How Environmental Justice Became a Matter of Governance

January 29, 2020 | 10:02 am
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

“All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

One of the leaders of the civil rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, famously said these words during the 1964 Democratic National Convention to protest the injustices that the Black community had endured in their fight for the right to vote. In the 1980s and 1990s, her words became a rallying cry for a burgeoning grassroots movement that protested the dumping of environmental hazards on the doorsteps of marginalized communities, called the environmental justice movement.

One of the hard-fought outcomes of the environmental justice movement came in 1994 when President Clinton signed Executive Order (EO) 12898, which requires all federal agencies to consider the environmental and health impacts of the regulations and rulemaking on people of color, Indigenous groups and low-income populations. EO 12898 continues to be a positive force, though as we point out in a newly released report, Presidential Recommendations for 2020: A Blueprint for Defending Science and Protecting the Public, it must be strengthened in order to provide enforceable actions based on the best available science to protect underserved communities. Considering the importance of EO 12898, of how it uses science to prompt policy actions to be more equitable and just, diving into the origins of this important executive order and how it is impacting federal actions to this day will help illuminate the role of science and the scientific community in achieving just outcomes for communities harmed by lax and unenforced safeguards.

EO 12898 was a watershed moment in the environmental justice movement

Since the establishment of EO 12898 is so intertwined with the development of the environmental justice movement (as can be seen in this 1994 video by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which features interviews with prominent environmental justice leaders on the development of EO 12898), it is important to take a historical look at how environmental justice became an established movement. According to Dr. Robert Bullard (considered to be the “father” of the movement), advocacy for environmental justice started as a reaction to environmental racism, where communities made up of mostly Indigenous, low-income, and/or people of color were often unfairly and disproportionately burdened with contaminated soil, dirty water, and polluted air, which in turn led to a variety of difficult, devastating, or deadly health outcomes for residents.

In the 1960s and 1970s, impacted and oppressed communities mobilized for healthier and safer working and living conditions; pivotal examples from this time include the Memphis Sanitation Strike, aided by Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez’s protests of farmworkers’ high exposure to pesticides. The beginning of the environmental justice movement is usually traced to the 1982 protests over the siting of a hazardous waste facility in North Carolina’s Warren County, a mostly Black and low-income neighborhood. Hundreds of people protested the decision by the state of North Carolina and the EPA to choose Warren County as the “best” landfill site for 60,000 tons of PCBs, as they loosened science-based regulations on how close a landfill could be located to a groundwater source to ensure that this majority Black, disenfranchised neighborhood would be designated as the landfill’s chosen site. While the landfill was eventually built in Warren County, Congressman Walter Fauntroy, who participated in the Warren protests, requested that the General Accounting Office (GAO) investigate “the socio-economic and racial composition of the communities surrounding the four major hazardous waste landfills in the South.” This led to a pivotal 1983 GAO report which concluded that there was a strong relationship between the location of hazardous waste facilities and whether the neighboring community was predominantly Black or low-income. These events kick-started a national conversation on environmental justice.

A slew of studies and reports followed in the 1980s and 1990s showing that this injustice was occurring all over the country. In 1991, First National People of Color Environmental Justice Summit was held in Washington, DC, which led to the development of a set of consensus-derived principles that activists could use to communicate and grow the movement. And in the same year, leaders of the environmental justice movement pushed President George H. W. Bush to create an Office of Environmental Equity within the EPA (later named the Office of Environmental Justice on the request of advocates) to examine these environmental disparities. Clarice Gaylord, the first head of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, established the first National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 1993, which brought grassroots activists together with scientists and industry so that the agency could integrate environmental justice into its science-based rulemaking. According to former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, the strong grassroots advocates on the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (combined with the protests over the inability of Congress to enact environmental justice legislation) pushed President Clinton to take executive action on environmental justice, resulting in the signing of EO 12898.

EO 12898 is something to celebrate, but it’s not sufficient policy

Because of EO 12898, environmental justice is now part of the federal government’s regular operations. Federal agencies are required, under the EO, to consider and address the ways in which their policies affect the health and environment of low-income communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color. EO 12898 brought attention to the environmental justice movement and it led to a tidal wave of regulatory and policy actions by federal and state governments that required agencies to adopt policies, practices and procedures that consider environmental justice in their decisionmaking. In 1994, only four states (Louisiana, Connecticut, Virginia, and Texas) had environmental justice laws or executive orders; now all 50 states and the District of Columbia have instituted some type of environmental justice policies.

But there are limitations with EO 12898 in its ability to aid communities affected by environmental injustices, as can be seen by how the Trump administration’s attacks on science are disproportionately harming marginalized communities. EO 12898 has never been fully implemented, is not judicially enforceable, and can be implemented by federal agencies to any extent they deem “sufficient.” The executive order can be easily dismantled or redefined such that its provisions do not protect the communities that it intends to protect. The George W. Bush administration did this by issuing a memo equating environmental justice with environmental protection for everyone, to the point that any policy that helped historically marginalized populations was considered discriminatory towards whites. Marginalized communities continue to be disproportionately burdened with environmental hazards, such as industrial and traffic-related air pollution, and some issues like whether the government will designate an environmentally hazardous site in a marginalized community as a Superfund site (thereby providing federal funds to help clean up the site) actually grew more inequitable after the passage of EO 12898.

Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done to strengthen EO 12898 to provide underserved communities with the science-based environmental protections that they need and deserve. As members of Congress in both the Senate and the House work towards congressional solutions to achieve environmental justice, we hope that the presidential administration of 2021 will prioritize the strengthening of EO 12898 such that evidence-based policies will protect communities from environmental harms. So, if you are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” that the most vulnerable people are being burdened with the worst environmental harms, then take that sentiment to your polling station this November and vote.