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Environmental Justice: Looking Back and Moving Forward

By Rachel Isaacs


When striving to combat the augmenting climate issues our planet is facing, it is imperative we take an introspective look at not only the natural environment but also the populations most impacted. There is a vital intersection between the health of the planet and the health of the people, and, unfortunately, there are often populations that are disproportionately subject to the risks of environmental degradation and global climate change.


Ironbound residents march up Ferry St. June 1, 1984, in opposition to the construction of a huge garbage incinerator in the neighborhood which would have emitted dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Photo credit: Ironbound Community Corporation

The environmental justice movement gained national momentum in the 1980s, in response to 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals in a poor Black farming community in Warren County, North Carolina (Fears & Denis, 2021). Protests erupted in response to this injustice and sparked awareness for the community and their mistreatment, as pictured on the left. However, this was not an isolated event, instances such as this had been occurring for decades as a result of the systematically racist municipality planning process called redlining. This process essentially deemed Black and Latino neighborhoods as “undesirable” and therefore, unworthy of housing loans, which subsequently made it increasingly easy for heavy industry to amass in these areas. Consequently, toxins and other environmental hazards disproportionately impact these communities and persist today. These historical injustices can be directly linked to what is called environmental racism, which has been guided by governmental, legal, economic, and political institutions throughout our country's history. As detailed in the piece, “This is environmental racism “, Black people are nearly four times as likely to die from exposure to pollution than White people and are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than White Americans, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in communities that border a plant or factory” (Fears & Dennis, 2021). While these are disconcerting statistics, in the past few decades, there has been a significant increase in awareness. Today, people continue to join the fight to end environmental racism as well as ensure environmental justice moving forward.


According to the EPA, environmental justice, as defined today, seeks to mend historical inequities and ensure 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” (EPA). While these tasks may seem daunting, there are plenty of small things you can do to participate in this mission, many of which begin with the practice of self-education. Learning more about this issue and its implications is an important step in combating the systemic causes of injustice. Using this knowledge, you can then adequately support impacted communities by helping to elevate their voices and provide a wider platform for them to be heard.


To learn more about the steps you can take, you can visit these websites!


 

References


Darryl Fears, B. D. (2021, April 6). This is Environmental Racism. The Washington Post. Retrieved, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/interactive/2021/environmental-justice-race/


Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Environmental Justice. EPA. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice


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