Have you ever wondered how the concept of environmental justice impacts your work? As the demand for environmental protection grows, so does the need for policies and initiatives that promote fair and equitable treatment of all communities. Since the 1960s, environmental justice has become a national issue, leading to significant progress in creating policies and programs that work towards this goal. This news article explores some of the notable efforts and achievements made in the past and present towards achieving environmental justice, shedding light on the importance of this movement for all industries, including environmental insurance.
What is Environmental Justice?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines 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.” The EPA clarifies that fair treatment means no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from regulatory policies or commercial operations, and meaningful involvement means that the public will be informed of decisions and activities, which may affect them and have the opportunity to participate in and influence those decisions and activities.
A Brief History of U.S. Environmental Justice Efforts
In 1964, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act ensured that all federal agencies receiving federal funds cannot spend those funds in any way that promotes or results in discrimination.
In the following decades, a number of events and studies signaled the beginning of environmental justice as a national issue:
- 1968, the Memphis Sanitation Strike constituted a national strike by African American sanitation workers to protest environmental justice issues and unfair treatment, advocating for better working conditions and fair pay.
- 1979, African American homeowners in Houston, Texas filed the class-action lawsuit Bean v Southwestern Waste Management Corp. to prevent the Whispering Pines Sanitary Landfill from being installed within close proximity of a public school.
- 1982, African Americans mobilized a national sit-in protest against a planned polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in Warren County, North Carolina.
- 1983, Dr. Robert D. Bullard, founding director of the Bullard Center For Environmental Justice at Texas Southern University, published Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community. The study found that a majority of Houston landfills were located in African American neighborhoods despite a small relative citywide African American population; this account was considered to be the first detailing environmental racism in the U.S.
- Also in 1983, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) completed Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities, a study utilizing census data to identify that a majority of hazardous waste landfills were located in majority African American and low-income communities.
These and other published reports further detailing the relationship between community composition and environmental and health hazards laid the foundation for regulatory initiatives at the federal level. In 1990, the EPA Environmental Equity Work Group was established. In 1992, the EPA opened the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ). The OEJ organized EPA efforts to address needs in vulnerable communities related to environmental justice to decrease environmental burdens, increase environmental benefits and promote collaboration for healthy communities. The OEJ works in coordination with local, state, and tribal governments, commercial entities, academic institutions and community organizations.
In 1994, Executive Order 12898 ordered all federal agencies receiving federal financial assistance with impact on environment or human health to include environmental justice goals in their mission. Agencies were required to identify and address any disproportionate health and environmental impacts on low-income and minority communities.
In 2011, the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (IWG) adopted a charter and formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), reaffirming environmental justice priorities and the goal to continue to coordinate and promote environmental justice efforts between 17 federal agencies.
Current Environmental Justice Efforts at the Federal and State Levels
In addition to the Environmental Protection Agency, other U.S. federal agencies have implemented environmental justice policies and established their own offices focused on environmental justice including the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture.
Many states have implemented or evaluated environmental justice policies in recent years. In 2021, Washington State passed the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act to create a statewide coordinated agency strategy for environmental justice. The law includes seven state agencies, with the option for additional agencies to opt-in.
The HEAL Act:
- Mandates environmental justice assessments
- Promotes equitable sharing of environmental investments and benefits into underserved or overburdened communities
- Creates an environmental justice council to advise the state
Washington also launched the Environmental Health Disparities (EHD) Map, an interactive map that displays data divided by census tracts regarding pollution exposures, proximity to hazardous sites, sensitive populations and human health measures. The map is designed to provide insights into environmental health disparities across the state and areas in which public investments may be prioritized.
As of February 2023, the EPA is seeking public input regarding the Environmental and Climate Justice (ECJ) program that will distribute $3 billion in funding through grants and agency technical assistance. Public input is requested on “new and innovative strategies and approaches for competition design, community engagement, equitable distribution of financial resources, grantee eligibility for funding, capacity-building and outreach, and technical assistance.”
Cleaning Up Sites for Beneficial Re-Use: Brownfield Reclamation
The EPA and various states have established programs to promote cleanups of brownfields, defined by the EPA as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Brownfields include properties that formerly housed gas stations, smelters, dry cleaners, industrial facilities and agricultural land. The EPA estimates that over 450,000 brownfields exist across the U.S. Brownfield cleanups reduce or remove environmental contamination and can provide land in desirable locations for beneficial community uses, making them a useful tool for environmental justice.
In 1995, EPA created its Brownfields and Land Revitalization program to provide grants, loans and technical assistance to states, tribal governments, communities and other parties to assist with brownfield cleanups. This program was further authorized in the 2002 Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Act and the 2018 Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development (BUILD) Act.
As of 2023, the EPA reported that the Brownfields program has resulted in:
- The completed cleanup of 2,464 properties
- 197,693 jobs leveraged
- $37.28 billion dollars leveraged
- 20,372 students trained in environmental-related jobs
Other benefits include significant increases in residential property values and additional tax revenue, along with significant decreases in impervious surfaces and vehicle miles traveled.
In Washington State, the Department of Ecology works in coordination with the EPA and the Washington Department of Commerce to promote brownfield cleanups and redevelopment, known as the State Brownfields Team. Similar to the EPA Brownfields program, the State Brownfields team provides grants and technical assistance to local parties interested in redeveloping brownfield properties.
The Department of Ecology has completed numerous successful brownfield cleanups and promotes benefits, including:
- Protecting human and environmental health
- Simulating the economy and job creation
- Providing healthy locations for affordable housing
- Transforming community perceptions of an unused/underused problem property into an asset
- Promoting efficient land use
- Providing areas for habitat restoration and public spaces
VERTEX’s Contribution to Environmental Justice
VERTEX’s commitment to environmental justice is evident through their various initiatives and services that prioritize the well-being of communities and the environment. Our team’s expertise in environmental consulting, remediation, and sustainability solutions enables them to assist clients in achieving compliance with regulatory mandates while also taking positive action towards social and environmental responsibility. As the need for environmental justice continues to grow, VERTEX is well-equipped to play a significant role in shaping a more sustainable and equitable future.
Additional information regarding federal environmental justice history, regulations and current efforts may be found online at: