In the Pursuit of Environmental Justice

Welcome to “Clear the Air,” a 6-week editorial series that dives into the critical topic of environmental justice, exploring its immense importance, the proactive role our community can play, and the efforts being made by policymakers, activists, and champions from all walks of life to promote equity and sustainability.

This series is not just about the environment but also social justice. We’ll unearth how environmental injustices exacerbate disparities, affecting public health, economic opportunities, and overall well-being. By addressing these disparities, we can foster a more inclusive and equitable society, making it imperative for all of us to take part in this transformative journey.

Join us as we empower the community with knowledge and understanding, inspiring collective action in environmental advocacy and sustainable practices. Whether through simple daily habits or community-driven initiatives, each of us holds the power to contribute to positive change and forge a brighter future.

Let’s embark on this enlightening journey together, unveiling a new path for building a thriving, eco-conscious community that leaves no one behind. Together, we can make an indelible impact and create an equitable and just energy future.


Imagine waking up every day in a place where the air you breathe is tainted with pollutants, where the water from your tap is not safe to drink, and where the very ground beneath your feet harbors toxic waste. This is an unfortunate reality for many of our communities.

While the world is becoming increasingly aware of the urgent need to address environmental concerns, one crucial aspect often overlooked is the concept of environmental justice. Environmental justice is not merely about protecting our planet. It is equally also about ensuring every community can enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment. It demands fair treatment and equal involvement for all, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, in decisions about environmental policies and regulations, ensuring that no community should bear an unjust share of detrimental impacts stemming from these decisions.

Dr. Robert Bullard, the undisputed father of environmental justice, once wrote, “Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets’, or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.”


The seeds of this movement were sown over five decades ago, finding their origin in the late 1960s. A significant milestone occurred in February 1968 when sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, protested their working conditions and demanded equitable pay. According to the EPA, this pivotal moment marked the first nationwide stand against environmental injustices by African Americans. The years that followed witnessed minority communities persistently advocating against placing landfills and waste disposal sites near their homes and schools, recognizing the dire consequences for the environment and human health.

The environmental justice movement, as it’s known today, began in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina. After the state of North Carolina discovered the dumping of highly carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) along the highways, the then-governor ordered that the toxins, a very carcinogenic substance, be scraped up. Collecting over 200 tons of PCB-laden waste, the state chose Warren County, its most predominantly Black county, to dig a landfill to dispose of it, ultimately contaminating the well water from which most residents got their drinking water. Protests ensued and led to the discovery that this incident wasn’t isolated to North Carolina. Numerous regions of the country were having disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards. And race was the number one factor in determining the location of toxic waste hazard waste facilities across America. As a result of those protests, the movement was born.


Here’s the harsh truth: Black Americans are 75% more likely to reside in neighborhoods known as “fence-line” communities, which are directly adjacent to hazardous waste-producing facilities even today. This data starkly illustrates how our communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of pollution and its associated health effects for decades.

The proximity of toxic facilities and polluted areas to our communities leads to higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and other health issues. These aren’t just numbers; they’re the stories of our neighbors, friends, and families.

“Our battle for environmental justice is intrinsically tied to the broader fight for racial equity,” says Dr. Benjamin Chavis, activist, author, and president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, often credited as the godfather of the environmental justice movement. “While there’s a growing environmental justice movement, we still need to raise more public awareness about the intersection of environmental exposure to public health conditions in our community. All these quests for social justice, for racial justice, and social justice are connected through the environment and the social condition of the communities,” added Chavis.

This practice, known as “environmental racism,” a term Chavis is credited with coining, perpetuates a cycle of poverty, limited access to resources, and compromised health. It’s a fight that beckons us to remain vigilant to ensure that the promise of equality extends to every breath we take and every step we make in our neighborhoods.

In the unsettling landscape of environmental injustice, there’s yet another alarming facet that disproportionately affects marginalized communities: the burden of energy costs. According to a study by The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), low-income Black households in the United States spend, on average, over 40% of their income on energy costs—a significantly higher proportion than other demographic groups. Energy burden isn’t just about the numbers on a utility bill; it’s about the daily choices families are forced to make. Too many households must sacrifice vital necessities in a stark trade-off between paying for energy and meeting other essential needs. And this struggle extends beyond the boundaries of homes. As energy costs increase, the burden trickles into other aspects of life, including health and education, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage that stretches across generations.


Recognizing the pressing need to address these issues systemically, recent strides have been made on a federal level. In April, President Biden signed an executive order to advance environmental justice initiatives. The order directs federal agencies to address inequities in environmental hazards through community engagement, interagency coordination, advancement in science, data, and research, and more. Only time will tell whether the Biden administration can effectively deliver upon the promises that it’s making.

In next week’s installment, we’ll explore further how environmental injustice impacts our communities, delving into the heart of the matter and exploring potential paths forward.

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