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What is Environmental Justice?

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

Environmental Justice, you’ve probably heard the term in discussions of politics and the environment. It has become an increasingly popular issue and one that must be looked at, but what does it mean? Environmental Justice is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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”. This ensures that all communities, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, etc. do not share a disproportionate amount of negative environmental effects, and have a say in environmental decision making. It is only fair that everyone has equal access to clean air, water, and resources. But why do we need this movement?

Image Courtesy by Vermont Law School

The environmental justice movement is a response to environmental injustice, which is the unequal distribution of exposure to pollution and the subsequent health and environmental effects of that. This could include being closer to a coal power plant or living in areas on less stable ground at increased risk during an earthquake. Low-income communities of color tend to face disproportionate effects of natural disasters and increased negative environmental consequences as opposed to the middle class and/or white communities in the U.S. Black neighborhoods in New Orleans faced increased flood risk and damage to their homes during Hurricane Katrina, as the legacy of racial segregation there left these neighborhoods below sea level. Environmentally degrading industries, such as petrochemical or fossil fuel industries, also tend to be located in low-income areas. This can often be the result of racist zoning boards, or decisions to put them in areas with less social power. These industries tend to pollute their surrounding areas, which are often the neighborhoods and communities of people of color. Low-income families and individuals often have no choice but to reside in these areas, unable to afford homes in areas that are safer, or unable to commute to their jobs in the industrial centers due to lack of transportation opportunities (their own or mass transit). This puts them at increased health and safety risk, as a result of their place of residence.

This issue is also present at the local level in Orange County. While Environmental Justice is relevant throughout the county, Santa Ana has proven an essential area for the environmental justice movement. A study conducted by UC Irvine and Orange County Environmental Justice, a 501 c 4 multicultural, multi-ethnic environmental justice organization, found that the soil in some of Santa Ana’s low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods contain levels of lead potentially hazardous to human health. As seen in the graphic below, On the lower estimate, lead levels are highly hazardous for about 8 census tracts of people, but the higher estimate reveals more, showing a highly hazardous concentration for about half of the communities in Santa Ana. This lead is largely from the paint used on older homes prior to the ban of leaded paint. Especially with the Covid 19 pandemic, with families being forced to spend increased time at home, the health risk is increased for these families and, particularly, their children. The response to these findings is a more detailed investigation into the situation, with more testing of soil samples and the beginnings of building a movement for lead-free Santa Ana. (More Information)

Maps of the high and low projections of lead hazard levels in Santa Ana, according to census tracts. Image Courtesy by Royal Society of Chemistry

This issue is far-reaching and may seem daunting to approach, but there are steps being taken to further the movement. In our own backyard, we have organizations such as Orange County Environmental Justice and California Environmental Justice Alliance, as well as a number of other organizations, working on the environmental justice movement by advancing the environmental justice agenda and mobilizing and empowering marginalized groups. They focus on things like grassroots organizing and advocating for changes in environmental policy. In fighting environmental injustice it is essential that we not just look at mitigating the issues, but at creating legislation that will help to solve and prevent further problems. It is essential that we get minorities into the decision-making arena regarding environmental justice and use our political power as voters to work towards a more equitable environmental movement.

You can get involved by writing to your local congresspeople and legislators and volunteering with environmental justice organizations like those listed above. You can learn more about the movement generally on the EPA’s website, about local efforts on the Orange County Environmental Justice website, and check out the OCH Coffee and Conservation presentation covering Environmental Justice by Sanjay Das.

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