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Environmental justice evolved as a response to research that determined people living in poor and minority communities face greater risks of pollution from hazardous waste. It promotes the belief that all people deserve protection from pollution that negatively impacts health. Environmental justice prohibits discrimination based on socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity when planning for industrial facilities that pollute the air, water, or soil.
These policies are based on the premise of environmental racism discovered when studies evaluated exposure to hazards in different communities. The research measured the proximity of hazardous waste sites and polluting industrial facilities to poor and minority communities. The results varied as to the cause of disproportionate risks, but revealed inequities regarding where these industries were located.
Environmental justice studies found poor and minority communities were exposed to more toxic emissions and faced increased health risks from exposure to harmful air, water, pesticides, and heavy metals than white communities. The research also found inequities in government enforcement to clean up hazardous sites in these regions. Members of these communities typically were not involved in the permitting process to allow industrial plants.
People who live in economically depressed communities suffer more health problems than those who live in more affluent areas, the studies found. Minorities are diagnosed with more cancer, diabetes, and heart disorders, and are more exposed to hazardous substances at work. The poorly educated also face increased risk of health disorders.
US laws enacted in 1994 required all federal agencies to devise plans to incorporate environmental justice polices into enforcement, policy-making, and regulatory efforts. The legislation led to the formation of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a commission that advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on negative environmental impacts linked to certain facilities. The council suggests when polluters should be penalized and helps ensure public participation in decisions that pose hazards.
These regulations stem from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s national origin, race, or color when federal funding is involved. The law addresses unfair effects of decisions, as well as outright, intentional discrimination. The Civil Rights Act prohibits policies that inadvertently cause inequities.
Organizations that promote environmental justice work to ensure safe workplaces for all people. They also monitor government agencies for discriminatory polices that affect minorities and the poor. These groups promote citizen participation in communities where hazardous waste sites or industrial operations are proposed.