The Environmental Justice Movement: What is it and why it matters?


(Part I of II)


         In simple terms, there are two strains of environmentalists right now. One is a group you’ve probably heard of—the “mainstream” activists who are made up of largely white, upper-middle class people that are dedicated to “saving the rainforest,” sparing ANWR (that is, the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge) from oil drilling, and keeping snowmobiles out of Yellowstone. The second group you may never have heard of—the environmental justice (EJ) advocates who consist of labor, community and civil rights activists, migrant farm worker organizers, and defenders for the rights of indigenous people. It is the EJ advocates who battle to keep their neighborhoods free of toxic emitters, their homes free of lead paint, and politics free of racist and classist laws and decisions pertaining to the environment. Both environmental groups overlap to some degree and increasingly (albeit slowly) they are beginning to work together to protect the environment in a more holistic way. Yet, while the mainstreamers get most of the press (and the criticism) from the corporate-controlled media, it is the latter group of EJ advocates that probably deserve a much more thorough hearing, particularly because their battle is one of basic human rights and equity. All of us have a vested interested in learning more about the struggle of EJ advocates because their battle is one that we all face, now or in the immediate future.

         Environmentalism, the progressive movement to protect and conserve the environment, has been alive in the United States for at least a century. The creation of the first national park in 1872 in northwest Wyoming (better known as Yellowstone) represents the dawning of an era of preservationists that began more than a century ago. Although these early visionaries had serious flaws, such as Native Americans had to be displaced (often meaning extinguished) before these “wilderness” areas could be protected, they understood that humans are not able to survive in a world where they own and extract everything that the Earth has to offer. These environmentally-minded pioneers and their descendents worked tirelessly to get laws enacted that protected lands from development (e.g., Wilderness Act of 1964), species from extermination (Endangered Species Act of 1973), and water and air from adulteration (e.g., Clean Water Act of 1977 & Clean Air Act of 1970). Since the early 1970’s when national environmental legislation went through a very active period, not much of significance has occurred other than the extremely important phasing out of lead, both in gasoline and in paint. Yet, it is during this lull in legislation that perhaps the most important development has taken place, largely below our collective radars.

         The genesis of the environmental justice (EJ) movement during the 1980’s and its growth thereafter reminds us that it is often the impoverished and marginalized communities that bring about positive change for all. Despite being largely outside the spotlight, the accomplishments of this nascent movement have been striking. A key contribution made by the EJ movement has been the observation that stark inequalities exist between groups of citizens of the United States in terms of environmental quality and access to services. A second area of EJ’s success revolves around its ability to raise awareness about the connection between many health problems and exposure to environmental contaminants such as PCBs, dioxin, ozone, and pesticides. Another one of its impressive feats consists of the growing corpus of scholarship that studies and documents the prevalence of environmental justice violations and civil rights shortfalls in the United States and elsewhere. And, finally, perhaps the most significant contribution made by the EJ movement is its ability to bring groups, often separated by space and primary interest, together into a coalition working towards peace and justice under a unified environmental umbrella. EJ advocates are able to make this final step because they recognize that all environmental problems are interconnected and that they affect everyone. For example, since pollutants do not stop at neighborhood or city boundaries because air, water, soil, and organisms are always in motion, if some of our homes are vulnerable, then it is safe to say that all of our homes (and habitats) are vulnerable.

         Environmental advocates ask numerous important questions as well. The following questions not only exhibit the scope of their interests but also suggest the relevance of their concerns to all of us: (1) Which members of our population are exposed to hazardous, neurotoxic, and carcinogenic pollutants?; (2) Are some segments of our population (such as the unborn, newborn or elderly) more vulnerable to these exposures than others?; (3) How are LULUs (locally undesirable land uses) distributed in a region/city? Does their distribution correspond with communities based on ethnic, economic, or other categories? What considerations are taken when deciding where the next hazardous facility will be located?; (4) Are there ways to restructure industry, commerce, or society so that fewer (rather than more) hazardous chemicals are necessary?; (5) What diseases are prevalent in our society and what environmental factors lead to or exacerbate the symptoms and lethality of these disorders?; (6) Is it ethical to distribute environmental ills inequitably in society?; (7) What laws and regulations should be enacted and enforced in order to create a society where people are not victimized by industrial “progress” and consumerist behavior?; and, (8) How can communities best be mobilized to work towards creating healthy and environmentally-friendly neighborhoods and ecosystems that we can all benefit from and cherish? It is answers to these and similar questions that have the ability to empower all of us to be educated, concerned, and connected citizens and stewards of the planet.

         One very important focus of EJ advocates and EJ scholars centers on environmental racism (ER). What precisely does one mean by “environmental racism?” One well-known EJ scholar states that ER refers “to those institutional rules, regulations, and policies or government or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for least desirable land uses, resulting in the disproportionate exposures of toxic and hazardous waste on communities based on certain prescribed biological characteristics” (Bryant, 5). In addition to these areas of discrimination, ER is often also associated with people of color’s lack of access and exposure to environmental amenities (such as, national parks, wilderness areas, and diverse wildlife) as well as the exclusion from environmental decision-making. In summary, ER represents those racist and discriminatory elements that are imbedded in how environmental hazards and benefits are distributed in society.

         Many argue that the EJ movement began in 1982 in rural Monroe County, North Carolina. That year, in response to the state’s decision to dispose of tons of PCB-laced soil in this predominantly African-American county, citizens organized and resisted. National attention was brought to this small county in north-central North Carolina, when more than 500 activists were arrested while protesting outside the intended landfill. In response to this event, several studies commenced by a wide range of institutions and scholars each attempting to determine if environmental racism is widespread.

         The evidence for environmental racism in our society is convincing. Two early studies were landmarks in EJ research. A 1983 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), which had been requested by a Congressional representative that had been moved intellectually and spiritually by the Monroe County incident, concluded that African-Americans are disproportionately living in communities with landfills; in fact they were found to be in the majority in an astounding 75% of the communities where landfills were located. Just a few years later, a 1987 study by the Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ (UCC), entitled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, concluded that “race was the most significant factor in determining the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities” (Resolving); socioeconomic status was also an important variable but not as significant as race. Disturbingly, the UCC report noted that 60% of African-American and Hispanic-American citizens live in communities with “uncontrolled waste sites” (Resolving). These findings and others like them led to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in Washington, D.C. just a few years later in October 1991. Since this historical gathering of more than 600 community activists and EJ advocates, numerous other studies have added to initial findings. The following reports represent just small sampling of a wealth of research findings that have been published over the past ten or so years.

         Researchers note that the LULU’s are disproportionately found in communities of color. Bullard (2000) points out that in 1978, Chemwaste opened the nation’s “largest hazardous-waste treatment, storage, and disposal facility” in Sumter County, Louisiana which is 69% black. Paul Mohai and Bunyan Bryant (1990) find that inhabitants of minority dominant communities were four times more likely to live near hazardous waste facilities.  Bullard (1983) shows that during a fifty year period in the 20th century, Houston, Texas placed nearly all of city-owned landfills and incinerators in largely African-American communities despite the fact that the city was just 30% black over this time.

         Other scholars find that communities of color (here defined as communities where people of color constitute a majority of the population) are also not dealt with fairly when it comes to enforcing environmental laws or penalties. Lavelle and Coyle (1993), reviewing 1,177 Superfund sites, find racial bias in two key areas: (1) government-imposed penalties against corporate polluters; and, (2) government response to environmental hazards found in a community. Schwartz (1997) corroborates these findings noting that governmental penalties for violating hazardous waste laws are 500% higher in predominantly white communities than communities of color.

         The above studies offer compelling evidence that environmental racism is present in our society. It is through EJ scholarship of this sort that we see that we must seriously reconsider any conclusion that racism has been eliminated or isn’t in desperate need of continued vigilance and remediation. While this should be upsetting to all of us, how we deal with this depends on a wide variety of elements (e.g., our willingness to act, our impulse to seek further education on the subject, our reluctance to engage in discussions about racism, etc.). EJ scholarship also forces us to question our “way-of-life” in that it establishes that hazards are being produced and disseminated that expose all of us to harm—and to those not-so-fortunate or politically disadvantaged to potentially great levels of harm. There is no doubt that we must break down barriers of communication between mainstream environmentalists and EJ advocates if we are going to make progress in the area of environmental quality. ER research and activism provides an avenue for such engagement and collaboration.

         Be sure to check out the second part of this essay on EJ. Next month’s installment (which will appear in the July 28th issue) will look into the past successes of EJ movements, current manifestations of EJ advocacy, and suggestions of what the future may hold for EJ both here and elsewhere.


Works Cited

Adamson, J., M.M. Evans, & R. Stein, Eds. (2002) The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. University of Arizona Press, 395 pp.

Bryant, B, Ed. (1995) Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies & Solutions. Island Press, 278 pp.

Bullard, R. (1983) “Solid waste sites and the black Houston community,” Sociological Inquiry, 53, 273-288.

Bullard, R. (2000) Dumping in Dixie : Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Westview Press, 234 pp.

Lavelle, M. & M.A. Coyle. (1993) “Unequal protection: The racial divide in environmental law.” In R. Hofrichter (ed.), Toxic Struggles: The Theory and Practice of Environmental Justice, 136-143.

Mohai, P. & B. Bryant, eds. (1990) Proceedings of the Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards.

“Resolving environmental racism: Toward environmental justice.” (1998) World Resources 1998-1999: Environmental change and human health. World Resources Institute, the United Nation’ Environmental Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, and The World Bank.

Schwartz, D. (1997) “Environmental Racism: Using Legal and Social Means to Achieve Environmental Justice,” Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, 409.


The Environmental Justice movement: its accomplishments and its future (Part II of II)


            The Environmental Justice (EJ) movement consists of a growing group of environmentalists who focus on human issues of health, justice, and equality. In this way, EJ advocates differentiate themselves from other environmentalists whose key concerns focus attention on other species, such as invasive ones (e.g., kudzu or zebra mussel), charismatic ones (e.g., penguins and baby seals), and endangered ones (e.g. Asian tigers including the Sumatran, Bengal, and South China varieties). Part I of this two part essay (published in the June 30 issue of The Zephyr) describes in greater detail the origin of the EJ movement and highlighted some of its more academically-focused pursuits. It outlines the evidence for modern environmental inequality, the role racism and classism plays in it, and the reasons why EJ concerns are ones that have relevance to all of us.  Here, we will delve into the EJ movement’s more recent developments and suggest areas and ideas for future growth and impact.

         Since 1990, the EJ movement has witnessed many tangible accomplishments at the national level. EJ advocates were instrumental in convincing President Clinton to: (1) establish the President’s Council of Sustainable Development; (2) create the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council; and, (3) sign the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 (Bryant). In 1994, under the direction and leadership of prolific EJ author and scholar Robert Bullard, the Environmental Justice Resource Center located at Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia was established (website: Many post-secondary institutions, including Knox College, now offer courses in Environmental Justice. In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in Washington, D.C. saw more than 600 community activists and EJ advocates. Eleven years later, a Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in October 2002, drew more than twice as many participants suggesting that the EJ movement is alive and well and, indeed, growing.

         Many of the most important EJ achievements take place locally. Within the state of Illinois there are a growing number of environmental justice groups that are working diligently to ensure that the air and water that we inhale or drink is safe. Unfortunately, there are many communities in our state that have contaminated air, particularly those near heavily industrialized areas and locations near and downwind of coal-fired power plants. Fortunately, several of these communities have citizens that aren’t sitting back and letting themselves be poisoned anymore, at least not without a struggle. Two such groups in the Midwest deserve particular mention, and both happen to be nearby in the “Windy City.’

          The People for Community Recovery (PCR) is based in Altgeld Gardens, a predominantly African-American low-rise housing development located on the far southern edge of the city limits of Chicago—only ~16 miles directly south of downtown and the legendary “Michigan Mile.” Founded in 1979 by Hazel Johnson, a resident of Altgeld Gardens, PCR has been an active presence in furthering environmental awareness and demanding change for more than 25 years. As a Knox College Environmental Racism class recently observed during a field trip to Chicago this past May, Altgeld Gardens and the residents of its ~1,400 row houses are completely surrounded by hazardous and toxic air effluence and pollution. From the headquarters of PCR, which is located in a small office behind a grocery store, one can go in any cardinal direction and find a seriously offensive LULU (locally undesirable land use)—anything from a 6-story landfill the size of 18-hole golf course to an industrial “park” spewing out all types of carcinogens and heavy-metals. Consistent with the euphemistic name “toxic donut,” no matter how the wind blows, Cheryl Johnson, Hazel’s daughter and the current director of PCR, and her community residents must breathe in (and have for some time) contaminants at very unhealthy levels. Yet, as bad as things may seem in Altgeld Gardens, PCR hasn’t given up.

         In the late 1970’s when Hazel Johnson, sparked by her husband’s early death, formed PCR, she set out to inform people of their surroundings. This initial effort led to an awakening of sorts within her community. Citizens began to make connections between their chronic health disorders (such as asthma and skin rashes) and the air pollution coming from their immediate surroundings. They took it upon themselves to educate their neighbors about how to minimize exposure (e.g., remove dust regularly from their window sills). They challenged the practices of demolition companies who took little or no precaution for the huge amounts of dust (most containing lead, asbestos, and other toxins) released into the surrounding air. For all her efforts, Hazel Johnson won a gold medal from President George H. Bush. Additionally, through the actions of all the PCR volunteers over many years (and other groups like PCR), President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice in 1994 which gives all citizens the right to know what potential environmental hazards confront them and their communities. And while this executive order was a major victory for EJ advocates, its lack of enforcement means that more EJ work will be required to make clear once-and-for-all that environmental protection needs teeth before the people of our nation will be free from untoward health effects due to misguided economic and political practices.

         Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) is a much younger organization whose youth belies its enthusiasm, understanding, and demand for justice. Located on the western edge of the Chicago city limits, only ~5 miles west of Michigan Avenue, in a neighborhood referred to as the “Little Village,” LVEJO works out of a basement of a typical two-story row house. Despite its humble working space, its staff and volunteers have definitely put their community on the EJ map in a big way in such a short time. LVEJO has focused on issues that directly impact its more than 90,000 residents (~83% that are Hispanic). When city officials decided to build a new elementary school in their district (something that is sorely needed given the large numbers of children under 12 that live in the community), LVEJO recognized the site chosen was an extremely poor one because major industries abutted it on two of its sides. (On our class field trip, we breathed first hand the poisons that a steel drum cleaning and processing plant release daily—a plant not more than a few hundred feet from the entrance for the proposed school.) LVEJO was successful in empowering its residents and after a struggle with city officials, the site was deemed unfit for a school. In another campaign, LVEJO had to respond to an unbelievable number of garbage trucks that began to drive weekly in a caravan down one of its neighborhood’s streets—one bordered on both sides by two-story family homes. LVEJO’s research revealed that below the radar of the residents, an enormous garbage facility had taken root just a few blocks from residential neighborhoods. Through LVEJO’s unwavering commitment to improving the health and well-being of its neighborhood, the garbage trucks were diverted, the facility closed during weekends, and the horrid stench was lessened, so much so that families began to come back out of their homes and community spirits were lifted as well.

         One of LVEJO’s greatest struggles doesn’t have such a positive ending, yet the organization hasn’t given up or given in. Within a five minute walk from LVEJO’s central office exists a coal-fired power plant, known as Crawford. The electricity from this plant and another similar plant just a few miles away serve people throughout the Chicagoland area, including some suburbs. Unfortunately, these coal-fired plants have been in Chicago from well before the Clean Air Act of the 1970’s and thus they were not required to meet the stricter emission standards set out in these laws. Therefore, they still emit huge quantities of hazardous air pollutants. Now while this pollution does spread out in all directions, much larger concentrations of contaminants (including mercury and coal dust) make their way into the homes and lungs of Little Village’s residents. And while LVEJO’s campaign to get these plants to reduce hazardous emissions has fallen on stubborn ears so far, similar pressure by EJ advocates were at least partly responsible for the recent settlement (this past March) which orders Illinois Power (and its successor, Dynegy Midwest Generation) to spend ~$500 million to reduce emissions in five of its coal-fired plants in the state. Something needs to be done in Little Village as well. Consider that a Harvard School of Public Health research study found that the Fisk and Crawford power plants (the Fisk plant is only a few miles to the east of the Crawford plant) “cause 40 premature deaths, 2800 asthma attacks, and 550 emergency room visits every year”  (LVEJO1). Shamefully, despite these atrocious statistics, Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley wants to be considered the “greenest” mayor in the country even though these two outdated coal power plants still operate within the boundaries of the city he governs. (Contacts for the EJ organizations highlighted here are listed at the end of this essay.)

         While the above examples illustrate that EJ organizations can make a difference in protecting the health and vibrancy of communities, there exist a few conflicts within the EJ movement that still haven’t been fully resolved. NIMBY (or not-in-my-backyard) represents an attitude that governs many communities’ reactions to the building of a LULU (like a landfill, incinerator, toxic waste producing industry, etc.) nearby where they live. This is understandable. However, given current political realities, if one successfully wards off the construction in one neighborhood, this doesn’t prevent the LULU from moving to a politically disempowered, poor, more-often-than-not non-white community in the U.S. or elsewhere. So by lobbying against a polluting industry, we haven’t solved the problems associated with it and have only shifted the burden farther down the socio-economic totem pole. Thus, we need to find alternatives that allow all of us to live healthily. Fortunately there are many ways to do accomplish this seemingly heroic task.

         First, we need laws that prevent companies from using outdated, highly-polluting methods and technologies when more efficient and cleaner alternatives definitely exist. Two, we don’t need to be producing many of the chemicals that we are—the primary reason we do stems from the fact that someone has found a way to profit from the sale of some dangerous chemical and society hasn’t been given a democratic voice in deciding whether it is safe or if its risks are worth any gains we might get from it. In his fantastic book, Cradle to Cradle, Will McDonough, one of the world’s more forward-thinking architects, makes clear the point that abundant safe alternatives exist if we would only provide incentives to those that want to pursue them (and major disincentives to those that want to continue to pollute unnecessarily). A related way to remove dangerous chemicals is to shift the onus of establishing their safety from the isolated victim who sues a company for producing a chemical that has caused a given illness (something that is nearly impossible to do when thousands of similar chemicals could be likely culprits and when life-threatening symptoms reveal themselves years after exposure) to the chemical producers themselves. Yes, shockingly, most industrially produced chemicals haven’t been tested for the harm that they cause humans (especially children). If chemicals had to be thoroughly tested before they could be used (or emitted), there would likely be many fewer dangerous chemicals in use today. Three, if we reduced the huge amounts of waste that are imbedded in our lifestyle (in forms of energy, diets, and conspicuous consumption), we could likely reduce our production of dangerous chemicals by 50% or more without noticeably reducing our quality of life. In fact, there are many reasons to believe that the quality of our lives would improve as we ate more selectively and partook in more social (less energy demanding) activities.

         With these options available to us, there is every reason to be optimistic about the future. Unfortunately, especially with so many forces working against equity and social justice, it will take an informed and politically-active citizenry in order to make these changes. However, next time someone says something cynical like, “oh it has always been this way,” or, “we don’t have the technologies yet, but they are just around the corner,” you’ll have every reason to tell them that things aren’t so bleak. Perhaps, you can direct them to a local environmental justice organization.

         In closing, there are some serious environmental problems in the Galesburg area too and an EJ perspective and response is likely warranted here as well. Consider that Knox County has the highest number of lead-poisoned children among rural counties in the state of Illinois and Peoria County has the greatest percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood (an amazing 15%!) (Sampier). Peoria County is also among the top 10% worst counties in the entire United States in terms of Total Pollution Emissions and Total Air Releases of Recognized Carcinogens (Knox County is in the 50% percentile on both these measures which is also very disturbing given its relatively small population—54,500 versus Peoria County’s 182,000) (Scorecard). It seems that Western Illinois could use an active EJ movement of its own. If this is something that you are interested in getting involved in, please contact the author. He will be looking into forming an EJ organization over the next year so please don’t hesitate to let him know where your interests lie. Get involved.


EJ Organization Contact Info:

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). 2856 S. Millard Ave., Chicago, IL 60623; phone: 773-762-6991; email:; website:

People for Community Recovery (PCR). Altgeld Gardens. 13116 S Ellis Ave, Chicago, IL 60827, Cheryl Johnson; email:; website:


Works Cited

Bryant, B, Ed. (1995) Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies & Solutions. Island Press, 278 pp.

LVEJO1. “Hispanics Fighting Power Plant Pollution in Illinois.” LVEJO website, ( Accessed: July 3, 2005.

Sampier, K. (2005) “Knox combats lead poisoning.” Peoria Journal Star. June 18.

Scorecard. Environmental Defense’s website: ( Accessed: July 5, 2005.


Peter Schwartzman is associate professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Knox College. He can be reached at the following email address: .