Access to energy and a healthy and safe environment is unequal.
If people are relatively poor and/or powerless, they are more likely to be subject to environmental hazards and the impact of environmental disasters, and less likely to have secure and affordable access to basic resources for living such as clean water and affordable energy for heating, cooling, cooking and transport. In the settings of the home, the community, school and work these patterns of inequity prevail.
Those disadvantaged by race, ethnicity, gender or income bear disproportionate burdens resulting from environmental degradation and rising fuel costs. Add the dimension of ensuring justice for future generations through sustainable practices and you then have the landscape of the discussion in this section.
As Democrats Abroad, we are particularly conscious of the global impact of US policies and practices on energy and environment.
What is environmental justice?
The NRDC provides a good explainer on environmental justice:
“Environmental justice is an important part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who have traditionally lived, worked and played closest to the sources of pollution.
Championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: people who live, work and play in America’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor. Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts — say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls “environmental racism.” Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades.”
The United Farm workers were among the first environmental justice activists in the USA. While their initial organizing focus was on pay and certain working conditions, by the later 1960s, the impact of pesticides on farm workers’ health became a major issue in their campaigning and negotiations. This article outlines the development of this as a major issue for the UFW in their negotiations and in their advocacy.
Alongside Cesar Chavez, Dolores helped to formulate and lead the Delano grape boycott in 1965. This boycott began in sympathy with Filipino farm workers and lasted over five years. While the Montgomery bus boycott had taken place a decade earlier, this boycott was a different in kind, partly since it involved a boycott of a ‘consumer good’ – grapes – that had nationwide distribution and consumption. We often visualize amber waves of grain, without thinking of the backbreaking work that goes into getting crops from the field to the table.
The UFW called attention to the horrendous birth defects suffered by the children of the farm workers because of their exposure to dangerous pesticides. At that time it was acceptable to spray laborers while they worked in the field with no thought to their health. This remains a battle with the current EPA overturning pesticides that had been previously banned.
Today we automatically choose the ‘fair trade’ labeled coffee, tea or chocolate when shopping. Large scale tragedies like the death by fire of textile workers in Bangladesh will cause us to pause, for a moment at least in our consumption of ‘fast fashion’.
We can thank Dolores for raising our consciousness about our actions and choices and the consequences for the environment and on other people.
Below are links for more information on the current state of affairs regarding labor and environmentalist, health equity and resources for advocacy on environmental justice policy
Milman, O. Pesticide that Trump’s EPA refused to ban blamed for sickening farm workers, The Guardian 17 May2017
Robinson, D . How Unions and Environmentalists can work together. Scholars Strategy Network. August, 2014.
Dyer,T. Pesticides and the United Farm Workers: An Extension of the Struggle for Social Justice The University of Puget Sound Fall 2004.
NRDC website Protect the Health of Low-Income Communities ,accessed March 2018
Ahmed,A. We can’t truly protect the environment unless we tackle social justice issues, too Popular Science 26 February 2018
Farm worker justice.org Environmental Health accessed March 2018
Buford,T. What It’s Like Inside the Trump Administration’s Regulatory Rollback at the EPA ProPublica 18 December 2017
Carmody,T. How The Flint River got so Toxic 26 February 2016
While we couple the issues of energy and environment with justice, the trajectory of the Environmental Justice movement activism in the USA has primarily focused on the impact of environmental degradation and hazards on ethnic and poor communities.
Environmental Justice Movement: history and definitions:
The origins of the Environmental Justice Movement:
This Wikipedia article on Environmental Justice offers a useful starting point for understanding how the movement developed and how the debate in the USA has been shaped:
“Since the US environmental movement has existed for over one hundred years, it is readily apparent that Environmental Justice is the relatively new kid on the block. The Environmental Justice movement began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coming out of the experiences of communities of color, of the poor and of working class America; grassroots activists focused on resisting the siting of polluting factories and waste facilities in black, Hispanic and Native American neighborhoods and lands. This focus on racism and discriminatory practices not only in the siting, but also in the decision-making processes, regulation and enforcement has remained central.”
Definitions of Environmental Justice:
In its 1998 Guidance for Incorporating Environmental Justice in EPA’s NEPA Compliance Analysis, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) then (Trump administration has wrought many changes in the EPA) defined environmental justice 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. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or theexecution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies.”
Milestones for the Environmental Justice Movement:
1982: Warren County was a poor, rural and overwhelmingly black county in North Carolina. In 1982, the sate government decided that the county would be the site for a hazardous waste landfill site and arranged for 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs to be dumped in the small community of Afton.
Residents and their allies, furious that state officials had dismissed concerns over PCBs leaching into drinking water supplies, met the trucks. And they stopped them, lying down on roads leading into the landfill. Six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests followed, and more than 500 people were arrested — the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill. While previous environmental justice protests had been launched, including work by the United Farm Workers union, this is usually hailed as the first protest that gained wider-spread attention and support. They lost the battle over the siting of the waste site, but were one of the key sparks for the development of a movement.
1987: The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published a report entitled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” – a seminal study of the links between race and environmental hazards.
1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in June 1992 Environmental Protection Agency creates Office of Environmental Justice
1994 : President Bill Clinton issues Executive Order 12898 of February 16, 1994 which covers all federal agencies and requires them to proceed to make environmental justice part of their mission.
2007: July: Senator Hillary Clinton, was the Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health and convened the first ever Senate Hearing on Environmental Justice on July 25 2007
Unequal access to clean water and home energy
Although the critical importance of access to clean water is recognized as an urgent and issue in developing countries, it is less acknowledged that access to clean water remains an issue inside the USA itself.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the water bodies that provide drinking water for more than 110 million Americans are at risk. In addition, according to John Edwards’ Presidential campaign site more than 1.7 million Americans lack basic plumbing facilities, with rural households four times more likely to lack proper plumbing than urban homes.
For low income households, home energy costs constitute a disproportionate slice of their income, for example:
Families eligible for federal home energy assistance spend one-fifth of their income on home energy bills – six times more than the level other income groups spend. See the source here.
They also face hard choices and harsh consequences when confronted with rising energy costs. For example: Utility bills often impose a financial hardship on very low-income households, forcing many to make desperate trade-offs between heat or electricity and other basic necessities. A survey of households that received federal home energy assistance over a five-year period found that 47 percent went without medical care, 25 percent failed to fully pay their rent or mortgage and 20 percent went without food for at least one day as a result of home energy costs. Source
High energy costs are also often linked with energy inefficiencies due to the type of housing which is a burden not only for the households but also for combating global warming. For example: very low-income homeowners typically live in older homes, making them vulnerable to rising energy costs. Such as, homes in the Northeast built prior to 1970 use 30 percent more energy per square foot than homes built since 1990. Older homes are 20 percent to 25 percent less efficient on this basis in the South and Midwest and 10 percent less efficient in the West. While nearly half of those in fuel poverty own their own homes, but startling 39% of these homeowners own mobile homes. Source
The Evidence: USA domestic Environmental Justice ( last updated 2008)
Study after study confirms that race and poverty are key factors in exposing communities to environmental hazards.
In 1983 a US Governmental Accountability Office report on Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities found that ethnic background of the resident was a more significant predictor of hazardous locations than economic status.
As a follow-up to their key study in 1987 cited above , in 2007 the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States,” . This found that African Americans and other people of color are more likely to live next to commercial hazardous waste facilities than they did twenty years ago.
Senator Hillary Clinton referred to the United Church of Christ report’s finding that of the nine million Americans who live in communities with one or more hazardous waste facility, more than five million of them are people of color.
In addition, a 2005 Associated Press analysis of EPA data noted that African Americans are 79 percent more likely than white populations to reside in neighborhoods where air pollution levels posed health risks. Hispanic and African-American children have lead poisoning rates 1.5 to 2.5 times higher than white children, and about half of the low-income housing in our nation is located within a mile of factories that report toxic emissions to the EPA.
Testimonies on these issues at Congressional hearings have included representations and reports from:
Robert D. Bullard, Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Centre at Clark Atlanta University provides a very useful overview of the research on patterns of environmental injustice as well as an assessment of the history and progress of policies directed towards achieving environmental justice in the USA.
Dr Beverley Wright, Founder and Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice has also presented evidence to Congressional Hearings.
Peggy Shepard, Executive Director of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) cite important research, community actions and case studies. They also comment on the operation of the EPA.
The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to protect all of the nation’s waters. However, under the Bush and then current Trump administration, these provisions and protections were undermined. ans are at risk.
The US Water Alliance reports that more than 2 million Americans live without access to safe water and basic sanitation.
Key groups defined as ‘fuel poor’ include those over 65 – 39% of fuel-poor householders were 65 years old or older and half of them lived alone, tenants . The average 2004 income for this group was £6,461. Half of them lived alone. LIHEAP prioritizes outreach to vulnerable elderly, making this one of the few programs open to all ages in which the elderly are not underrepresented in proportion to their numbers. Other groups: Households using fuel oil or propane for heating, residents of Southern states and tenants are all disproportionately represented among the fuel poor.
In June 2008 via the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association and the Energy Programs Consortium, state energy officials released the first national survey of how rising home energy and gasoline costs are impacting households by income.
Several campaigning organizations, often at local level, keep these issues on state and national agendas. For example: The Alliance for Affordable Energy which is a nonprofit membership organization “dedicated to creating fair, affordable, and environmentally responsible energy “policies was founded in 1985 in New Orleans, and “conducts community education campaigns on energy issues, helps citizens and businesses become more energy efficient, and promotes sustainable energy policy solutions.”