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Environmental Justice: A Promise for Sustainable-Livable Communities

This article is part of a Special
in the March/April 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor
Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on
the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to read more from the Special Section.

Schnequa N. Diggs

The awareness of the dangers posed by pollution and environmental degradation hit mainstream headlines in the 1950s. Environmentalist groups nationwide alerted Americans of the negative impacts pollution has on health and overall quality of life. These impacts were not generally acknowledged to be spatially or socially differentiated, they were presumed to be affecting everyone equally.

However in the late 1980s, the understanding of environmental equality was challenged when a research study conducted by Faber and Krieg, “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards: Environmental Justice in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” indicated that ecologically hazardous sites and facilities were disproportionately located and concentrated in minority and blue collar communities.

For more than a decade, community based environmental and civil rights organizations nationwide expressed concerns about disproportionate environmental risk and equality under the label of “environmental justice.” Despite the recent progress of the environmental justice movement, there still remains a different standard for different communities leaving underprivileged, low income, minority and blue collar communities bearing the brunt of environmental injustice.

Environmental justice is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, age, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

The label of environmental justice was adapted in the late 1990’s although the origin of its concept was precedent for many decades. It was imperative for the label to be socially acceptable to mobilize mainstream support for a major policy movement. Susan Cutter supported this idea in her 1995 article “Race, Class and Environmental Justice” published in Progress in Human Geography; she postulated “growth of the environmental justice movement surprised the most seasoned of policy-makers by its speed, magnitude and impact on national policies.”

According to Hilda Kurtz, in her 2005 article “Reflections on the Iconography of Environmental Justice Activism” published in Royal Geographical Society, “for more than 20 years tactical cooperation between civil rights and environmental activists on hazardous waste issues has generated a broad-based movement for social change.” USEPA policy-makers nationwide are supporting research study efforts to broaden understood environmental injustices and its link between poor local environmental conditions and poor health of communities of color and low-income populations.

Bullard, editor of the 2007 book Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice and Regional Equity believes that the way we live is directly associated with social, economic and racial justice. However, for certain individuals and communities such as African-Americans and Latinos, long-term political disenfranchisement has created inferiority to Caucasian Americans, making them more susceptible to disproportionate environmental burdens. The growing use of geographic information systems (geographic mapping technology) in environmental justice studies has found that environmental injustice impacts certain locations and people at a greater rate than others. Jones and Rainey, authors of “Examining Linkages between Race, Environmental Concern, Health, and Justice in a Highly Polluted Community of Color” published in the Journal of Black Studies, argue that race and class are important determinants of the location of environmental pollution, degradation and associated health risks. They suggest that “people of color and the poor are more likely than whites and other more affluent groups to live in areas with poor environmental quality and protection.”

In a 2008 Indybay News report by Mike Rhodes titled “Environmental Racism in West Fresno,” Rhodes indicated that one of the most impoverished communities in the City of Fresno, CA–West Fresno–is a magnet for environmentally dangerous facilities. This community is adjacent to a processing plant, an animal rendering plant and a former dump that has been converted into a playground for neighborhood kids.

Rhodes asked Robert Mitchell, a resident of West Fresno, why he thought the City of Fresno allowed a proliferation of hazardous waste facilities in his community. His response was “the location of these facilities has provided a lucrative tax base for the city.” Further stating “No one should have to suffer and be exposed to possible health hazards so that someone else can reap a profit.” The idea of profit maximization for a few at the death and destruction of others is disgraceful and should be rectified with stricter environmental and ethical standards.

Aliyu, Kasim and Martin offer an alternative reasoning for the location of hazardous waste dumps, in their 2010 article “Siting of Hazardous Waste Dump Facilities” published by Emerald Group Publishing. They suggest that the overall pattern of industrial areas with a large concentration of working class and ethnic minorities indicates that manufacturing facilities merely want to be in close proximity to their labor force. The authors even go as far to suggest that the working class and minorities chose to move to potentially hazardous areas. The question of whether an individual moves to a hazardous area for employment or hazardous areas move to low-income communities for cheap labor is not my primary concern. I am more concerned with the decision making process that accepts different standards for different communities.

In order to avoid circumstances of environmental injustice, state and local level government should closely adhere to exclusionary zoning ordinances which regulate conflicting land use activities such as industrial and residential areas. Public officials should respond faster to resident concerns and be held accountable for noncompliance of environmental justice guidelines. To better serve underprivileged communities, decision makers should encourage meaningful participation of community residents in the formulation and implementation process of environmental policies.

The initial step taken at the federal level was EPA’s creation of the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program. Every year since 1994, the EPA has offered Environmental Justice Small Grants to qualifying applicants to support and empower communities that are working on local solutions to local environmental and/or public health issues. This program has issued more than 1200 grants equating to approximately $22 billion in funding and intends to help affected communities create self-sustaining community-based partnerships that will continue to improve local environments in the future.

More recently, the federal government has taken the critical step to transform our nation into a clean energy economy by mandating that more energy come from alternative sources. The “green” movement may very well be our environmental rescue towards the promise of sustainable-livable American communities.

President Obama said “now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny.” Everyone deserves the right to a health community. Like the quote says “there’s no moment like the present” now is the time for the “environment” to treat ALL Americans justly.

ASPA?member Schnequa N. Diggs is a Ph.D. student in public administration at Florida Atlantic University. Email: [email protected]

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