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A Brief History of Environmental Justice & EJ Definitions


In 1983, the U.S. General Accounting Office conducted a study that found three out of four of the off-site commercial hazard waste landfills in Region 4 (South) were located in predominantly African American communities. This number was shocking, considering that African Americans made up only 20% of the regional population at the time.

In 1987, the newly-formed Commission for Racial Justice found that race was the strongest variable in predicting the location of waste facilities (Bullard & Johnson,2000) .

The study came as a result of the protests in Warren County, North Carolina, sparked when a landfill for toxic waste, including PCB's, was sited in the alreday-burdened County. Protestors of the site called upon Civil Rights movement leaders, and began identifying the unequal enforcement of environmental and civil rights laws. The Environmental Justice movement was born at the nexus of the Civil Rights' and Environmental movements, and has grown in power and influence since then.

In October of 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit developed a document of Environmental Justice Principles, that have helped to describe and define the Environmental Justice movement in the United States.

Despite the strong civil rights origins of the EJ movement, changes in the definition of the Environmental Justice have ignited new debates as to it's place. The US EPA has changed it's approach to EJ over time, and currently fail to recognize race as a unique indicator in EJ assessments. See below for examples of our own approach to to Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism, as well as other approaches:


Environmental Justice
All people and communities have the right to equal environmental protection under the law, and the right to live, work and play in communities that are safe, healthy and free of life-threatening conditions.

Environmental Racism
Whether, by conscious design or institutional neglect, actions and decisions that result in the disproportionate exposure of people of color to environmental hazards and environmental health burdens.

Upon signing of Executive Order #12898 in 1994, President Clinton was quoted:
Each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations”   -President William Jefferson Clinton, 1994

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) definition, under the Bush Administration:
"Environmental Justice is 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 has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work" (US EPA website, 2007).

Currently (2007), the State of California defines Environmental Justice as:
"...the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures and income with respect to the development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies." (source: California Government Code Section 65040.12 and California Public Resources Code Section 72000).

Source: Bullard, Robert (2000). Environmental Justice: Grassroots activism and its impact on public policy decision making. Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 56, 3.