Environmental Justice Essay

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Environmental justice seeks to assess the fairness of the distribution of environmental risks and benefits. Of primary concern are the negative effects of nearby activities that generate pollution or risk in some form and that have health or nuisance impacts on people who live or work in the neighborhood. Most research and public policy dealing with environmental justice seeks to determine whether low-income or minority populations are disproportionately and negatively impacted by polluting activities.

Primarily since the 1970s, a number of research projects in the United States have investigated whether or not a systematic inverse relationship exists between pollution exposure and income or racial minority populations. Many of these studies examined the population characteristics of areas in the vicinity of solid waste transfer stations and disposal sites.

Criticisms of many of these investigations concern their (a) dealing with population areas larger than the likely spatial extent of the negative spillovers, (b) employing inadequately defined control areas to assess if disadvantaged people were disproportionately impacted, (c) depending too heavily on case studies with limited external validity, and (d) not addressing whether nearby sources of pollution or risk did indeed have negative health or nuisance effects on neighboring populations.

Other studies employing sound research designs have demonstrated that in some geographic areas, low-income and minority groups in the population do live closer to some kinds of environmental hazards than other groups. For example, a national study in the mid-20th century used a comprehensive listing of waste storage and disposal facilities and census tract data for a 20-year period, comparing tracts with and without hazardous sites. In general, the findings were that surrounding these sites were primarily working-class neighborhoods with mostly white populations extensively employed in manufacturing. However, this was more the case in northern urban areas than in the southeastern portion of the United States, where neighboring tracts had larger black populations.

The most reliable studies account for market forces and land use controls, using census tracts in the same urban area but without waste sites as the basis for comparison. Although even these largely fail to establish the public health effects of this proximity, they do point out what needs to be considered to have a reliable empirical basis for assessing the distributional implications of local decisions and thus for public policy.

Public policy applications of findings from sound environmental justice research focus not only on remediation and mitigation of existing conditions but also on current and future decisions that can impact environmental quality. This is the primary purpose of Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority and Low-Income Populations, signed by President Clinton in 1994.

This order directs each federal agency to adopt, as part of its mission, responsibility for evaluating and mitigating “disproportionately high adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations in the United States.” This order also requires both informing these populations about these likely health and nuisance impacts and involving them in assessing these impacts and in developing ways to minimize or mitigate them.

The National Environment Policy Act requires environmental impact assessments on anything that the federal agencies sponsor, fund, permit, or undertake, which includes many programs and projects implemented at the local level. Legal action can occur in the case of unequal treatment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires nondiscrimination in relation to sex, age, disability, race, color, and national origin.

Although Executive Order 12898 establishes the principles concerning factors to consider in assessing environmental justice, it stops short of specifying the strategy that agencies must use or prescribing the methodology for evaluating the performance of alternative plans or project designs. Instead, agencies can initiate a range of approaches on an experimental basis. Even so, the principles of the order suggest a sequence of at least four analytical tasks.

First is identifying and mapping the spatial extent of negative environmental impacts, such as air and water pollution, noise and vibration, displacement of homes or businesses, degraded aesthetic values, disrupted natural and man-made resources, traffic congestion, and disrupted community cohesion or economic vitality. The second task is identifying the demographic profile of those living and working in the impacted area. Next is defining a baseline or control population, usually for a larger area such as a jurisdiction. The final analytical task is calculating and comparing the percentage of low-income and minority people in the impact area and the larger area, to determine if those impacted by the action are disproportionately disadvantaged.

As noted earlier, the order requires both these analytical tasks and public outreach and involvement in identifying, reviewing, and understanding the negative environmental effects. It also requires engaging stakeholders in designing ways to reduce these effects, to mitigate those effects that remain, and perhaps to compensate for effects that are otherwise difficult to mitigate.

This executive order was a unique initiative by a central government to address and act on environmental justice. Furthermore, it provided a definition of environmental justice that grew out of studies that examined who was especially adversely impacted by the location of hazardous facilities. Finally, this definition led to an analytical and outreach procedure to assess the environmental justice implications of alternative designs for programs and projects involving the federal government.


  1. Cole, L. and S. Foster. 2001. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press.
  2. Federal Register. 1994. “Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” Federal Register, 59:32. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-executive-order-12898-federal-actions-address-environmental-justice).
  3. Miller, Donald. 2005. “Methods for Evaluating Environmental Justice—Approaches to Implementing U.S. Executive Order 12898.” Pp. 25-44 in Beyond Benefit Cost Analysis—Accounting for Non-market Values in Planning Evaluation, edited by D. Miller and D. Patassini. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  4. Oakes, John M., Douglas L. Anderton, and Andy B. Anderson. 1996. “A Longitudinal Analysis of Environmental Equity in Communities with Hazardous Waste Facilities.” Social Science Research 25:125-48.
  5. Rhodes, Edwardo Lao. 2005. Environmental Justice in America—A New Paradigm. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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