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Values Proposition

The arc of the moral universe is bending toward environmental justice

Environmental Justice


In his historic March 1968 speech at Washington’s National Cathedral, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice. America has an opportunity to accelerate this expectation by bending toward environmental justice.

How can environmental justice best be advanced in the current political moment that is part of a greater historical transition to a non-white population majority by the mid-2040s?

First, let’s define the three components of environmental justice, or EJ:

  1. Meaningful participation of all people in the development, implementation and enforcement of public health and environmental laws, regulations and policies;
  2. Equal distribution of environmental benefits and avoidance of disproportionate health and environmental risks to low-income populations and people of color; and
  3. Integration of EJ as a major component of social justice that substantially reduces income inequality, health care, housing and other quality of life disparities.

An EJ agenda can be implemented by addressing five fundamental questions:

How can environmental justice best be advanced in a political moment that is part of a greater historical transition to a non-white majority?

What are the facts that document a systemic environmental justice problem in the United States? The facts have emerged through decades of publications that document the disproportionate risk of Black, Latino, Asian and Native American populations from pollution sources (proximity to manufacturing, storage, processing and waste management facilities, highways, landfills, contaminated water bodies and other dispersed sources).

This literature continues to expand, most recently in an article in Science Advances by researchers from five universities. It concluded that African Americans are at greater than average risk from concentrations of the particulate matter known as PM 2.5, based upon data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Emissions Inventory. Its conclusions reinforce those of other studies conducted by the American Lung Association and other scientific researchers.

Most of this growing literature has not been accepted by private industry, nor has it been thoroughly evaluated to best inform government policymaking. What is needed is for EPA to request that the National Academy of Sciences conduct an independent assessment of the strengths and limitations of the existing scientific literature relevant to environmental justice policymaking. EPA also should prepare an integrated health risk assessment to provide a scientific basis for agency decision making. Such a risk assessment should be available for public comment and independent scientific review.

What are the characteristics of systemic environmental racism? Analyses of environmental racism document a continuing pattern of powerlessness among lower-income minority citizens. Local zoning decisions enable plants to be near residences, schools and playgrounds of lower-income groups (sometimes including working-class and poor white populations); compliant state officials approve permits authorizing discharges of large quantities of highly toxic contaminants that enter the ambient air, soil or local drinking water sources; and enforcement of laws and regulations is infrequent or non-existent due to resource limits or policy decisions.

A prominent example of these characteristics is the Formosa Plastics Group proposal to build a $9.4 billion plastics production complex along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, adjacent to several historically Black communities and a mile away from a local elementary school. Such plans were enabled by a local 2014 decision that rezoned Formosa’s property to "residential/industrial."

According to reporting by the Washington Post, the local land use plan concentrates industrial operations in the two highest majority Black populated parishes. This area is 91 percent Black with about 61 percent of children living in poverty and median family income at only 60 percent of the Louisiana average. This is the personification of an environmental justice problem by a company with a long track record of compliance and other violations.

What public policies are needed? A variety of policies can be applied to reduce environmental justice inequities. They include:

  • Investing in environmental infrastructure such as clean drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. According to former EPA attorney David Coursen, over 9 million households, many in the poorest urban neighborhoods, receive water through lead pipes, and nearly 3,000 communities have lead levels twice as high as those measured in Flint, Michigan.
  • Protecting at-risk populations. EPA historically has identified "critical population sub-groups" in setting ozone, particulate and other ambient air quality standards. This practice should extend to those residing in geographic zones of disproportionate pollution burdens.
  • Including environmental justice as a criterion for permitting decisions. Authorized pollution releases in individual permit decisions also should be evaluated within the context of cumulative risk across specific airsheds or watersheds.
  • Expanding environmental enforcement. EPA has not effectively enforced environmental justice cases, and its delegation of enforcement authorities to states subject to political, fundraising and other pressures from industry lobbyists has further weakened the expectation of enforcement and added appreciably to health and environmental risks of affected populations. To begin, EPA should identify and pursue enforcement actions against the worst cases of environmental misjustice in 100 high-priority communities.
  • Increasing environmental justice grants to states and communities and raising staffing levels across all of EPA’s regional offices. In Fiscal Year 2019, EPA’s EJ budget was $5.2 million with 22 full-time employees. Several years of sustained funding increases are necessary to build the appropriate federal, state and local capabilities to maintain environmental justice effectiveness.
  • Integrating environmental justice with climate change policies. In the United States, many areas affected by flooding, storm surges and excessive heat are inhabited by minority and low-income populations. EPA’s April 30 proposed rule to phase down hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) use included environmental justice as a central rationale for the proposed regulation — an early indicator that the Biden administration views climate change controls as part of its environmental justice agenda.
  • Linking environmental justice with access to healthcare benefits. Larger enrollments from minority and low-income populations will provide important services to measure health status, deliver more affordable purchase of medicines and therapies, and better document acute and chronic respiratory, cardiovascular and other health endpoints that can directly connect to environmental exposures.

What business practices should change? While pollution levels certainly have improved across much of the United States in recent decades, higher concentrations persist in a number of urban and more rural communities where lower-income and minority populations dwell. Business practices in industrial hygiene, process safety, regulatory compliance and pollution prevention also have advanced.

However, the location of major industrial facilities adjacent to communities represents a special challenge to both business operations and their stakeholders given the probability of exposure to higher-risk toxic substances or persistent concentrations of traditional pollutants.

What should business do differently? Recommendations include:

  • Committing to further diversify company management beginning with the board of directors and senior management but extending to middle management and including plant managers and senior local staff, vendors and suppliers. Such a commitment should be in writing with specific timetables made public.
  • Implementing continuous monitoring with immediate public availability of results at all major facilities. Such transparency can build trust with regulatory agencies and local citizens.
  • Conducting a "proximity analysis" to examine the pollution status of communities near production, storage and other facilities. This analysis can aid in identifying pollution "hotspots" and estimating the relative burden of health and environmental risk contributed by a company’s operations.
  • Providing grant support to local schools for STEM curricula and universities to study economic development and environmental justice issues.
  • Supplementing dialogues with local minority stakeholders with additional regional and national voices, including the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, to gain a fuller understanding of citizen expectations and EJ proposals.

How can environmental justice become institutionalized for the long term? Beyond implementation of the above recommendations, two additional initiatives are needed. First, EJ funding must become more self-sustaining and not subject to the changing priorities of differing administrations. One source of continuous funding should be drawn from a percentage of permit fees, enforcement fines and settlements of EJ-related civil litigation. While not a substitute for annual appropriations, such funds can provide an important means for sustaining EJ staffing and core programs.

Second, new collaborative coalitions can expand and sustain the environmental and social justice agenda. Business enterprises can play an essential role not only in reducing pollution risk but in providing growth opportunities in communities through employment of lower-income populations, directing philanthropy to preserve community culture and quality of life, mobilizing employees for environmental justice initiatives, and deploying their advocacy skills and networks to advance environmental justice policies.

Similarly, environmental and sustainability organizations — heretofore largely absent from leadership of the environmental justice movement — can play an important role in holding businesses and governments accountable for environmental justice.


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