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The State of the Environment—An Overview - Environmental Justice—an Evolving Issue

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The so-called environmental justice issue stems from concerns that racial minorities are disproportionately subject to environmental hazards. The EPA defines environmental justice as "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."

The environmental justice movement gained national attention in 1982 with a demonstration against the construction of a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, a county with a predominantly African-American population. A resulting 1983 congressional study found that, for three of four landfills surveyed, African-Americans made up the majority of the population living nearby and at least 26 percent of the population in those communities was below the poverty level. In 1987 the United Church of Christ published a nationwide study, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, reporting that race was the most significant factor among the variables tested in determining locations of hazardous waste facilities.

A 1990 EPA report (Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk for All Communities) concluded that racial minorities and low-income people bore a disproportionate burden of environmental risk. These groups were exposed to lead, air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish, and agricultural pesticides in far greater frequencies than the general population.

In 1992 the EPA established the Office of Environmental Justice to address environmental impacts affecting minority and low-income communities. In 1994 President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 (Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations), requiring federal agencies to develop a comprehensive strategy for including environmental justice in their decision making.

Examples of environmental injustice include the following claims:

  • Low-income Americans, especially minorities, may be more likely than other groups to live near landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste facilities.
  • Low-income and African-American children often have higher than normal levels of lead in their blood.
  • Greater proportions of Hispanic Americans and African-Americans than whites live in communities that fail to meet air quality standards.
  • Higher percentages of hired farm workers in the United States are minorities. It has been estimated that more than 300,000 farm workers may suffer pesticide-related illnesses each year.
  • Low-income and minority fishermen who use fish as their sole source of protein are generally not well informed about the risk of eating contaminated fish from certain lakes, rivers, and streams.

In August 2001 EPA director Christine Todd Whitman reiterated the agency's commitment to environmental justice, defining it as "the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws and policies, and their meaningful involvement in the decision-making processes of the government."

In Harm's Way

In 1997 residents of Kennedy Heights, a Houston, Texas, neighborhood of about 1,400 people, complained about a variety of illnesses such as cancer, tumors, lupus (an autoimmune disease), and rashes. They eventually discovered that their homes, built 30 years before, were sitting on top of a number of oil pits that had been abandoned in the 1920s. Some tests of the municipal water found traces of crude oil, and residents believed oil sludge from the pits had seeped into the water supply and damaged their health. To make matters worse, their homes lost virtually all their resale value once it became known that the land was contaminated.

The predominantly African-American homeowners had not been told that their property sat over an abandoned oil dump. They blamed Chevron Oil Company, which owned the property for a time after acquiring it from Gulf Oil. Chevron denied contamination could have caused any illness. Accusations of environmental racism mounted, attracting ever-wider attention. Reverend Jesse Jackson visited the site in 1997 to call for a boycott of Chevron products. In March 1999 Chevron agreed to pay $8 million into a fund for distribution to Kennedy Heights claimants.

In 1998 some of the residents of Chester, Pennsylvania, sued the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. They claimed in their suit (James M. Seif v. Chester Residents Concerned Citizens et al.) that the department had violated Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (PL 88-352) by issuing a solid waste permit for a facility in a minority community in Chester called Chester Heights. The residents claimed the waste permit violated their civil rights because, while only two permits had been issued in adjoining non-minority communities, five such permits had been approved for their community. Although the case was dismissed when the treatment facility withdrew its application, the suit demonstrated the possibility of claiming environmental discrimination under Title IV. It should be noted, however, that few environmental racism cases have been successful because it is difficult to prove that racial discrimination is the cause of particular environmental policies.

In March 2004 a federal lawsuit against the chemical company Monsanto was settled for $300 million. The suit was spearheaded by a grassroots environmental group called Citizens Against Pollution out of Anniston, Alabama. It was brought on behalf of 18,477 residents living in poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods in the city's west end. The suit alleged that since the 1960s a Monsanto plant had discharged large amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into a creek running through the area. PCBs are mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals that are now known to be extremely persistent in the environment and toxic to life. Lawyers had evidence linking PCB exposure to a variety of serious illnesses and even deaths suffered by members of the community over decades.

Without admitting fault, Monsanto agreed to pay $300 million to settle the case. According to Ellen Barry in the Los Angeles Times ("A Neighborhood of Poisoned Dreams," April 13, 2004), the plaintiffs, who were originally thrilled with the settlement, were shocked and dismayed when they learned the lawyers would receive $120 million of the money. This left $180 million to be split amongst thousands of plaintiffs, resulting in an average payout of only $7,725 per person. A case brought by a different set of plaintiffs in state court resulted in a settlement of $300 million to be split among 2,500 of them. An additional $75 million was earmarked toward cleanup efforts and $25 million was set aside to build a neighborhood health clinic. In total the lawsuits resulted in a settlement of nearly $700 million, the largest payout ever in a tort case (a civil action resulting from a wrongful act) involving toxic chemicals.

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