History of the Environmental Justice Movement

The Catalyst: Warren County, North Carolina

The environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s, gaining traction in predominately African-American Warren County, North Carolina, before blossoming into a national social justice movement. The state government announced its plans to dump 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic pollutants: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), sparking outrage among residents. They worried that the PCBs would leak into their drinking water supply, endangering the health of the community. When the soil trucks drove into Warren County in mid-September of 1982 making their way to a new hazardous waste landfill in Afton, the community and its allies lay down in the streets, blocking the trucks’ path.

Image Credit: NRDC

Six weeks of nonviolent protests ensued, and over 500 people were arrested. Although Warren County ultimately lost its fight and the toxic waste was dumped into the landfill, their cause resonated with people of color and low-income communities across the country, and the story of ordinary people defending their home against this grave environmental injustice garnered media attention and lit a spark that catalyzed what we now know as the environmental justice movement.

Early Protests Against Environmental Injustices

This was not the first time, however, that communities of color organized to protest environmental injustices. Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s sounded the alarm about public health concerns for communities of color, such as proximity to toxic waste, before the environmental justice movement picked up with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VI.

In the early 1960s, Latino farmworkers, led by Cesar Chavez, fought for labor rights, including protection from toxic pesticides in the fields of San Joaquin Valley, California.

Image Credit: History

In 1967, African American students from Texas Statue University protested the city garbage dump in Houston, Texas that took the lives of two children.

Image Credit: The City Podcast

In 1968, the people of West Harlem, New York City opposed placing a sewage treatment plant in the community although they were unsuccessful. Warren County marked the first environmental justice protest by people of color that garnered attention and outrage nationwide.

The Civil Rights Movement & Environmental Justice

The events of Warren County, North Carolina brought to light how the racism African American and Black communities faced in areas, such as education and employment, extended to fronts like pollution and toxic waste. This time, it was environmental racism. A new faction of the civil rights movement fighting for environmental justice for communities of color emerged, employing similar strategies such as marches, rallies, petitions, community organizing, education, litigation, and other nonviolent forms of protest.

“In the wake of the Afton protests, environmental justice activists looked around the nation and saw a pattern: Pollution-producing facilities are often sited in poor communities of color. No one wants a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus garage for a neighbor. But corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities.” — NRDC

Low-income communities and people of color often did not have the same connections to higher-ups with the decision-making power to protect their health and safety, funds to hire legal help, or information on policies available in other languages, such as Spanish, as their white, middle-class counterparts.

Research Studies on Environmental Racism

Landmark studies published in the 1980s and early 1990s solidified the concept of environmental racism. Walter Fauntroy, District of Columbia Congressional Delegate and Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, participated in the Afton protests then tasked Congress’ General Accounting Office (GOA) with studying the negative impacts of the siting and construction of hazardous waste landfills on communities of color. In 1983, the GOA found that 3/4 of the hazardous waste landfill sites in the 8 states studied were located in primarily poor, African-American, and Latino communities.

The United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) under Reverend Benjamin Chavis published Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States in 1987 that garnered more support for taking environmental justice action.

“[The report] showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States. It also found that due to the strong statistical correlation between race and the location of hazardous wastes sites, the siting of these facilities in communities of color was no accident, but rather the intentional result of local, state and federal land-use policies.” — NRDC

In 1990, prominent sociologist Robert Bullard published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, dissecting the environmental justice struggles of African American communities, further bolstering the work by the GOA and CRJ.

Addressing the Racism of the Environmental Movement

By 1990, the environmental justice movement was picking up speed and looked to partner with other environmental advocacy organizations. However, these groups, which often fought to protect endangered species and for clean air and water, were dominated by white organizers and did little for communities of color facing environmental racism. Thus, environmental justice leaders co-signed a letter to the “Big 10” environmental groups, calling out racial bias in their hiring practices, leadership, and policy development and urging them to oppose pollution and toxic waste in communities and workplaces of people of color and the poor. Some of these environmental organizations began spearheading new environmental justice initiatives, including people of color in their staff and leadership, and advocating for more equitable policies.

Taking Legal Action

In line with the movement’s grassroots origins, environmental justice organizers began appealing to local and state offices before advocating for federal action. It culminated with Bill Clinton’s signing of Executive Order 12898, which established environmental justice offices, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, and other related federal agencies.

Today: The Biden-Harris Administration

President Biden laid out an ambitious plan to uplift Black, Latino, Native American, and low-income communities that bear the brunt of environmental racism and take vital climate action.

“President Biden made tackling America’s persistent racial and economic disparities a central part of his plan to combat climate change Wednesday, prioritizing environmental justice for the first time in a generation.” — The Washington Post

Image Credit: Joe Biden

He recently signed an executive order to establish a White House Interagency Council on Environmental Justice, Office of Health and Climate Equity in the Health and Human Services Department, and separate Environmental Justice Office in the Justice Department. The Biden administration is working to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, shift towards cleaner energy, create jobs, and invest 40% of its sustainability budget in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

“The executive order will help to lay out a clear path to implementing President Biden’s climate and justice commitments,” Cathleen Kelly, Fellow at the Center for American Progress, said. “It will get the gears turning in each agency across the federal government. With Biden in the White House and the current leaders we have in Congress, this year represents an unprecedented opportunity to have executive and legislative action.”

President Biden shows a deep and promising commitment to advancing intersectional environmental justice and uplifting BIPOC, low-income, and marginalized communities. Track the Biden-Harris administration’s environmental actions here.

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Natasha Matta

Natasha Matta

Interested in all things health equity, social justice, and empowerment.