What is Environmental Justice?

Tony Arnold
University of Louisville Resilience Justice Project

Environmental Inequality

Not all people have the same quality of environmental conditions. Research shows that low-income people, African Americans, Latinos/as, Asians, and Native Americans have much more exposure to air pollution, water pollution, and toxic chemicals than most other people.
Industries and waste facilities tend to be concentrated in or near low-income neighborhoods of color. For example, people of color are nearly twice as likely to live within a mile of a dangerous chemical facility than white people are, and the facilities in neighborhoods of color are nearly twice as likely to have a spill or release incident as in white neighborhoods.
Unequal environmental conditions are tied to unequal health conditions, such as higher rates of cancer, asthma, or lead poisoning among people of color and low-income people. These people have less power and fewer resources to influence environmental laws and policies.

Seeking Justice

Environmental justice (EJ) is about the fair treatment of all peoples, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income, in environmental laws, policies, and conditions. EJ is also about the meaningful involvement of all people in the decisions that affect their environments and health. There are many dimensions of EJ:

  • unequal exposure of low-income people and people of color to air and water pollution and to toxic chemicals;
  • poor and unequal enforcement of environmental laws;
  • industrial facilities, toxic and solid waste sites, and contaminated lands (brownfields) in or near low-income communities of color;
  • both formal and practical barriers to the participation and influence of low-income people of color in environmental decision making and governance;
  • inequitably less and worst environmental benefits for low-income communities of color, such as parks, trees, and restored streams;
  • related inequities in fields such as land use, energy, water, natural resources, food, climate, and health;
  • community organizing, activism, and advocacy; and
  • the systemic causes and outcomes of environmental injustice and need for systemic change.

Nationally, a large network of grassroots environmental justice groups developed the principles of environmental justice in 1991.

EJ in Kentucky

A graphic from UofLs Superfund Center with a map of Rubbertown and a photo. The text includes

Environmental injustice is one of the most pressing problems in Kentucky and the Louisville metropolitan area, especially West, South, and Southwest Louisville neighborhoods. In Louisville, REACT (Rubbertown Emergency ACTion) is an active group of environmental justice advocates who live in West Louisville near the Rubbertown industrial area. In addition, there are low-income communities in both the western and eastern regions of Kentucky with polluted drinking water and contaminated waterways. For the University of Louisville, the Center for Integrative Environmental Health Sciences, and the Resilience Justice Project, EJ isn’t just an academic topic; it’s an important area for study and action in partnership with affected community residents, neighborhood organizations, environmental groups, government agencies, and businesses.

EJ and Law

The law has been only partly effective at addressing environmental injustices. A presidential Executive Order was adopted in 1994 to require all federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their programs and policies. This Executive Order had only mixed results: some agencies have done more for environmental justice, but others haven’t done much at all. In his first week as President in January 2021, President Biden signed three Executive Orders expressly mandating that federal agencies make environmental justice and climate justice high priorities, develop new tools to assess unequal impacts, improve enforcement of environmental laws in marginalized communities, and devote 40% of overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to marginalized communities. The results as of June 2022 have been mixed. Environmental justice is receiving more attention and resources by federal agencies than ever before. But progress has been slower than planned, and the U.S. Supreme Court is increasingly limited the power of federal agencies to act unless Congress has expressly authorized the agencies’ actions.
Advocates for environmental justice have had some success using existing environmental laws (e.g., Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act) and local land use regulations to prevent or remedy unequal environmental harms. But this depends on what those laws require or prohibit, and many laws contain exceptions, allow polluters to obtain permits, and are under-enforced. Lawsuits to enforce constitutional rights and civil rights against unequal environmental harms haven’t been especially successful, because the affected people have to prove that the government has intended to discriminate against them on the basis of their race and ethnicity and this this discrimination is the cause of their harm.

EJ Activism & Knowledge

What has been most effective at advancing environmental justice is relentless community action. This includes grassroots community organizing, persistent activism, information-gathering, advocacy, problem-solving, and participation in government processes.
One especially useful resource is EJ Screen (https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen), an internet tool developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with which members of the public can find and map the environmental conditions and community characteristics (e.g., demographic data) of their communities. The tool may help users identify areas with people of color and/or low-income populations, potential environmental quality issues, and a combination of environmental and demographic indicators showing how environmental conditions differ in a community than typical communities. It does not, however, provide risk assessments or definitively establish causal links between environmental and health conditions.
Partnering with scientists, lawyers, planners, and other professionals who are allies can also support the activism of grassroots community groups. But a basic principle of environmental justice is that the voices and actions need to come from the low-income communities of color that are affected by unequal environmental and health conditions.

Sources & Resources

About the Author

Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold is the Boehl Chair in Property and Land Use, Professor of Law, Affiliated Professor of Urban and Public Affairs, and Director of the interdisciplinary Resilience Justice Project at the University of Louisville.

Graphic Source: University of Louisville Research Center