Environmental Justice Factsheet

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Environmental Justice (EJ) is defined as the equal treatment and involvement of all people in environmental decision making.1 Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, EJ became widespread in the 1980’s at the intersection of environmentalism and social justice.2 Environmental injustice is experienced through heightened exposure to pollution and corresponding health risks, limited access to adequate environmental services, and loss of land and resource rights.3 EJ and sustainability are interdependent and both necessary to create an equitable environment for all.4

Built Environment

  • The changing demographics of urban areas, loose permitting requirements, and exclusionary zoning laws have funneled racial and ethnic minorities into areas with a greater degree of environmental degradation and reduced support.3
  • When urban areas were developing across the country, zones reserved exclusively for residential purposes were often expensive. Meanwhile, mixed-use zones were more affordable but allowed residential and industrial buildings to be built side by side. This led to a higher population density in areas closer to environmental hazards.3
  • Residents of environmentally degraded areas do not or can not move because of a lack of financial resources, ownership of current land, and sense of place.3
  • The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) was created in 1986 under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act to support emergency planning and publicize information about toxic releases.5
  • On average, people of color comprise 56% of the population living in neighborhoods with TRI facilities, compared to 30% elsewhere.7
  • Availability of cheap land in urban centers has led to gentrification, an increase in property values that often makes the area unaffordable to existing (generally lower-income) residents. This leads to displacement as well as social, economic, and cultural stress.3,8
  • Green spaces improve the physical, social, and economic well being of a community by providing places to exercise, socialize, and organize, while supporting stable community development.9
  • Due to uneven distribution patterns, minority and low income communities have far less access to green spaces than white, affluent communities and have limited resources to maintain the green spaces they do have.10

Toxic Release Inventory

Food

  • In 2015, 12.7% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity at some point during the year – reducing their access to adequate food for an active, healthy lifestyle.11
  • In 2015, rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average for Black and Hispanic households and higher in rural versus urban areas.11
  • Food prices are higher and food quality is poorer in areas with higher rates of poverty.12 The average U.S. household spent about 12% of its income on food in 2015; low-income families spent more than 30%.13
  • Mexican-American and Black children have higher obesity rates than White children.14
  • In 2014, about 52.5 million people (17% of total U.S. population) had low access to a supermarket due to limited transportation and uneven distribution of supermarkets.15
  • A case study in Detroit showed that households in Black communities were on average 1.1 miles farther from the closest supermarket than the poorest White neighborhoods.12

Prevalence of Food Insecurity

Energy

  • The presence of power plants and mining operations for fuel resources places a significant environmental burden on neighboring communities. Minority and low-income communities are directly and disproportionately affected by polluting facilities and are rarely included in discussions and decision-making processes regarding such facilities.16
  • The average income of residents living within three miles of a coal power plant is $18,400 compared to the national average of $21,587.17

Hydropower and Dams

  • Dams threaten vulnerable populations through loss of land and water access, jobs and homes; food insecurity; increased morbidity.18
  • Dam construction often displaces low income communities because they are incentivized by wealthier ones and private investors to build.18
  • Environmental concerns associated with hydropower include fish mortality, water quality impairment, alteration of natural landscapes and destruction of sacred Indigenous sites.19

Fuel Poverty

  • Nearly 16.2 million American homes suffer from fuel poverty, the inability to pay for adequate energy services. This makes them vulnerable to detrimental health effects during periods of intense heat or cold.20
  • Fuel poverty results from income inequality and inequalities in energy prices, housing, and energy efficiency.20
  • Low-income households spend twice as much of their gross income on energy costs than the national average, despite consuming less energy.21

Materials

Mining

  • Roughly 37-55% of uranium reserves are located on Indigenous land. These resources and their associated land are sometimes taken away from Indigenous people once they are discovered.3
  • The U.S. imports more than 90% of the elements critical to advanced energy generation, transmission and storage.22
  • Since 2004, metal mining in Peru has boosted economic growth by 6% each year. Local, often low-income communities continue to protest against mining operations due to concerns about pollution. The government of Peru is ambivalent due to the economic benefits of keeping the mines open.23
  • Artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) accounts for 15-20% of global production of minerals and metals. ASM often utilizes unsafe working conditions and irresponsible environmental practices, such as use of child labor and high mercury emissions.23

Electronic Waste

  • In 2014, 42 million metric tons (MMT) of electronic waste (e-waste) were generated worldwide, with Asia being the largest contributor.24
  • Improper recycling and recovery procedures can lead to exposure to carcinogenic and toxic materials, which often occur in developing nations where recycling regulations to limit worker exposure are lax or nonexistent.25
  • An estimated 5-30% of the 40 million computers used in the U.S. were exported to developing countries in 2010.26 The International Trade Commission found that the U.S. exported 17% of its used electronics in 2011.27

Electronic Waste Generated

Climate

  • The World Health Organization estimates that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.28
  • Though wealthy, developed nations like the U.S. emit larger concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) per capita, developing nations experience the worst effects of climate change relative to wealthier countries due to their limited resources and ability to adapt.4, 29
  • Low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to climate change threats (e.g., flooding, storms, and droughts) due to inadequate housing and infrastructure.29
  • People living closer to the coast and small, island nations are more vulnerable to severe storms, sea level rise, and storm surges as a result of climate change.29
  • Indigenous populations that rely on subsistence farming practices for food have limited options for adapting to climate change threats.29
  • Areas with weak healthcare infrastructure - mostly in developing countries - will be the least able to cope with catastrophic effects of climate change such as heat waves, droughts, severe storms, and outbreaks of waterborne diseases.28

Determinants of Vulnerability

Solutions

  • In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order for all government organizations to create strategic plans to address EJ and outline the consequences for failing to consider possible environmental injustices.30
  • The EPA launched EJSCREEN in 2015, making data on environmental and demographic characteristics across the country accessible to the public. EJSCREEN also assists federal agencies in complying with the 1994 EJ Executive Order by displaying exisiting environmental injustice impacts on areas open to development.31
  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) was passed by Congress in 1980 to control abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous sites. As of 2016, the CERCLA program has been able to resolve the hazards at 392 sites.32, 33
  • As of 2017, the EPA’s EJ program has granted over $24 million to community projects and organizations in over 1,400 communities focusing on clean air, healthy water, land revitalization, and environmental health.34
  • Use the Environmental Justice Atlas website to learn about and spread awareness on an expanse of EJ issues.35
  • Engage in and support bottom-up models of research that are responsive to the environmental concerns of communities rather than the interests of large, corporate funders. Advocate for the inclusion of local knowledge in research in addition to observations obtained from scientific methods.16
References: 
  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2017) “Learn About Environmental Justice.”
  2. U.S. Department Of Energy (DOE) “Environmental Justice.”
  3. Taylor, D.E. (2014) “Toxic Communities.” New York University Press.
  4. Salkin, P., et al. (2012) “Sustainability as a Means of Improving Environmental Justice.” Journal of Sustainability and Environmental Law. 19(1):3-34.
  5. U.S. EPA (2017) “Learn about the Toxics Release Inventory.”
  6. U.S. EPA (2015) “Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis: Where You Live.”
  7. Bullard, R., et al. (2007) “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987 - 2007.” United Church of Christ.
  8. U.S. EPA (2017) “Equitable Development and Environmental Justice.”
  9. The Trust for Public Land (2006) “The Health Benefits of Parks.”
  10. Wolch, J., et al. (2014) “Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice.” Landscape and Urban Planning. 125:234-244.
  11. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) (2015) “Household Food Security in the United States in 2015.”
  12. Walker, R., et al. (2009) “Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States.” Health & Place. 16.
  13. USDA ERS (2017) “Ag and Food Statistics.”
  14. U.S. EPA (2016) “Key Findings of the ACE3 Report.”
  15. USDA (2014) “Food Access Research Atlas Documentation.”
  16. Ottinger, G. (2013) “The Winds of Change: Environmental Justice in Energy Transitions.” Science as Culture. 22(2):222-229.
  17. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (2012) “Coal Blooded.”|
  18. VanCleef, A. (2016) “Hydropower Development and Involuntary Displacement: Toward a Global Solution.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies. 23(1):349-376.
  19. Kumar, A. and Schei, T. (2011) “Hydropower.” Cambridge University Press.
  20. Reames, T. (2013) “Targeting Energy Justice.” Energy Policy. 97:549-558.
  21. Bednar, D., et al. (2017) “The intersection of energy and justice.” Energy and Buildings. 143:25-34.
  22. American Physical Society Panel on Public Affairs and Materials Research Society (2011) “Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies.”
  23. Maier, R., et. al (2014) “Socially responsible mining.” Reviews of Environmental Health. 29(1-2):83-89.
  24. United Nations University (2015) “The Global E-Waste Monitor 2014.”
  25. U.S. EPA (2012) “Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues.”
  26. Kahhat and Williams (2012) “Materials flow analysis of e-waste: Domestic flows and exports of used computers from the United States” Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 67: 67-74..
  27. U.S. ITC (2013) Used Electronic Products: An Examination of U.S. Exports.
  28. World Health Organization (2016) “Climate Change and Health.”
  29. U.S. EPA (2017) “Understanding the Connections Between Climate Change and Human Health.”
  30. Federal Register (1994) “Executive Order 12898 of February 11, 1994.”
  31. U.S. EPA (2016) “How was EJSCREEN Developed?”
  32. U.S. EPA (2017) “Superfund History.”
  33. U.S. EPA (2017) “Superfund Remedial Annual Accomplishments.”
  34. U.S. EPA (2017) “Environmental Justice Small Grants Program.”
  35. Environmental Justice Atlas. http://ejatlas.org/
Cite as: 
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2017. "Environmental Justice Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS17-16.