At Molekule we want everyone to breathe clean air, and we recognize that there is an unequal distribution of pollution in our country and around the world. An American’s ZIP code determines as much as 60% of their health, and there are some ZIP codes that are associated with very bad health outcomes.
This is why we support environmental justice, which is a movement seeking to address the unequal distribution of pollution and other environmental hazards that result from modern industrial production. It is a group of people working to stop companies from profiting by contaminating communities that both have no say in the contamination and do not see a fair share, or any, of the profits. It began as an activist-driven social movement but is rapidly becoming an official regulatory priority with recent action by the Biden Administration and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Environmental justice was spurred to existence in the 1980s and has several general and more specific goals. In this piece we will explore some of the studies showing the disproportionate impact of pollution on racial minorities and underserved communities, and point out the leaders who have been working on possible solutions.
What are the problems environmental justice is trying to solve?
While environmental justice issues may be complex, there are several key concepts that can be pointed out that describe the aims of the movement. Here are a few of the prominent environmental justice examples.
Worse pollution in neighborhoods of color
Research inspired by the environmental justice movement aims to measure and catalog the presence and impact of pollution. In late 2021, ProPublica published a map resulting from a large data gathering effort to show the disproportionate impact of pollution on low-income and Black communities. They found that census tracts with mostly people of color are exposed to about 40% more cancer-causing pollution compared to census tracts that are mostly white. Census tracts that are mostly Black are exposed to as much as 100% more pollution.
Their map and follow-up reporting has demonstrated that EPA has not done enough to protect Americans from chemicals that cause cancer and other diseases as a result of their toxicity. The standards in place that allow the EPA to enforce environmental protection laws only assess individual facilities. A refinery is allowed to emit just as much pollution if it is next to a waste incinerator. They also point out they used the EPA’s own publicly available data for their analysis, which means the organization has no excuse not to act.
Sacrifice zones and fenceline communities
A sacrifice zone is an environment that has been permanently damaged for industrial or technological progress. It is the same problem described by “fenceline communities”, which are homes just over the fence from facilities that disrupt their occupants’ health with air, water, soil, or noise pollution.
Communities in Appalachia that have been devastated by mountain-top removal mining, “Cancer Alley” along the Mississippi river where there are 150 petrochemical plants, and Camden, NJ where the loss of manufacturing facilities left a legacy of poverty and toxicity are examples of sacrifice zones. In all these cases, executives and members of other communities earned billions of dollars for these projects while the local populace was neither enriched by the project nor protected from the inevitable industrial byproducts.
Environmentalism can be elitist and exclusive
Since the 1960s, those who have had the resources to fight for the environment have typically been from upper or middle class backgrounds. There are fewer members of the working class who have been activists for the environment. While it is true that environmental activists are quite aware of class struggles and racism, the strides made against pollution have had a regressive impact. Regardless of the intention, pollution has been getting better for higher income and mostly white communities but not for everyone else.
With these problems in mind, the movement is mostly thought to have started about 50 years ago in the 1979 case Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp when Houston stood up to a corporation trying to put a landfill in a thriving suburban Black community.
Who started the environmental justice movement?
There have been many researchers and activists putting their blood, sweat, and tears into environmental justice, but this man is widely credited as the “Father of Environmental Justice.” His name is Dr. Robert D. Bullard and was an expert witness in Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp.
It was Bulllard’s first major activity to defend the environment, seeing the health of a middle-income suburban predominantly Black Houston neighborhood as far more important than any company’s profits. His research at the time showed that the majority of landfills, dumps, and incinerators in Houston were located in predominantly Black areas, though Black people only made up 25% of the population.
In the ensuing decades Dr. Bullard wrote several books detailing his work and research on environmental justice, such as Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality and Wrong Complexion for Protection. He helped to work with the traditionally white-founded environmental movement to merge it with the civil rights movement.
Recently, he has been focused on ensuring that dollars for protecting the environment flow to organizations that can help Black communities. In particular he points to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) where people like Vice President Kamala Harris and EPA chief Michael Regan went to school. Dr. Bullard pointed out in an interview with NPR last year that HBCU have been at the forefront of the movement “when no universities would take on this issue.”
How is the movement continuing today?
There are thousands of people working to address environmental justice. Reverb compiled a list of over 50 Black environmentalists last year, highlighting some of the early workers like Dr. Bullard but also the many young women and men with their own projects. Current environmental justice issues now include bringing nature back into the lives of Black and urban people to address the “Nature Gap,” which refers to the fact that people of color are three times more likely to live in an area without access to trees and other natural features. This lack of access to naturally growing areas can have health impacts. The movement is also taking advantage of the recent headlines to draw the serious attention of the Federal Government.
Reconnecting with the environment
Majora Carter, seen here, is seeking to beautify and develop urban communities. Just like companies retain talent with attractive perks and bonuses, Majora believes that underdeveloped urban areas could thrive via a similar strategy. She often states you “don’t have to move out of their neighborhoods in order to live in a healthier environment.” She is seeking to rehabilitate dilapidated urban areas with the goal of uplifting the people who live and work in them.
In addition to development projects, events like the Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners conference help to train communities to grow their own crops for food and a more pleasant environment and to fight against food deserts. People like Michael Twitty are seeking “culinary justice” by reinvigorating old seed stocks to create the ancestral recipes of African slaves and their descendants. Organizations like Outdoor Afro and the Greening Youth Foundation are connecting Black youth with nature by taking them into the outdoors.
A commitment from the Federal Government
The new head of the EPA, Michael Regan, is committed to environmental justice.
Though President Obama appointed Lisa P. Jackson as the first Black person to be head of the EPA, Regan is the first black man to occupy the role. President Biden chose him specifically for his track record on environmental justice.
Michael Regan started his career with a ten-year stint at the EPA finding market-based ways to reduce pollution. He then went to the Environmental Defense Fund before being selected as the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Though he has clashed with environmentalists over compromises with the business sector, he created an Environmental Justice and Equity Board in North Carolina and worked hard to remediate toxic waste problems plaguing specific communities.
Regan has said that conditions he has witnessed across the nation are “unacceptable in the United States of America,” particularly when “children miss school days because the water isn’t safe” in places like Jackson, Mississippi. He has installed monitors and earmarked money to study and begin to take action in places plagued by toxicity like Cancer Alley.
The Biden administration has also established the Justice40 Initiative, which represents a “promise to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.”
Despite these new directions, the EPA remains a bureaucracy that can take years to have an impact. In addition, the administration’s environmental justice lead on the Council for Environmental Quality, Cecilia Martinez, left abruptly after a short one-year tenure saying she got “dangerously close to burnout.” Regan and his teams are working hard, but the Federal government is sorely in need of environmental justice workers. Evergreen Collaborative is an organization trying to help by bridging the gap between environmentalists and the federal government.
If you want to help, there are many ways to take part, like signing this petition against environmental racism or volunteering with the Environmental Justice Foundation. If possible, advocate for more staff at the Federal, state, and local level to address environmental disparities. And keep an eye on this blog where we try to spread as much education about this and related topics as possible.