History of the Environmental Justice Movement

Written by Amber Houghstow

While environmental injustice and community protests against it have been happening for decades, environmental justice as a national movement came together in the 1980s, sparked by a protest in Warren County, North Carolina. Because of illegal toxic waste dumping, soil along North Carolina roadways had become contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). After collecting the contaminated soil, the state decided to dump it in a small, predominantly black community in Warren County.

Photo: Whispering Pines, the toxic waste landfill the state of North Carolina created to dump PCB-contaminated soil. It was placed in a small, predominantly black community in Warren County.

In response, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others staged a massive protest during which over 500 protesters were arrested. The protest failed to stop the toxic waste from being dumped in Warren County, but provided the spark that grew environmental justice into a national movement.

Photo: Over 500 men and women risked their lives in protest to stop toxic waste from being dumped in their community, but the state of North Carolina dumped its contaminated soil there regardless. Outrage over the decision sparked the national movement for environmental justice.

Members of low-income minority communities across the country felt that, just like Warren County, their communities were targeted for polluting industries and toxic waste sites because of their race and economic status. In 1987, a study called Toxic Waste and Race confirmed the fears and the injustices they had been trying to communicate. The study concluded that “race was the most significant factor in siting hazardous waste facilities, and that three out of every five African Americans and Hispanics live in a community housing toxic waste sites.”

After a decade of growing realizations and even stronger community organizing, representatives from communities across the country came together for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC in 1991. The summit was the first ever to bring together communities of color at a national level to discuss common struggles and find solutions. The summit resulted in a consensus document called the Principles of Environmental Justice, which laid out a process to communicate across the growing national environmental justice movement.

As a result of this organizing, President Clinton issued the executive order, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, in 1994. The order required all federal agencies to make environmental justice part of their mission and establish an environmental justice strategy.

Photo: Communities of color in Houston, TX suffer from disproportionately high rates of cancer due to toxic emissions from oil refineries.

Today, environmental justice is still a challenge. Unsafe oil and gas pipelines, polluting coal plants, and refineries that release toxic chemicals are still primarily sited in low-income communities and communities of color. The challenge is growing, as the impacts of climate change have been and will continue to disproportionately harm disadvantaged communities both nationally and at the global level. As the realization of these facts has become more widespread, so has the fight for environmental justice. Global inequality and temperatures continue to rise. Stopping the growing tide of injustice will require all of us. You can start on this journey by signing our petition here.


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