The Roots, Impacts, and Solutions of Environmental Justice

A growing awareness of environmental degradation has catalyzed the environmental justice movement, which seeks to mitigate racial disparities in environmental risks and benefits and ensure a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.

In 1978, a transformer company owned by Robert Ward in Raleigh, North Carolina, started dumping industrial waste containing PCBs along rural roads rather than pay for proper disposal. Across two weeks, a African American-painted tanker truck drove across 240 miles of North Carolina highway shoulders illegally spraying 31,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil in a crime deemed the “midnight dumpings.”

PCBs are highly carcinogenic compounds whose production was banned by the United States that year. They are used in industrial and consumer products and can inflict a range of adverse health effects, including skin problems, endocrine disruption, and cognitive issues. Despite their ban in 1978, PCBs are still manufactured and still exist in many older products, posing health risks for nearby animals and humans.

In the wake of Ward’s illegal dumping, residents of Warren County - one of the poorest counties in the nation at the time with a 65% African American population - began to notice contamination. By 1982, the Governor of North Carolina had selected the Warren County community of Afton as the site for a hazardous waste dump. The dump would contain PCB-contaminated soil and similar waste collected from Ward’s illegal dumping sites. As landfill construction began, local residents protested and inspired more prominent activism on their behalf. Longtime civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis tied the protests to the struggle for racial equality.

Studies soon showed that it was far from an isolated incident for hazardous waste facilities to be disproportionately located in or near poorer, marginalized communities. A movement grew out of an awareness of environmental racism that was largely new for the mainstream environmental movement’s predominantly White and affluent members and leaders. The movement’s scope grew into a pursuit of environmental justice, which is often defined as the equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits.

The same year that Robert Ward began illegally dumping toxic waste, a high-profile court case highlighted the structural barriers to environmental justice. In Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp., a African American neighborhood of homeowners in Houston sued the Southwestern Waste Management Corp., arguing that a permit for a new facility violated their constitutional rights. A judge ruled in favor of the waste management company.

According to sociologist Robert Bullard, who collected data for the lawsuit and has since been dubbed “the father of environmental justice,” of the plaintiffs in the case, 85% of the plaintiffs in the case owned their homes and were considered middle-class. Bullard claims that in Houston during the time of the case, all of the city-owned landfills and 75% of the city-owned incinerators were in African American neighborhoods, even though they made up only 25% of the population.

Over the last few decades, a growing awareness of environmental degradation has catalyzed the environmental justice movement. As the connections between environmental issues and other issues are increasingly understood, it’s clear that the quest for environmental justice extends across backyards and boardrooms.

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Air Pollution

One of the deadliest impacts of our global addiction to fossil fuels is air pollution. Air pollution from dirty fossil fuels kills an estimated eight million people per year, almost 20% of all deaths. Air pollution is a serious impediment to quality of life, and as with many other aspects of environmental degradation, its impacts are asymmetrically borne by the most vulnerable among us.

In America, seemingly innocuous decisions about where to build dirty infrastructure - highways, pipelines, and industrial plants, among others - have had lasting and unequal consequences. Nearly every source of fine particulate matter, America’s most pervasive and deadly air pollutant, disproportionately affects Americans of color regardless of where they live or how much money they make.

In total, pollution from particulate matter (PM) 2.5 - particles with diameters less than 2.5 micrometers, or 1/30th the width of a human hair follicle - accounts for between 85,000 and 200,000 premature U.S. deaths each year. But those deaths are not spread equally. A 2021 study published in the online journal Science Advances found that African American people are exposed to 21% more fine-particle pollution compared to average Americans, while the exposure was 18% greater for Asian Americans and 11% higher for Hispanics. White Americans have 8% less pollution exposure than the average.

Premature death caused by air pollution isn’t as easy to pinpoint or highlight as death from natural disasters or other singular, isolated events. It happens over long periods during which pollutants pile up and affect all manner of bodily systems. And its unbalanced distribution is a direct result of pollution being disproportionately concentrated in and near communities of color.

Polluters like Robert Ward have historically denigrated marginalized communities to the point of turning them into sacrifice zones or areas permanently impaired by heavy environmental degradation or economic disinvestment. Not too far from Houston is one of America’s most infamous sacrifice zones: Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where the risk of cancer from toxic air is as much as 50 times higher than the national average. This 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River accounts for a quarter of America’s petrochemical production and has a large population of disaffected African American residents who have borne the brunt of pollution for decades.  

Cancer Alley reflects just how closely race and pollution intersect across the country. According to the American Lung Association’s 2021 State of the Air report, of the nearly 20.7 million people living in the 13 counties with failing grades for ozone, short-term particle pollution, and year-round particle pollution, 14 million are people of color. “People of color were 61 percent more likely than White people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant,” the ALA report states, “and over three times as likely to live in a county with a failing grade for all three pollutants.”

Air pollution is just one of many dimensions of environmental injustice. Luckily, atmospheric concentrations of short-term pollutants like ozone and the fine particulate matter should decline quickly as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

In contrast, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane will take much longer to fall. This will present numerous environmental justice challenges. Perhaps none is more glaring than one of climate change’s more silent but deadly threats: extreme heat.

Polluters like Robert Ward have historically denigrated marginalized communities to the point of turning them into sacrifice zones or areas permanently impaired by heavy environmental degradation or economic disinvestment. Not too far from Houston is one of America’s most infamous sacrifice zones: Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where the risk of cancer from toxic air is as much as 50 times higher than the national average. This 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River accounts for a quarter of America’s petrochemical production and has a large population of disaffected African American residents who have borne the brunt of pollution for decades.

 

Cancer Alley reflects just how closely race and pollution intersect across the country. According to the American Lung Association’s 2021 State of the Air report, of the nearly 20.7 million people living in the 13 counties with failing grades for ozone, short-term particle pollution, and year-round particle pollution, 14 million are people of color. “People of color were 61 percent more likely than White people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant,” the ALA report states, “and over three times as likely to live in a county with a failing grade for all three pollutants.”

Air pollution is just one of many dimensions of environmental injustice. Luckily, atmospheric concentrations of short-term pollutants like ozone and the fine particulate matter should decline quickly as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

In contrast, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane will take much longer to fall. This will present numerous environmental justice challenges. Perhaps none is more glaring than one of climate change’s more silent but deadly threats: extreme heat.

Heat

In many urban cores, the natural land cover gives way to dense concentrations of manmade material - asphalt and concrete, for example - that absorb and retain heat. Furthermore, waste heat generated by energy usage warms city air. This leads to the so-called urban heat island effect in which an urban area is significantly warmer than surrounding areas due to human activity.

A closer look at this effect reveals that its impact is often unequal within cities because of environmental injustice. Wealthier areas tend to contain more vegetation and green space, both of which provide shade and reflect solar radiation, keeping temperatures cooler.

In the U.S., studies have found a statistically significant relationship between neighborhood income and tree cover.

One study published in 2013 found that all else equal, the greatest racial disparity in the distribution of heat risk-related land cover characteristics was between African Americans and Whites. This is environmental injustice in action, and as climate change continues, the consequences will be deadly.

The Washington Post recently analyzed and disseminated current, and future extreme heat risk across the U.S. Sharp differences were found in extreme heat risk based on race. Today, about 64% of all African American people in the U.S. experience a dangerous heat wave, defined as more than three consecutive days of a heat index above 100 degrees. Three decades from now, that figure is projected to rise to 79%. In comparison, just over 40% of White people in the U.S. experience a dangerous heat wave today, and about 60% will face one three decades from now.

"One study found that in 37 cities across the U.S., formerly redlined neighborhoods have about half as many trees on average as the highest-rated predominantly white neighborhoods on those maps."

This is in part a result of environmental injustice. Hotter neighborhoods are often the same areas that have been subject to redlining, a racist practice in which banks and insurance companies systematically limit financial activity to communities of color. In a study of 108 urban areas nationwide, the formerly redlined neighborhoods of nearly every city studied were hotter than the non-redlined neighborhoods, some by nearly 13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Redlining restricts economic opportunity, inhibiting residents’ ability to create wealth and either directly or indirectly create a more comfortable lived environment with more trees and green spaces. One study found that in 37 cities across the U.S., formerly redlined neighborhoods have about half as many trees on average as the highest-rated predominantly white neighborhoods on those maps.

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The Environmental Justice Aspects of Global Decarbonization

The ongoing decarbonization of the global economy is revolutionizing supply chains across industries. It will require a rapid and vast supply expansion of precious metals like nickel and lithium to power new technologies.

As the world looks to transition away from fossil fuels, perhaps the most complicated environmental justice challenge involves how to source those metals. The Washington Post recently reported on one company’s plans to mine nickel in a pristine region of Northern Minnesota that local Indigenous peoples have relied on for generations.

Talon Metals is trying to persuade skeptical locals that it can extract thousands of tons of nickel from under the feet while upholding their right to environmental justice. The company has a contract to sell Tesla 75,000 tons of nickel mined in Minnesota if it can get a mine fully online by 2026. Given the surging demand for electric vehicles made by companies like Tesla and given that the only existing nickel mine in the United States will close in 2025, the stakes are massive.

"Native Americans who for generations have farmed and fished the area around Talon’s proposed mine worry that it would contaminate their land."

The incentives for electric vehicle production included in the Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden had just signed depend on a rapid jump in the domestic supply of minerals like the nickel buried deep under the forests of Minnesota. The International Energy Agency predicts sharp surges in market demand for these minerals: 40-fold for lithium and as much as 25-fold for nickel, cobalt, and graphite.

But Native Americans who for generations have farmed and fished the area around Talon’s proposed mine worry that it would contaminate their land. Native American reservations are located within 35 miles of 97% of America’s nickel reserves and 79% of its lithium reserves, according to MCSI, a firm that researches investment risk.

Fights are already propping up in areas like Northern Nevada, where a proposed massive lithium line faces legal challenges from a coalition of tribal officials and ranchers who claim the mine would destroy critical habitat and ancestral hunting grounds.

Sadly, physics isn’t giving us much time to settle these challenges. The need to balance the justified concerns of frontline communities like Minnesota’s Chippewa tribe with the resources needed to power the global transition away from fossil fuels presents an acute environmental justice challenge that will play out around the world for generations to come.

The Reality of Environmental Justice Legislation

The aforementioned Inflation Reduction Act devotes nearly $370 billion toward the climate crisis. Most of that funding is geared toward incentivizing the production and adoption of cleaner technologies like renewable energy and battery storage. Some of it is earmarked for environmental justice, such as $27 billion for a national green bank dedicated to helping disadvantaged communities, as well as funding for air pollution monitoring and neighborhood access and equity grants.

While the legislation will be a decisive lever in the domestic and global transition away from fossil fuels, it also contains provisions that may exacerbate existing instances of environmental injustice. These include opening up more federal land and waters to oil and gas drilling and a commitment from Democratic Senate leadership to streamline the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel pipelines.

That might negatively affect communities like Port Arthur, Texas; an area historically home to a disproportionately high concentration of industrial polluters - including America’s largest oil refinery - in relation to its population. Residents worry that developers may use the Inflation Reduction Act to help expand fossil fuel infrastructure. A third of Port Arthur’s population is African Americans, and it’s just one of many communities on or near the Gulf Coast that have felt the impacts of environmental injustice for decades, if not centuries.

The Inflation Reduction Act underlines the compromises often required to get environmental legislation across the finish line. It also underscores the need to look beyond lawmakers to advance environmental justice principles. As you’ll see below, businesses across the country can take the mantle of responsibility and help their communities by considering environmental justice a key aspect of their organization.

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How to Bring Environmental Justice to Your Organization

once you’ve done a full accounting of where your organization stands, you can prioritize quick wins that won’t take too much time or effort but will resonate strongly within and outside of your organization. Then, you can tackle high-impact areas that may require more time or effort. In this respect and in others, look to other organizations who operate in similar spaces or places that can point your environmental justice efforts in the right direction. Organizations should collaborate with others across industries and with expert stakeholders to amplify their impact.

All along, you should keep your stakeholders informed about all organizational efforts aimed at environmental justice. Transparency will convey trust, helping you avoid any appearance of greenwashing while creating opportunities for your organization to organically solicit guidance from employees, suppliers, and community leaders who can help pave the way toward environmental justice.

Education goes hand-in-hand with transparency. Empower everyone in your organization to lend a helping hand. Solicit knowledge and experience from far and wide; marginalized communities usually have less agency to shape critical environmental justice decisions that affect them, so make an effort to ensure that everyone who is affected by your organization’s activities has a say in them.

And arguably, the best way to magnify your impact is to leverage your influence to affect public policy. Make your voice heard at all levels of government to integrate justice considerations into climate solutions. Encourage employees to volunteer and mobilize as they see best fit, whether or not they feel comfortable engaging in the civic sphere.

Ultimately, environmental justice is good business. It strengthens local economies, attracting money and people in the form of investors and customers. And it feels good to know that your organization is playing a positive role where it operates.

"...arguably, the best way to magnify your impact is to leverage your influence to affect public policy. Make your voice heard at all levels of government to integrate justice considerations into climate solutions."

There are multiple benefits to incorporating environmental justice principles throughout an organization. Above all, reducing negative environmental impacts and ensuring equal representation is the right thing to do. It helps correct a long legacy of injustice within vulnerable communities while providing the foundation for justice to thrive now and down the road.

To translate organizational principles into concrete action on environmental justice, a few key steps can make a big difference.

First, you should identify pressing issues in areas where you operate if you aren’t already in touch with local communities and nonprofit leaders who can guide you in the right direction, and make a sincere effort to understand where and how your organization can best serve the community.

Before you get to work, you should understand your organization’s direct and indirect contributions toward environmental justice. Are your offices equitably located considering the demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds of your employees? Are local businesses part of your supply chain? Are your hiring practices inclusive? Do you knowingly or unknowingly pollute nearby low-income communities? Do you invest in environmental protection and have plans to reduce your organization’s footprint?

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Conclusion

The fight for environmental justice has its roots in a history of systematically racist practices that have entrenched disparities in the distribution of environmental risks and benefits. Its impacts extend from disproportionately adverse health impacts from threats like air pollution and heat to difficult debates as to how to balance the environmental risks and benefits of different constituencies whose needs and wants may conflict. And its solutions extend from the highest halls of power to a backyard or a boardroom near you.

With a little bit of learning and a little bit of action, you can help advance environmental justice in your community and ensure that the global transition away from fossil fuels is more just and equitable.

Business Takeaways
  • Only 3% of Earth's water is drinkable. Of that small percentage, two-thirds of it is frozen or otherwise inaccessible.
  • Natural bodies of water across the country are experiencing record low levels.
  • Federal governments have a responsibility to the people to prioritize the conservation and accessibility of fresh water.
  • Gray infrastructure is outdated, more expensive, and creates more contaminated water than green infrastructure.