
In response to public concerns, the EPA created the Office of Environmental Justice in 1992, and implemented a new organizational infrastructure to integrate environmental justice into EPA's policies, programs, and activities. Within this sector of the EPA, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council was initiated and acts as a leader who provides direction on strategic planning to ensure that policy input, program development, and implementation of environmental justice is incorporated throughout all of the agency's operations and is a top priority.
Perhaps, the EPA believes they prioritize environmental justice towards the top of their list, but when did this rise in salience occur? Are these environmental justice issues/policies on the national agenda? Furthermore, one would have to question whether the American public has truly gained awareness of issues related to unequal distribution of environmental hazards or if the only ones taking notice are those truly and intimately affected. Maybe more people would be aware of environmental justice issues if they understood what the term 'environmental justice' meant and everything that encompasses it. At the heart of the environmental justice movement is the belief that minorities and the poor have historically bore a disproportionate amount of environmental hazards, risks, and effects of pollution derived from industrial and waste facilities. Environmental justice advocates contend that minority communities are the victims of discriminatory siting and permitting of these facilities, as well as discriminatory applications of environmental regulations and remediation procedures (Lambert, 1996).
Because there is such a deep belief that poor communities of color are targeted by industries, while communities of affluent, white people are not, environmental advocates birthed the term 'environmental racism' which connected pollution to race. While racism may be the central component within all discriminatory incidents, the term "environmental injustice" encompasses both the racial and the class aspects of the political economy at work in communities that face toxic assault (Cole & Foster, 2001).
Benjamin Chaves is credited with first using the term "environmental racism." In March of 1993 he gave this definition to a congressional committee investigating the phenomenon:
Environmental racism is defined as racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the unequal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. It is the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities and the official sanctioning of life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in people of color communities."(Chaves, 1993)
Professor Robert Bullard, a sociologist who is a widely published commentator on the subject, describes environmental racism as: "[A]ny policy, practice, or directive that, intentionally or unintentionally, differentially impacts or disadvantages individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color, [as well as the] exclusionary and restrictive practices that limit participation by people of color in decision-making boards, commissions, and Staffs.(Brown, 1993)
These statements contain the two standards which are used for gauging whether certain actions amount to environmental racism. Chavis's use of the terms "discrimination" and "unequal enforcement" indicate a results-based approach to the problem, and his condemnation of "deliberate targeting" implies that discriminatory intent is the defining characteristic of environmental racism. In contrast, Bullard denies the importance of intentional discrimination, and makes unequal results the determinant.
This working definition in a democratic and free society gives this movement an excessive amount of power, in that from one neighborhood to another, from one city to another, conditions regarding environmental cleanliness and purity are bound to differ. A highly industrialized city will have a different definition of environmentally accepted conditions than a small city in the rural Midwest. AS the movement seeks to gain power and influence, it is this exceedingly broad interpretation of 'equal outcome' that is creating much of the political difficulties.
EPA chief Browner has also expressed concern for reinterpreting Title VI in terms of environmental policy, and has issued statements that she will work with major industrial corporations to draft a policy that meets their concerns. Browner insists that a Title VI disparate impact standard must play a role in the process of issuing permits to companies to build new facilities, but even this is an approach that many state environmental officials simply find unworkable.