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Environmental Justice A  Matter of Fair Distribution

skinny dog poking nose into trash bags in dump

Environmental justice is a term that means that both the great environmental amenities (parks, scenic views, clean water, and clean air) and potential environmental hazards are evenly distributed throughout both upper-income and low-income communities.

Often the phrase refers to clustering of undesirable environmental features in a particular neighborhood, usually implying undesirable land uses where low-income people live.

It's pretty easy to show a racial disparity in locations of landfills, heavy industrial plants, utility transformers, railroad tracks, landfills or transfer stations, and noisy airports near working class neighborhoods or slums.

The idea also may be more theoretical, considering crime, drug dealing, poor quality development, or homelessness are considered the environment.

Environmental justice pretty abstract. No one strays into a neighborhood and says, "Oh, look at their environmental justice. Isn't that good-looking?" But well-meaning people do smile a little when we see government or business adding an improvement to a struggling neighborhood.

The injustices, on the other hand, really should be called to the attention of the elected officials, corporate leaders, faith community, and neighborhood groups.

Poor communities are usually the communities of choice when something not so desirable is located. Lack of political power in general and knowledge of environmental issues in particular allows this despicable situation to continue.

The unfair distribution of undesirable environmental features and toxic waste sites begs the question of why society allows these hazards to exist anywhere near human activity in the first place.

Because that's a broader discussion, we'll just concentrate on a few ideas about how to address existing environmental pollution.

Mostly we think environmental injustices result from unconscious racism and classism, plus fear of the reaction of more educated and powerful neighborhoods. It's a vicious cycle, with minority groups tending to have lower incomes and therefore only being able to afford neighborhoods that have some negatives.

But the point is to make the siting of new facilities equitable, and to raise the profile of existing environmental nuisances and hazards so that the racial disparities in exposure to environmental pollution become apparent.

Learning About Environmental Justice in Your Community

Most of us are pretty fuzzy about whether our metropolitan area or community has an environmental justice problem. The classic example is to think about where is the landfill, still called the dump in many circles. Chances are pretty good that it's close to a minority population center rather than the center of affluence in your community.

But many pollutants aren't so visible. One place to begin is at the pollution scorecard website, where data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are digested into a searchable format. You can find the largest individual polluters, most polluted communities, and so forth on this site.

Making an inventory of the environmental justice picture in your community would be a useful group project, or class project for that matter.

Collect and map the information available on power generation sites, incinerators, known polluters, common eyesores such as unsophisticated auto salvage businesses, sanitary landfills, plants where health dangers already have been reported or suspected, places where firefighters and police practice shooting or fire abatement, and especially noisy places such as racetracks near residential areas.

You may even want to include major highways and airports, which points out that land uses and community facilities that are usually considered assets may be liabilities from an environmental perspective.

If you can find an organization with a GIS (geographic information system) computerized mapping setup, you can overlay information about the location of minority populations very easily. Usually that's a local utility, government, or business built on delivery. If not, a tracing paper overlay still works.

How to Enhance Environmental Justice

If you want more safe parks and clean water, get your neighborhood association well-organized and ask for trails, clean-up of abandoned facilities and excess pavement, and proper controls on emissions of any factories or utilities nearby.

The techniques to address any negative conditions are similar to any other action your neighborhood must take to preserve or enhance your quality of life. However, the difference in the case of environmental justice may be in the amount of geographic information you need to gather, as well as the technical information you need to understand to support your campaign.

In large cities, often you will find an environmental law center of some type to help you.

A local university also will have experts who may be able to assist. Begin with a medical school or chemistry department.

In the U.S. your city soon will have new computerized geographic information as a result of the new affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH) rule.

In some cases if you find out what pollutants a proposed new use would produce, your own physician can give you some perspective on the health effects.

You don't have to demonstrate detailed knowledge of the subject, because your elected representatives probably won't understand much more of the science than you do.

However, making the effort to master a one-sentence summary of the health or psychological effects of an environmental injustice will be very important to you.

Finally, use whatever techniques have worked for your community in the past in fighting for civil rights and equitable treatment in other respects. You deserve a clean environment as much as the next person.

For a rallying cry that has been used by others, download the National Resource Defense Center's Principles of Environmental Justice.

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