It’s not just, pollution

Robert D. Bullard describes the struggle for environmental justice in the United States and worldwide over the last two decades.

Despite significant improvements in environmental protection over the past several decades, billions of people around the world continue to live in unsafe and unhealthy physical environments. The poor are disproportionately at risk.

The environmental justice movement emerged in response to environmental and social inequities, threats to public health, unequal protection, differential enforcement and disparate treatment received by the poor and people of colour. It redefined environmental protection as a basic right.

Equal rights
This grassroots movement has its origins in the United States. However, in just two decades, it has spread across the globe. It embraces the principle that all communities are entitled to equal protection and enforcement of environmental, health, employment, housing, transportation, and civil rights laws and regulations that have an impact on the quality of life.

It has come a long way since its humble beginning in the predominately rural African American Warren County, North Carolina, where in the early 1980s a hazardous waste landfill ignited protests which resulted in over 500 arrests. The protests provided the impetus for the United States General Accounting Office to conduct an independent investigation. They also led the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to produce its historic report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, in 1987. This was the first national study to correlate waste facility sites with demographic characteristics.

The 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit put environmental justice on the international radar screen. Held in Washington DC, the four-day summit was attended by more than 1,000 grassroots and national leaders from around the world. Delegates came from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Chile, Mexico, and from as far away as the Marshall Islands. On 27 October, Summit delegates adopted the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. By June 1992, Spanish and Portuguese translations of these principles were being used and circulated by non-governmental organizations and environmental justice groups at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and Global Forum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Addressing injustice
In response to growing public concern and mounting scientific evidence, on 11 February 1994, the President of the United States issued Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which attempted to address environmental injustice within existing federal civil rights and environmental laws and regulations.

Numerous studies document that the poor in the United States have borne greater health and environmental risks than the society at large. Communities located on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’are at special risk from exposure to environmental hazards. Lead paint in older housing is a classic example. Lead poisoning is a preventable disease. Nevertheless, over 1.7 million American children (8.9 per cent of children aged one to five) suffer from it. Over 28.4 per cent of all low-income African American children are lead-poisoned compared to 9.8 per cent of low-income white children.
Corporate polluters and government operators have created toxic wastelands
The recent ‘energy crisis’has made low-income and coloured communities vulnerable to the siting of new electric power stations, and to the relaxation of air quality standards for old ‘dirty’ power plants. From New York to California, air pollution takes a heavy toll on the health of the poor, who are concentrated in urban areas that are particularly badly affected. Over 57 per cent of whites, 65 per cent of African Americans and 80 per cent of Hispanics live in 437 counties with substandard air quality.

Bad air hurts. It is also costly: the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention places air pollution-related health costs at $14 billion a year. Ozone has been associated with rising asthma, allergic and cardio-respiratory disorders and death. Asthma accounts for 10 million missed school days, 1.2 million emergency room visits, 15 million outpatient visits, and 500,000 hospitalizations each year. The asthma hospitalization rate for African Americans and Latinos is three to four times greater than for whites.

Corporate polluters and government operations have created toxic wastelands. The United States military has left a toxic trail from the beaches of Vieques, Puerto Rico, via the Memphis inner city to the Alaskan wilderness. The 1990 book Dumping in Dixie chronicled the relationship between the exploitation of land and of people. By default, ‘Dixie’- or the Deep South – became a ’sacrifice zone,’a sump for the rest of the nation’s toxic waste.

A unique legacy
The region is stuck with a unique legacy of slavery, ‘Jim Crow’and white resistance to equal justice for all. Lax enforcement of environmental laws has left its air, water and land the most industry-befouled in the United States. Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor typifies this pattern. Environmentalists and local residents dubbed it ‘Cancer Alley'. It has over 125 companies manufacturing a range of products including fertilizers, gasoline, paints and plastics. Tax breaks given to polluting industries have created a handful of jobs at a high cost. A 1998 Time magazine article reported that in the 1990s, Louisiana wiped $3.1 billion off the books in property taxes owed by polluting companies. The state’s five worst polluters have received $111 million in tax breaks over the past decade.

Native Americans have to contend with some of the worst pollution in the United States. More than 35 Indian reservations were targeted for landfills, incinerators and radioactive waste facilities in the early 1990s. In 1999, Eastern Navajo reservation residents filed suit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to block a permit for uranium mining in Church Rock and Crown Point, New Mexico. The Mohave tribe in California, Skull Valley Goshutes in Idaho and Western Shoshone in Yucca Mountain, Nevada are all fighting proposals to build radioactive waste dumps on their tribal lands.

Short-term ‘remedies’
The generation and movement of hazardous wastes poses important health, environmental, legal, political and ethical dilemmas. Shipping them from rich communities to poor ones is a global problem. Unequal interests and unequal power arrangements have allowed the pollution of the rich to be offered as short-term remedies for the poverty of the poor. Over the last decade numerous developing nations have challenged this ‘unwritten policy’of nations belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of shipping hazardous wastes across their borders.

The poisoning of African-Americans in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley', of Native Americans on reservations, and of Mexicans in the border towns all have their roots in economic exploitation, racial oppression, devaluation of human life and the natural environment, and corporate greed. Environmental justice advocates want jobs and economic development – but not at the expense of their health and the environment. Their call for environmental and economic justice does not stop at the United States borders but extends to communities and nations around the world that are threatened by hazardous wastes, toxic products, ‘dirty’industries and unsustainable development practices. Environmental justice leaders are demanding that no community, region or nation, rich or poor, should be allowed to become a toxic dumping ground.

Robert D. Bullard PhD is the Ware Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, United States ( He is the author of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (third edition, Westview Press, 2000).

PHOTOGRAPH: Sylvain Majeau/UNEP/Topham

The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as ‘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’. It continues: ‘Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies.’

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway? | Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: Change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet

Complementary articles in other issues:
Mark Malloch Brown: Empowering the poor (The environment millennium) 2000
Kristalina Georgieva: Disproportionate effects (Beyond 2000) 2000
David Wheeler, David Shaman, Susmita Dasgupta, Benoit Laplante and Hua Wang:
New millennium, new regulation (Beyond 2000) 2000
Cheikh Hamallah Sylah and Mark Davis: Move these poisonous mountains (Hazardous waste) 1999
Marcelo Furtado and Kevin Stairs: Not on planet Earth! (Hazardous waste) 1999
Ruben Mnatsakanian: A poisoned legacy (Chemicals) 1997