Origins and Impact: Understanding the Core of Environmental Justice

By Izzy Rassel, Associate 

Environmental Justice (EJ): “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.” 

In recent years, environmental justice advocacy has brought to the forefront concerns surrounding climate change and unethical environmental practices by businesses that expose communities to toxins.  Just last year, the White House formed the Environmental Justice Advisory Council (EJAC) to provide recommendations to combat environmental injustices. While it’s become a priority, environmental justice — as a movement — has been around for decades. Emerging during the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, it wasn’t uncommon for civil rights leaders to shed light on how communities of color were disproportionately affected by environmental issues.

This continues today as Black and Hispanic communities are more likely to live in areas with higher air pollution, toxic waste sites, landfills, and lead poisoning. Historically, developers have intentionally chosen to place these sites away from white and affluent communities. We’ve seen this play out in Louisiana with “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s lined with chemical and oil plants. The plants’ released toxins have caused residents to be 50% more likely than the average American to be diagnosed with cancer. With support from groups like the Sierra Club, 350 New Orleans, and Extinction Rebellion, residents have come together to protest the chemical plants and reject plans to build more in the area.

As environmental activists push back against practices that harm communities and damage residents’ health, there’s also the question of sustainability. If environmental practice methods are being promoted as sustainable, but are not in the long term, where will that leave future generations?

The fight for a more equitable future for communities of color goes beyond those directly affected by environmental injustice. There are steps everyone can take to elevate the voices of those affected by environmental racism, including: holding your local representatives accountable through phone calls and voting; becoming more aware; and understanding that this work takes time, but it’s worth the effort to make environmental access and treatment equitable.