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Environmental Justice

People laying across road in protest Figure 1. Describe what you think is happening in the above image. Why do you suppose people were laying on the ground?

Here in the U.S. there has been an organized response to such inequalities: the Environmental Justice Movement. Environmental Justice, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency is The fair treatment of all people regardless of race, national origin, or income with respect to exposure to environmental harms and to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.“

The Environmental Justice movement, originating in the early 1980s, has been influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Described by scholar R. Gregory Roberts, the goals of the two movements are identical, "social justice, equal protection, and an end to institutional discrimination." [cite] Both movements are fighting for equality and basic human rights; the environmental justice movement is emphasizing equality and rights within the realm of exposure to environmental health risks. Both movements are grassroots movements, emerging out of community organizing of ordinary citizens. Tactics include neighborhood demonstrations, picketing, and political pressure.

There are two dimensions to justice: distributive justice and participatory justice.

The movement has attempted to address both dimensions of justice. In regards to distributive justice, its adherents ask the following question: “Are some groups of people more exposed to environmental health risks than others?” In regards to participatory justice, the following question is asked, “Does everyone have equal access and ability to participate in the decision-making process regarding the actions and policies related to potential environmental health risks?”

Milestones within the Environmental Justice Movement

woman protesting incinerators Figure 2. This woman is protesting incinerators used to burn refuse.


An example of how environmental justice has come into concern and under scrutiny is the case of the “Superfund” program within the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA gives the following introduction to “Superfund” on their website:

Superfund is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It is also the name of the fund established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, as amended (CERCLA statute, CERCLA overview). This law was enacted in the wake of the discovery of toxic waste dumps such as Love Canal and Times Beach in the 1970s. It allows the EPA to clean up such sites and to compel responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-lead cleanups.” (

The environmental justice movement comes into play when ordinary citizens do not feel involved in the decision-making process regarding how the funds granted to the Superfund are administered. The moneys allocated to the Superfund program are limited and sites that would qualify for assistance exceed the availability of funds. Furthermore, even when an area is designated as a Superfund site, there can be concern as to how the program is enacted, who receives help, and what kind of help is granted.

Of course, one must ask why a community is put into the position of environmental risk, thus potentially becoming a Superfund site, in the first place. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between toxic waste sites and communities in which the residents are primarily of a minority group and/or low income. [cite] In other words, it becomes an issue of environmental racism and discrimination.

A Snapshot of the Evidence of Inequalities

Environmental Justice: It’s not your Mother’s Environmentalism

The activists of today’s environmental justice movement differ from the activists historically associated with global and national environmental issues and global and national entities such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. Sociological findings regarding the history of activism connected with environmental concerns paint a picture of white, middle-class, highly educated Americans asking the populace survey questions about issues such as CO2 emissions, global warming, greenhouse gases, deforestation, and biodiversity. In contrast, the activists of the Environmental Justice Movement are…

house with contaminated ground water Figure 3. Contaminated ground water doesn't just affect the land, it also affects the people living on the land.

Just as in the case of indoor air pollution referred to above, many of the citizens who are most impacted by these cases of environmental in-justice are women and children. The impact is felt in the sphere of the home when family members become inexplicably sick. Community members begin to talk and share stories, coming to a realization that what they are witnessing in the privacy of their own homes is happening in their neighbors’ homes as well.

Many of the leading figures within the Environmental justice movement have been women, and largely women of color and low income women. Often these are women who are lay learners in the area of the science in which they are speaking out. The term “kitchen table science” has become a common term to describe the very real educated, informed stance that these women begin to occupy as homegrown activists on behalf of their community members in this movement. Who are they?