Who Is Helping The Poor & Minorities Fight Environmental Discrimination? Environmental justice is fasted growing sector of non-profit environmental movement

Dear EarthTalk: Are there organizations that specifically address the environmental challenges faced by poor and minority communities?

—Bill McCombs, Ann Arbor, MI

When sociologist Robert Bullard began uncovering the proximity of hazardous waste sites to minority neighborhoods across the American South during the course of his graduate research in the 1980s, the “environmental justice” movement was born. In the intervening two decades, environmental and human rights advocates around the U.S. and the world have launched thousands of nonprofit community groups to battle so-called “environmental racism”—whereby otherwise distressed and poor minority communities are disproportionately exposed to the brunt of industrial pollution in their own backyards.

environmental justice
Dr. Robert Bullard

Environmental justice is fundamentally a local issue, but several national groups have devoted considerable resources to righting wrongs and helping communities defend their rights to clean air and water. Perhaps the best known is the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), founded by Lois Gibbs, the mom-turned-activist who in the early 1980s got authorities to shut down and remediate the Love Canal district of Niagara, New York, where buried industrial waste was causing serious health problems. CHEJ has since fought alongside thousands of communities to get toxic sites cleaned up and obtain restitution.

In other ongoing efforts, Environmental Defense’s “Living Cities” program pairs teams of scientists, lawyers and economists with local groups working to resolve environmental health issues in minority population centers. And the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducts studies, produces reports and policy analyses and mounts campaigns and lawsuits on various environmental justice issues, with a recent focus on helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Another big player is the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit public interest law firm that has championed several high-profile environmental justice cases since it began as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1971. Protecting farm worker communities from dangerous pesticides is a current focus area.

Those with environmental justice issues needing attention can contact one of these groups or a regional one that can help size up potential toxic threats and provide assistance on what to do. The Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest and the San Francisco Urban Institute are all great resources, as are Robert Bullard’s Environmental Justice Resource Center, based at Clark Atlanta University, and the Environmental Research Foundation, located in New Jersey.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also begun to take these issues seriously and in 1992 created its Office of Environmental Justice to integrate environmental justice into EPA policies and programs. Community groups can apply for EPA grants, and an EPA internship program places students directly into communities to assist local groups in addressing local environmental and public health issues.

CONTACTS: CHEJ; Earthjustice; Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice; San Francisco Urban Institute; Environmental Law and Policy Center; New York City Environmental Justice Alliance; Environmental Justice Resource Center; Environmental Research Foundation.