Environmental Justice

Scales of justice equaling races without prejudice or racism. Clipping path included.

Standing Up for What’s Right

By Zora Lathan, Audubon Activist (May 1993, revised 2002)

The Environmental Justice movement has received public attention for working to remedy environmental abuses in minority and low-income communities. Environmental injustice gained national attention when in 1982, Dollie Burwell, a North Carolina resident, organized a highly publicized campaign against a proposed toxic waste dump in Warren County, where two-thirds of the population is African-American. During the 1982 protest, former D.C. Congressman Walter Fauntroy flew to Warren County to lend a hand, and to his surprise, was arrested along with numerous other protestors.

He got just mad enough to go back to Washington, D.C. and order a U.S. Government Accounting Office investigation of the situation. In 1983, GAO studied the location of landfills in eight Southern states and found that three of every four were in minority communities.

The GAO study inspired the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ to look at the siting issue, and this led to the Commission’s report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. Over time, the report received greater attention and its findings were confirmed by new and alarming incidents around the country. In January 1990, leaders of the Environmental Racism (as it was then called) movement convened the Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, bringing together community leaders, members of academia,  and government agency representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) as well as other agencies.  In July 1990, the USEPA launched a study of the problem through the formation of the Environmental Equity Workgroup. And in October 1991, grassroots organizers and affected communities organized the first People of Color Leadership Summit, in Washington, D.C. Three years later, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council was established to protect minority and low-income communities from landfill exploitation and other similar abuses.

Some states, including Maryland, followed the federal government’s lead and set up their own watchdog groups. However, landfills, toxic waste dumps, sewage treatment plants, and other polluting facilities continue to be primarily located in minority and low-income communities throughout the nation.

There is general agreement among civil rights activists and environmental leaders that significant remedies are needed to address the policies and practices that result in the disproportionately adverse impacts of polluting facilities on people of color and low-income populations. Much more work is needed to ensure that the nation’s industrial facility siting policies will not unduly place any specific population or community at risk. Residents from environmentally impacted communities are especially alarmed at their rising asthma, respiratory illnesses, lead poisoning, and cancer rates, and especially among children.

According to Dr. Robert Bullard, a leading campaigner against environmental racism, “The environmental justice movement has basically redefined what environmentalism is all about. It basically says that the environment is everything: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. And so we can’t separate the physical environment from the cultural environment.” Environmental justice embodies the idea that we are just as concerned about wetlands, birds, and wilderness areas, but we’re also concerned with urban habitats, reservations, what is happening along the US-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing, and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds.


“Flint illustrates the broader problem of environmental injustice—meaning the disproportionate exposure of lower- income communities and communities of color to environmental hazards.” –Erik Olson and Kristi Pullen Fedinick, NRDC

Learn about the devastating lead contamination of the tap water in Flint, Michigan and throughout the nation. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report highlights the widespread violations of national rules designed to protect people from lead, a known neurotoxin that is harmful even in small doses.


In Maryland, one community is taking a stand against environmental racism

By Jeremy Deaton, July 17, 2016

“The toxic refuse of coal- and gas-fired power plants targets black communities with alarming precision. It can be difficult to discern each link in the causal chain connecting a child’s asthma to the smokestack on the horizon, but the problem is real. Lacking a systemic solution, advocates are left to fight environmental injustice one arduous battle at a time.”

“A coalition of environmental groups in Brandywine, Maryland, have filed a federal civil rights complaint against the state for permitting a new gas-fired power plant in a largely African-American community that is already subjected to high levels of pollution. In response, there will be a federal investigation.”  Learn more…


Achieving Meaningful Diversity in the Environmental Arena

By Zora Lathan, August 8, 2016

In a June 8, 2016 Choose Clean Water article, David Morgan writes, “The racial composition of environmental organizations has not broken the 12-15 percent margin, despite people of color making up roughly one-third of the United States’ population. This issue, what has become known as the “green insiders club” particularly in leadership roles, is a fundamental problem in environmental organizations.”

However, as an African American working in the environmental arena for decades, I, and many of my colleagues, would question the 12-15 percent number. This percentage appears to be greater than the reality, and begs the question “does 12-15 percent include support staff?” During my 12 years of working for the National Audubon Society (NAS), beginning in 1985, and to this day, my perception is that most environmental organizations tend to be exclusive and elitist. During most of my years at NAS, I was only one of two non-white individuals working in a professional program position (out of a staff of approximately 200). Other non-white staffers were in support, or occasionally administrative positions such as human resources.

The problem isn’t simply a lack of participation of people of color within environmental organizations. It’s a problem of leadership roles and positions being reserved specifically for the “green insiders club.” The issue/problem is further compounded by a lack of recognition of environmental initiatives that are championed and led by non-whites, most notably, environmental justice issues, as well as traditional environmental issues. Too often whites assume they need to “show non-whites the way,” when oftentimes they could greatly benefit by listening to those whom they may erroneously assume are ignorant.

There continues to be a great deal of discussion about diversity among environmental groups. And there is a lot of smoke-and-mirror maneuvering where groups present the appearance of inclusivity and diversity, e.g., working with people of color youth and using their images in publications. This can help groups with securing funding, particularly with funders that promote diversity in their grant application process. If there is inclusiveness, it’s more often one of “follow my lead, I’ll show you the way,” rather than true inclusiveness by working as equal partners.

Environmentalists understand the importance of diversity in flora and fauna for a healthy, balanced ecosystem. It’s long over due not only to recognize, but also to truly appreciate and make meaningful efforts to diversify the environmental workforce and participating activists, in both leadership and in learning roles.