Honoring a Milestone: The Birth of Environmental Justice

Years of activism resulted in historic Clinton executive directive.

President Clinton signs the Executive Order in the Oval Office (February 11, 1994).
President Clinton signs the Executive Order in the Oval Office on February 11, 1994. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Bullard)

This page was published 10 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

In 1982, when I was a young lawyer in North Carolina, the state had to clean up miles of roadsides where toxic PCBs had been illegally dumped. The state decided to dispose of the toxic waste in a landfill which it proposed to place in a predominantly low-income African-American community in Warren County, far from where the clean-up was occurring. The decision sparked protests from the community, and activists from the broader civil rights world joined the fight.

That fight in Warren County crystallized for many in the environmental and civil rights communities a recognition of the pattern of subjecting communities of color and low-income communities with the environmental and public health burdens of our industrial society. From this seed and others like it, the environmental justice movement was born.

Twelve years later, as a result of dedicated and visionary activism in communities across the country, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, an historic directive to federal agencies to address disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects on communities of color and low-income populations. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the executive order, a fitting point to take stock of how our country and Earthjustice have progressed in addressing environmental injustice.

First, we owe a profound debt to the frontline leaders in the struggle for environmental justice who demanded a say in decisions affecting the future of their communities and compelled policy-makers to address practices that result in a disproportionate number of noxious facilities, such as landfills, incinerators, sewage treatment plants, lead smelters and refineries, being located near the very communities that can least afford the risks.

We have been inspired by early leaders like Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, and whole communities like the predominantly African-American communities in Louisiana that persuaded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the early 1990s to deny permits for construction of a uranium enrichment plant, with the licensing board citing for the first time the environmental injustice of locating such a plant where they lived. The work of these leaders and many others continues to grow and expand and bear fruit.

The Obama Administration has made a serious commitment to environmental justice and to implementing Executive Order 12898—reinvigorating the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which brings together stakeholders to provide advice about how to address environmental injustice, developing Plan EJ 2014 to help integrate environmental justice concerns into the daily activities of the EPA, and conducting the first environmental justice analysis of the impact on communities of color and low-income communities of a rule, EPA’s hazardous waste regulations.

But there is much more all of us can do to realize “the basic right of all Americans—the right to live and work in a healthy environment,” to borrow from Dr. Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie. It will always be unacceptable that African-American and Latino children, as well as children from lower-income families, are far more likely to grow up in environments with a disproportionate amount of pollution and exposure to the cumulative effects of multiple risks to their health.

And there is more the Obama administration can and should do—as described by the NEJAC:

  • Replace the Bush Administration’s deregulation of 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste, the so-called “Definition of Solid Waste” rule which affects waste generated by pharmaceutical makers, chemical companies, steel manufacturers and other industries, with regulations that protect all of our nation’s communities, including communities of color and lowest income populations.
  • Set federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash disposal at more than 1,300 coal-fired power plants across the country, too many of which are located in or near communities of color and low-income communities like the communities destroyed by a massive coal ash impoundment failure in Kingston, Tennessee.
  • Establish, without further delay, specific limits on toxic air pollutants such as mercury, arsenic and lead, which spew from incinerators, refineries and other industrial sources in the nation’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities.
  • Re-invigorate and adequately fund EPA’s civil rights enforcement program which is notoriously ineffective. Decisions by recipients of federal funds are made daily that contribute to the already pervasive patterns of inequality in the distribution of contaminated sites and the disproportionately greater exposure of communities of color to environmental hazards, yet civil rights enforcement has been noticeably absent.

At Earthjustice, too, there is much more we can and should do.

We represent communities of color and low-income communities in places like Rochelle, Georgia where the sewage system in the historically black side of town is so antiquated that sewage bubbles up into people’s showers, toilets, and backyards; as well as the African-American residents of Uniontown, Alabama, who live across from the Arrowhead Landfill, which received millions of tons of dangerous coal ash, brought across state lines after the disastrous spill in Kingston, Tennessee, and piled on a municipal landfill with few protections for the health of nearby residents.

And we have worked for years to halt the disastrous practice of mountaintop removal mining that destroys low-income communities in Kentucky and West Virginia.

But we must work harder and with greater commitment to build an organization that is fully diverse and inclusive, one that intuitively grasps the profoundly different experiences many communities and individuals face in seeking to secure a healthy place to live. We also must redouble our efforts to build genuine partnerships with frontline communities and work with them to, as our mission statement says, “defend the right of all people to a healthy environment.” The road we need to travel for environmental justice is still very long.

On this, the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898, we should stop and reflect on the extraordinary history and continuing work of the environmental justice movement. It has proven that people can make a difference in shaping the future and the health of their communities.

And all of us, at Earthjustice, in the environmental movement, in the government and across the country, need to rededicate ourselves to the concrete steps we can each take toward achieving environmental justice, and toward building an America where everyone has the opportunity to live in a healthy, diverse and inspiring world.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”