Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution and toxins on the job, at school, and in their homes. NEPA protects these communities by requiring the government to disclose a project’s environmental and public health impacts before construction begins.
Environmental justice is a critical part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who have traditionally lived, worked, and played closest to the sources of pollution.
Championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: people who live, work and play in America’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is an essential tool in this fight against environmental racism. NEPA promotes environmental justice by requiring federal agencies to include a proposed project’s potential environmental, economic, and public health impacts on low-income, minority, and rural communities.
NEPA was one of the first environmental laws ever enacted, but at its core it is much more than that – it’s a civil rights law providing local communities the opportunity to meaningfully comment on and influence the federal decision-making process.
Poor, rural, and overwhelmingly black, Warren County, North Carolina, might seem an unlikely spot for the birth of a political movement. But when the state government decided that the county would make a perfect home for 31,000 gallons of soil laced with toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), the county became the focus of national attention.
When the first of 6,000 dump trucks rolled into Warren County in September of 1982, headed for a newly constructed hazardous waste landfill in the small community of Afton, local residents rightly worried that their groundwater would be contaminated. Their protests attracted the support of civil rights groups across the entire country.
Six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests followed. Dump trucks were stopped by local residents lying down on the roads leading into the landfill. In total, more than 500 people were arrested — the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill.
After three lawsuits, public hearings, and multiple scientific studies, the people of Warren County ultimately lost their battle and, following a compromise, the toxic waste was still deposited in that landfill. The story of Warren County, however – one of ordinary people driven to desperate measures to protect their homes from a toxic assault – drew national media attention and fired the imagination of people across the country who had lived through similar injustice. The Warren County case revealed the country a type of racism previously unaddressed and provided platform for low-income, minority, and rural communities to voice their concerns.
Left: Protesters block the delivery of toxic PCB waste to a landfill in Afton, North Carolina, 1982. Right: Reverend Joseph Lowery and protesters launch their 55-mile march from Warren County to the state capital in Raleigh in 1982.
To civil rights activists looking on as the events in Warren County played out, the actions of the North Carolina state government in forcing a toxic landfill onto a small African-American community were an extension of the racism they had encountered for decades in housing, education and employment. But this time, it was environmental racism.
The Afton protests energized a new faction within the civil rights movement that saw the environment as another front in the struggle for justice. Many early environmental justice leaders came out of the civil rights movement. They brought to the environmental movement the same tactics they had used in civil rights struggles — marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, community empowerment through education, litigation and nonviolent direct action. Many veterans of the civil rights movement — often affiliated with black churches — showed up in Afton, helping to attract national media attention. Among them were Reverend Ben Chavis and Reverend Joseph Lowery, then of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Reverend Leon White of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice.
In the wake of the Afton protests, environmental justice activists looked around the nation and saw a pattern: pollution-producing facilities are often sited in poor communities of color. No one wants a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus garage for a neighbor, but corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities.
Poor communities and communities of color usually lacked connections to decision makers on zoning boards or city councils that could protect their interests. Often, they could not afford to hire the technical and legal expertise they’d need to fight a siting. They often lacked access to information about how their new “neighbor’s” pollution would affect people’s health. And in the case of Latino communities, important information in English-only documents was out of reach for affected residents who spoke only Spanish.
Environmental racism and failing infrastructure have plagued communities of color for decades. The water contamination in Flint, Michigan – where 56% of the population in African-American and 41.5% live below the poverty line – is just one of many failures of infrastructure and environmental quality that have threatened low-income and minority communities across the country for generations:
1. Communities of color have higher exposure rates to air pollution than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. A Yale University study found that non-Hispanic whites had the lowest exposure rates for 11 of the 14 pollutants monitored in the study. Meanwhile, Hispanics had the highest exposure rates for 10 out of the 14 pollutants, and African Americans had higher exposure rates than whites for 13 out of the 14 pollutants. Some of the pollutants studied have been connected to asthma, cardiovascular issues, lung disease, and cancer. For example, a case study of The Bronx, New York, found that individuals who lived close to noxious industrial facilities and waste sites were 66 percent more likely to be hospitalized for asthma. Significantly, these same individuals were 13 percent more likely to be people of color.
2. Landfills, hazardous waste sites, and other industrial facilities are most often located in communities of color. A report titled “Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty” reviewed data collected over a 20-year time period and found that more than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities in the United States are people of color. A report by the Center for Effective Government found that people of color are nearly twice as likely as white residents to live within a fenceline zone of an industrial facility. These facilities contribute to air pollution, safety issues, and health concerns.
3. Lead poisoning disproportionately affects children of color. Children of color who live in urban areas are at the highest risk for lead poisoning caused by lead-based paint. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that 11.2 percent of African American children and 4.0 percent of Mexican-American children are poisoned by lead, compared with 2.3 percent of white children. Lead poisoning can result in a wide range of health problems, such as anemia, seizures, and brain development issues. Even with the restrictions on lead paint usage, children of color who live in low-income communities continue to suffer the most. For example, a 2004 report revealed that African American children and Hispanic children in Chicago were 12 times and 5 times more likely to be poisoned, respectively, than white children.
4. Climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. The effects of climate change, such as extreme weather conditions, have devastating consequences for communities of color and low-income communities. These extreme weather events can displaceresidents and even cause death. In the aftermath of such disasters, efforts of city officials to rebuild communities of color and low-income communities are often inadequate compared to efforts to rebuild higher-income and white communities. Perhaps the most powerful example of this inequity is the communities of color in New Orleans that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Black homeowners received $8,000 less in government aid than white homeowners due to disparities in housing values. In 2013, about 80 percent of the mostly black residents of the city’s Lower 9th Ward had not returned to their community due to inadequate building efforts.
5. Water contamination plagues low-income areas and communities of color across the nation. Studies have documented limited access to clean water in low-income communities of color. Water contamination has largely affected children of color who live in rural areas, indigenous communities, and migrant farmworker communities. Contaminated water can cause an abundance of health-related issues, particularly for young children. Depending on the contaminant, possible health problems can include waterborne diseases, blood disorders, and cancer. Indigenous people of the Navajo Nation, for example, have suffered for years from water contamination due in part to the residual effects of uranium mining in the region during the 1950s, as well as the recent Gold King Mine toxic spill. In St. Joseph, Louisiana, residents are forced to live on water that is tinted brown and yellow but that the state continues to claim is safe to drink. African Americans make up three-quarters of the town’s population and nearly 40 percent of the residents live in poverty.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is an essential tool in this fight against environmental racism. NEPA promotes environmental justice by: 1) requiring federal agencies to include study and disclose a proposed project’s potential environmental, economic, and public health impacts on low-income, minority, and rural communities; and, 2) providing opportunities for meaningful input from those affected communities.
Risks to the environment and our public health can be mitigated, but it requires bringing every stakeholder to the table – not just corporations and wealthy individuals. NEPA does just that.
One of the visionary elements of NEPA is its creation of broad opportunities for public participation in government decisions that affect their environment and local communities. NEPA recognizes that when the public and federal experts work together, better decisions are made. At a time when communities of color are increasingly disenfranchised and cut out of the government decision-making process, it is more important than ever to ensure that low-income and minority communities have a strong voice in the decisions and policies that impact their health of their communities and the environment that we all depend on.
Moreover, NEPA doesn’t just protect US citizens – it protects everyone. It protects the health and safety of every family and community that stands to be threatened, regardless of citizenship status.
Today, our coalition of over 20 environmental and civil right advocacy organizations continues to demand that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias. Our coalition members provide environmental justice organizations with technical advice and resources, supply expert testimony at hearings, and join in litigation. They also lead frontline campaigns for environmental justice.