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Environmental Justice Milestones Since Summit II, 2002-2011

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In preparation for the four-day Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit or Summit II , held in Washington, DC in October 2002, the Environmental Justice Resource Center ( EJRC ) compiled the Environmental Justice Timeline-Milestones , one of the first comprehensive reports to chronicle accomplishments of the EJ Movement for the period 1964-2002.  The timeline-milestones were later updated in the 2007 United Church of Christ Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty r eport and more recently in Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States , a new book published by the American Public Health Association Press, and the EJRC's The State of Environmental Justice Since Summit I I report produced for Earth Day.

During its 40-year history, the U.S. EPA has not always recognized that many government and industry practices (whether intended or unintended) have adversely and disproportionately impacted poor people and people of color.  It took an entire movement and decades for the government to acknowledge this fact and three decades to begin implementing equal protection and dismantling institutional racism.  The EPA is mandated to enforce the nation's environmental laws and regulations equally across the board.  The agency is required to protect all Americans--not just individuals or communities who have money to hire lawyers, lobbyists, scientists, and experts. The right to health and a clean environment is a basic human right.

The nation is not color blind even though Barack Obama was elected as the country's 44th president and Lisa P. Jackson appointed as administrator of the U.S. EPA, the first African Americans to hold these offices.  Because of the persistent challenges created by institutionalized racism , environmental justice advocates from New York to Alaska continue to employ a racial equity lens--applied to public health, exposure to harmful chemicals, pesticides, toxins in the homes, schools, neighborhoods, and workplace, faulty assumptions in calculating, assessing, and managing risks, zoning and land-use practices, and exclusionary policies and practices that limit participation in decision making.

Many of the environmental and health problems associated with " sacrifice zones ," including the "poster child" of environmental racism in Dickson, Tennessee Dickson, Tennessee, where a county-owned landfill poisoned an African American family's wells .  Local, state, and federal government officials allowed the Harry Holt family to drink trichloroethylene (TCE) laced well water 12 years after government tests first detected the poison in their wells. This type of unequal protection could be eliminated if the existing environmental, health, land use, and civil rights laws were vigorously enforced in a nondiscriminatory way.


The last decade has seen environmental justice become a household word. Out of the small and seemingly isolated environmental struggles emerged a potent grassroots community driven movement. Many of the on-the-ground environmental struggles in the new millennium have seen the quest for environmental and economic justice become a unifying theme across race, class, gender, age, and geographic lines.

After ten years of intense study, targeted research, public hearings, grassroots organizing, networking, and movement building, environmental justice struggles have taken center stage. Yet, all communities are still not created equal. Some neighborhoods, communities, and regions have become the dumping grounds for all kinds of toxins. Some progress has been made in mainstreaming environmental protection as a civil rights and social justice issue.

We now see an increasing number of community-based groups, environmental justice networks, environmental and conservation groups, legal groups, faith-based groups, labor, academic institutions and youth organizations teaming up on environmental and health issues that differentially impact poor people and people of color.   Environmental racism and environmental justice panels have become "hot" topics at national conferences and forums sponsored by law schools, bar associations, public health groups, scientific societies, professional meetings, and university lecture series.

In just a short time, environmental justice advocates have had a profound impact on public policy, industry practices, national conferences, private foundation funding, and community-based participatory research (CBPR) where community and "expert" are equal partners. Environmental justice research, writing, and publications have flourished since the Summit II.  Today, there is a rich body of work that supports an array of disciplines from the social and behavioral sciences to physical sciences to law and legal studies.

Environmental justice groups have been successful in blocking numerous permits for new polluting facilities and forced government and private industry buyout and relocation of several communities impacted by Superfund sites and industrial pollution. Environmental justice and health equity concepts and principles are making their way into initiatives that are moving the nation toward a "green economy," green buildings and healthy schools, clean and renewable energy, smart growth, and just climate policies.

Although permitting and facility siting still dominate state environmental justice programs, a growing number of states are beginning to use land use planning techniques, such as buffer zones, to improve environmental conditions, reduce potential health threats, and prevent environmental degradation in at-risk communities. States are also incorporating environmental justice in their brownfields, Supplemental Environmental Projects, and climate policies. Some states rely on enforcement procedures in environmentally burdened communities, while other states use grants and community education.

A Decade of Movement Building

The last decade has seen some positive change in the way environmental groups in the United States relate to each other around health, environment, economic, and racial justice. An increasing number of community-based groups, networks, university-based centers, environmental and conservation groups, legal groups, faith-based groups, labor, and youth organizations have formed partnerships and collaboratives to address environmental and health issues that differentially impact poor people, people of color, and children. The number of people of color environmental groups has grown from 300 groups in 1992 to more than 500 groups in 2002, to more than 2,000 groups and a dozen networks in 2011.

Expanding the "Pipeline" of New Leaders

Community-based organizations play an important role in providing a space and training ground for growing youth leaders. The key to a successful movement rests with how effective organizations and institutions solve "pipeline" challenges.  Not surprising, resources continue to be a major barrier to building, supporting, and sustaining strong national youth and student leadership across various environmental and health movements that focus on racial equity.   Bringing young people into the movement to address environmental health and racial equity at every level, from activists to analysts to academics, can only strengthen the movement. Today, much of the youth work takes place within an intergenerational form (community-based organizations, networks, centers, legal clinics that have a youth focus or youth component) and youth-led form (organizations founded by and led by youth), and both are important and complementary.

University-Based Programs and Centers

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Robert Bullard Social Media Pages: Facebook Page       Twitter Page       Linked In Page       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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